CAME FOR OPENING: Conrad Hilton, founder of the Hilton chain of hotels.

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From 'country house' to world-class hotel

By Louis B Homer South Bureau

AMONG the most breathtaking views of the Port of Spain skyline is one from Belmont Hill, near the foot of the Northern Range.

It was there, more than 200 years ago, that a former colonial governor, Colonel William Fullerton, built a "country house" to escape the heat and noise around Governor's House at King Street (Independence Square).

But after the great fire of 1808 which destroyed Port of Spain, including the governor's residence, the "country house" became the official residence of governors.

After spending some seven years at Belmont Hill, Governor Sir Ralph James Woodford decided to find more comfortable accommodation. After several offers of sites in Port of Spain, he opted for the present site on which President's House is located.

More than 100 years would pass, before the Belmont Hill site of the "country house" would became home to Trinidad's first international hotel, built at a cost of $12 million, to mark Trinidad and Tobago gaining Independent status.

The location is spectacular. A visitor can see much of the city, the Queen's Park Savannah, and the famed Botanic Gardens.

Visitors to the hotel will also find a plaque on an inner wall at the hotel which recorded its history.

Over the past 50 years, many dignitaries have stayed at the hotel, including Nelson Mandela, the Prince of Wales, Michael Jackson, US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Newlyweds, too many to count, have spent their honeymoons there as well.

Built in 1962, the number of rooms was increased in 1970. At the time of the hotel's construction, it was the policy of the then-Industrial Development Corporation to foster the growth of local professional expertise.

A local consortium was awarded the contract to design and build the hotel. The consortium included architects Watkins and Partners, Anthony Lewis, and Noel Vaucrosson. They faced up to the challenge by designing a building which would become known as the "upside-down hotel".

Architect Quintin Bynoe, a former resident of Belmont, recalled the cultural setting of the area close to the hotel.

According to him, "Belmont, which is in close proximity to the hotel, was a place with big open yards, filled with trees and children. It had a mixture of poverty, elitism, the educated and the uneducated, blacks and white, multilingual and poly-lingual."

He said, "It was a place with stickfighters and calypso tents, tramcars and donkey carts, horse-drawn carriages and motorcars, world-class cricketers and footballers and a culture of its own."

In was amidst this picturesque cultural and social background that Trinidad and Tobago's first international hotel was formally opened in June 1962.

The architect of Trinidad and Tobago's Independence, Dr Eric Williams, then premier, was not on hand to usher in this landmark institution as Trinidad and Tobago gained Independence. He had just completed the Independence negotiations with the British government in London and was on his way to mainland Europe.

The hotel organised a four-day programme for the opening on June 14, to end on June 18.

For the occasion, Conrad Hilton, founder of the Hilton chain of hotels, arrived in Trinidad from New York with 50 guests. The closing function witnessed performances by Carnival bands, and ended with a lavish banquet.

The now infamous politician, John O' Halloran, the then-minister of agriculture, industry and commerce, was appointed to represent Williams at the opening.

O'Halloran gave a lengthy statement outlining the government's policy regarding hotel and tourism development in Trinidad and Tobago. He referred to the part played by the scenic Lady Young Road in the development of the tourist industry, and the employment of some 400 local workers at the hotel.

He mentioned the government's tax concession to the hotel for 20 years under an agreement with the Industrial Development Corporation.

Williams had earlier pointed out in a speech in London that two-thirds of the hotel's profits belonged to the people of Trinidad and Tobago, and if there were losses, the hotel would be excluded from paying corporation taxes.

Despite his absence from the function, Williams sent a telegram from London which stated, "After seeing London Hilton now under construction and hearing of the Tel Aviv Hilton, foundations of which are now being laid, I am quite satisfied that Trinidad Hilton is one of the world's leading hotels. I send you warmest greetings on the occasion of the formal opening of the Trinidad Hilton and to wish it all success in the years to come."

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