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Great houses of San Fernando

City’s lost heritage...

By Louis B Homer South Bureau

San Fernando and its suburbs had many elegant houses built during the 19th century. Some were dismantled, while others were allowed to deteriorate and fall apart from neglect.
With the current emphasis by the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago on restoration of buildings with historical importance, the Express, through its weekly column “Remembering the Past”, is pleased to highlight three notable houses that had impacted on the lives of southerners.
The three selected are Piedmont Cottage, formerly located at La Coulee Street, San Fernando; Wharton House on Chacon Street, which overlooked a portion of the borough for many years like a sentinel, and Montano House, formerly located on the southern side of Harris Promenade.
All that is left of these great houses are pictures and memories of the past, as their remains lie bare among the rubble of so much of South Trinidad’s history.
All three were parts of our lost history, never to be regained. We have failed in recognising that our historic places and monuments are history’s safety deposit boxes. They store memories and safeguard lessons of the past. They hold precious pieces of our lives together and connect us to each other. When they are lost, they are gone forever.
Sadly, San Fernando had little respect for its historical past, and, as a result, much of its architecture and built heritage are lost.
To arrest this neglect of the sites and buildings of interest, the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago, in conjunction with the Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration, has embarked on a programme to stem the reckless haemorrhage caused by dismantling our buildings and national heritage.
Already a list of ‘buildings of interest’ has been sent to the 14 regional corporations in Trinidad and Tobago advising that, under the existing Trust Act, permission is needed to alter or dismantle the buildings listed, bearing in mind that all of us who are living here today are creating our own past and we will be remembered, only if we build well and create a new respect for our visual heritage.
Among the list of great houses of the past is Tennants Building, formerly located on the southern side of Harris Promenade, San Fernando. It was dismantled in 1983 to make way for the extension of St Joseph’s Convent, one of the leading secondary schools providing education for girls since 1882.
Robert ‘Bobby’ Montano, a member of the Montano family, who lived in the house for many years, said he was unhappy when the building was dismantled, “Initially it was the Great House built by the Tennants Estates Ltd to house managers employed with the large sugar estates in the Naparimas. Built around 1913, it was first occupied by Scottish-born Moody Stewart, then manager of Ste Madeleine Sugar Company. At that time the Tennants family had direct connection with British royalty.”
“Unconfirmed reports indicated that one Lord Glenconnor, who was heir to the Tennants properties, spent some time in the house, after he became victim of a broken love affair with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, after she had opted to marry a member of the royal family. Unhappy over the incident, young Glenconnor decided to visit Trinidad for a short period to get over the stresses of the incident.
With the scaling down of operations in the sugar industry, this elegant house was sold in 1927 for $27,000 to Alberto Emilio Montano, father of Robert and former owner of Imperial Stores Ltd of High |Street, San Fernando. After purchasing the house, Beryl Date-Montano, wife of Alberto, named it Homeleigh.
According to Robert, “It was one of the largest wooden houses in San Fernando. It had 100 windows and one had to be shut permanently because at the time only the governor’s house was allowed to have 100 windows. The house had several rooms, including four bedrooms. One for the girls, another for boys and one each for my parents “
There was a pathway leading from the house to the Promenade, and during World War II an air raid shelter was built in front of the house. Above the house there was a piece of land where labour leader Uriah Butler held meetings during the 1937 labour riots.
In the mid-1950s, the house was sold to the convent and by 1983 it was dismantled to make way for a new concrete structure.
Not many will remember the Piedmont Cottage located at the foot of San Fernando Hill on La Coulee (ravine) Street, San Fernando. It was owned by the Robert Lechmere Guppy family.
Apart from being elected mayor of the borough, he was the discoverer of the guppy fish (girardumus guppii) found in large quantities at the base of San Fernando Hill. Guppy was a man of many parts, barrister, magistrate, mayor of San Fernando and member of the Legislative Council, founder of the Trinidad Almanack, a reference book used by government as the official yearbook. He was also founder of the Victoria Institute in Port of Spain, at the time of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887.
Piedmont Cottage had polished wooden floors. It was furnished with mahogany furniture in each room, and equipped with Dresden china wall vases filled with roses and ferns. The dining room was long and surrounded on all sides with verandas. At the back of the veranda there was a long table with a bench on either side, comfortable enough to accommodate visitors to this elegant mansion.
Then there was the Wharton House, an elegant 19th-century home of former mayor Leslie C Wharton (1926-1929). For many years it stood like a sentinel on Chacon Street, overlooking the wharf on one side and High Street on the other.
It was a famous family house which Wharton and his family occupied for several years. One of his daughters, Greta, an actress, had adopted the name Greta Mayaro on her return from London, where she studied drama and got married to an English actor. Greta had performed in many Shakespeare plays, including Hamlet Prince of Denmark.
Wharton, who hailed from Tobago, was owner of two pharmacies in San Fernando. The house was sold to a private developer and was demolished in 2000.
The three houses are part of the lost history of San Fernando. Now we must view photographs of these buildings as the only remaining evidence of our past history.
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