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Old buildings, new problems

The challenge of restoring and maintaining heritage properties
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Hayes Court, home of the Anglican Archbishop, on Queen’s Park West. PHOTO: ABRAHAM DIAZ

When Anglican Bishop Claude Berkley first saw Hayes Court—the stately Magnificent Seven building that is the bishop’s official residence—he was a naïve teenager visiting from Tobago.


“I thought it was a palace,” he recalled with amusement, as he showed a reporter a building that has become a dim shadow of its former self. 


Named after the Anglican Diocese’s second bishop, Thomas Hayes, the house was built in 1910 on land donated anonymously. Historian Olga Mavrogordato described it as “a typical grand house with a pleasant mixture of French and English style.”


Over the years, it’s received guests significant to the Anglican Church and the world, like South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, and Archbishops of Canterbury and heads of the Anglican Church Robert Runcie and Donald Coggan.


Retired bishop Clive Abdulah, the first T&T-born bishop to serve and the longest-serving one so far, remembers garden parties and VIP receptions during his 23 years there.


“You have a dual function,” he said of the bishop and his spouse. “You’re the chief host and hostess for the diocese, as well you have a position in the national community. 


“When we had the consecration of the new bishop or when we had distinguished visitors there, you not only invited the church people, you invited the president and his wife, the chief justice and his wife—you went down the protocol list.”


Today, paint inside and outside the pale blue and white building is cracking and peeling. Leaks have stained and damaged spots on the ceiling. Termites are devouring wooden parts of the house, including the ornate double doors leading into the living room, where a wicker couch—part of a quintessentially colonial furniture set—leans to the side, one leg lying broken beneath it. 


The dark varnished wood of the twisting staircase leading to the bedrooms is chipped and scratched. As Berkley ascends, treading on the worn, red carpet covering the stairs, he lifts a large decorative knob that has come loose from one of the newel posts.


A light is always left on in a vain attempt to discourage bats, which invade the building, depositing droppings on the white walls and door of the corridor leading to a long, narrow storeroom at the back of the building. 


Bishop Berkley is acutely aware of the message all this conveys.


“I have heard people say, ‘This is the face of Anglicanism, so when I see how your building looks I know the church is in trouble,’” he said.


Bishops can no longer live in the house comfortably. The last one to live there full time was Rawle Douglin, who retired in 2001. His successor Calvin Bess stayed there occasionally. Berkley, bishop since 2011, lives nearby on Lady Chancellor Road, but he keeps his office at Hayes Court and can still be found there during the day. While the building isn’t as busy as it once was, the diocesan offices are in an extension to the back, and the staff holds meetings in the main house, where the kitchen, regularly used, is well kept.


Services are held in the tiny chapel on Fridays and occasionally there’s a wedding or baptism. Anglican schools and groups still hold events there. Decades after it first impressed Berkley, visitors still find Hayes Court something to admire, even though they’d like to see it return to its former glory.


“People take the place as it is,” said Berkley. “They think this is a great place, [and they ask] why can’t we do something to bring it up back up to scratch.”


That’s the question many are asking about not only Hayes Court but other structures dubbed heritage buildings. 


Heritage buildings are very old and valued for their beauty, distinct architecture and historical importance.


The stunning collapse of the roof of President’s House shortly before the general election in 2010 brought home how vulnerable these buildings were and how inadequately they were being preserved.


Today, most of the state-owned heritage buildings in Port-of-Spain are at some stage of restoration. Although the process has been piecemeal and not nearly fast enough for activists, for now at least the state-owned buildings seem no longer in danger of falling apart or having their original design significantly altered.


The same can’t be said about buildings, like Hayes Court, that are not owned by the State.


The calculations of Bishop Berkley illustrate one of the major obstacles in the way of protecting them.


“The figure to repair this house can build us six houses,” he said of Hayes Court. Keeping it standing “has no other value to us except for sentimental reasons, for the historicity of the building.”


It’s unlikely Berkley would seriously consider getting rid of Hayes Court. Other than the affection parishioners still hold for the building, he also wouldn’t want to incur the wrath of the small but vocal group of heritage protection activists in T&T, led by the recently reignited Citizens for Conservation. 


When the 144-year-old McLeod House in Chaguanas was demolished late last year, it sparked “outrage”—the word used in one headline—that was expressed online and in statements to the media.


Berkley remembers the incident well. In fact, he’s reminded of it, he said, by parishioners worried he doesn’t share their attachment to Hayes Court.


“There will be a huge outcry,” he said, predicting the reaction to the demolition of Hayes Court. “I suppose we’ll be demonised, probably blacklisted, which would not add to our business as [a] church.”


But with other pressing demands on the church’s limited finances, it’s impossible to stretch them to cover the cost of restoration, which has been estimated as $34.5 million, and the subsequent recurring cost of maintenance.


A committee has been set up to fundraise for the project. But such attempts have been made in the past to no significant effect. 


The statutory body in charge of documenting and protecting heritage sites, the National Trust, so far has compiled an inventory of 408 of them. Almost half are owned by non-state entities.


To the relief of activists, the trust has finally begun bringing these buildings under the legal protection of the National Trust Act, enacted 14 years ago, which prohibits owners from demolishing or seriously altering the buildings without the trust’s permission. 


So far 13 buildings, including Hayes Court and the rest of the Magnificent Seven around the Queen’s Park Savannah, have received this protection.


But on top of what critics have called an inadequate fine for breaching the law—$5,000—legislation alone won’t save buildings if private owners simply can’t afford to restore or maintain them.


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