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Maintaining our heritage

Sunday, December 15, 2013
Restoration work on the northern side of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Port-of-Spain, is close to completion but there is still no projected date for finishing the entire project.

In this conclusion of the story about the conservation of our architectural heritage, a series which we began last week, ERLINE ANDREWS discusses the phenomenon of “demolition by neglect.”



Boissiere House, a quaint 109-year-old cottage on the western side of the Queen’s Park Savannah, is much loved by artists and heritage preservation activists and has been the subject of many newspaper articles, including two in the New York Times within the last five years. 


It’s on the National Trust’s inventory of heritage buildings—but is not yet legally protected from demolition and significant alteration.


Ann Marie Aboud, the representative of the family who owns Boissiere House, said no one has to worry that they will demolish it. Her reasoning, though, would check any sighs of relief coming from activists.


“Why would we want to demolish the building? The building demolishing itself,” she said. “The building is falling apart by itself. Nobody has to do it.” 


Time, car emissions and vagrants have taken a severe toll on the unoccupied house, said Aboud. 


“Demolition by neglect” is the term used to describe what happens when heritage buildings are allowed to crumble. 


Heritage activists had been agitating to get Government or wealthy private donors sympathetic to their cause to buy Boissiere House—which is being offered at an asking price of $20 million—but these attempts have so far gone nowhere.


The family themselves clean the house and do spot repairs, but it’s not enough to arrest the building’s decline. Right now they’re constructing a brick wall around the house to replace a fence that had been partially built of wood and kept falling onto the property next door.


“The wood would rotten underground and then the whole fence would fall on the people building,” said Aboud.


She’s frustrated that more help isn’t forthcoming to save a building many profess to love. 


“All these guys only talking, talking, talking, but nobody’s doing anything to help,” she said. “They should have a special fund: If you want to save this house send $2 or send $5. Contribute.” 


Selling the house is proving difficult because prospective buyers are wary of the legal restrictions that will soon be attached to it, said Aboud. 


This is without adding the effort typically involved in restoring and maintaining a heritage building. It can be a costly and trying process, requiring specialist expertise and materials. 


Expensive job to maintain


Deacon Patrick Laurence, chair of the Catholic Diocese’s Archdiocesan Building Commission, a panel of architects, lawyers, engineers and other professionals who guide the maintenance of church property, said it was “wonderful” that many of the institution’s buildings were considered heritage properties. But he stressed the challenge of maintaining buildings that have been around from as far back as the 19th century.


“The materials that were used then and the materials that are used now are not the same. Not only are they different, they’re not compatible,” he said. “The older buildings [use] lime mortar. Because lime mortar is not readily available everywhere, it has to be imported at great expense.”


The headache doesn’t end there. 


“Because it’s lime mortar you cannot use the modern emulsion and oil paints. You have to use a special type of paint that allows the walls to breathe,” said Laurence. “So although it’s very well and good to have all these designated historic sites, it’s a very expensive job to maintain it.”


The maintenance of Archbishop’s House—which, like the Anglican bishop’s residence, Hayes Court, is one of the Magnificent Seven buildings around the Queen’s Park Savannah—has sucked up “several million dollars” in the last two years alone, said Laurence.


The Anglican Diocese has been struggling for years to keep Hayes Court from deteriorating but the expense has limited its efforts. Double doors like the ones now being eaten by termites were replaced a few years ago, taking care to retain the look of the original.


“Those six doors cost $65,000,” said Bishop Calvin Bess, who oversaw this and other refurbishment efforts. “Things were done, but we didn’t have enough money to do as much as we would have loved to have done.” 


Other countries with heritage protection laws help private owners in a variety of ways, including grants, loans on favourable terms and tax relief. 


The Catholic Diocese received $2 million from the Ministry of Works last year to help refurbish Archbishop’s House, and the construction materials the church imports are exempt from customs duties.



Fund to help heritage property owners


Architect Rawle Mitchell, head of the historical restoration unit at the ministry, said he’s advised Anglican Bishop Claude Berkley to “make representation” about Hayes Court to relevant government ministries. To his knowledge, he said, the diocese has not made recent approaches to the Minister of Works. (Bishop Berkley said the diocese has had past discussions with various ministers, including former Works Minister Jack Warner, and they intend to again approach the Government.)


Rodger Samuel, recently appointed minister of National Diversity and Social Integration, which has responsibility for the National Trust, said he hasn’t heard from the church and is open to meeting with its leaders about Hayes Court. 


He spoke earnestly about the importance of saving heritage sites and said his team was aiming to complete by January a policy paper that will guide how this is done. He said over the upcoming months the trust will be adding “in batches” more heritage sites to the list given legal protection. It’s a lengthy process that includes the compilation of dossiers for each of them.


“The preservation of historical sites is a reflection of us as citizens of a nation,” said Samuel. “How we treat our heritage sites at large tells how much we appreciate who we are.”


Interim president of the National Trust Kumar Mahabir said the body intends to establish a fund to help heritage property owners maintain sites. The National Trust Act also has provisions for the trust to assume guardianship or ownership of buildings so that it can take care of them. The trust also has the power to order an owner to take steps to preserve a building or intervene itself to do this.


But these are actions the trust is far from being able to take right now. 


“The trust is relatively young compared to other trusts around the world, and we are in the process of developing infrastructure where we could function in that way, but these things take time,” said Rawle Mitchell, who is also a member of the trust.


Anglican church leaders are looking at the success of the fundraising effort to restore the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Port-of-Spain. 


The restoration is to be completed in 2015. Since 2010 the Catholic Diocese has raised about $20 million of the $77 million needed. Telecommunication giants B-Mobile and Digicel have set up programmes that allow users to donate via text message. 


The Anglican Diocese is hoping something similar can be done to help Hayes Court. The Hayes Court Restoration Appeal Fund is going to be launched in January. Dancer/choreographer Sonja Dumas will produce the launch and is a member of the restoration fundraising committee. 


In the meantime, Berkley and other church leaders feel caught in a frustrating cycle: poor maintenance of a heritage building because of lack of funds means a bigger restoration bill, one even more beyond your means, down the road. 


“We’re in the middle of a stormy kind of sea,” said Berkley.





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