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Slow pace of restoration
On May 27, 2010, the roof of President’s House, the nominal home and formal welcoming space of the President of the Republic, collapsed during the night. President George Maxwell Richards and his wife, Dr Jean Ramjohn Richards, were in no danger. The first couple had been living in the well-appointed cottage on the grounds for some time, after being warned that the building was in need of serious repair.
Just five months before, the Palais National in Haiti had also suffered catastrophic damage but that eminent building had, at least, the dubious dignity of collapsing during the massive earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince. President’s House, a beautiful example of classic local architecture, has, instead, been shattered by quiet and ongoing institutional neglect.
The narrative of preventive maintenance and respectful restoration efforts in Trinidad and Tobago has been a troubled and often tragic one. Renovation on the Red House began nine years ago during the PNM administration, and after spending an estimated $200 million, critical problems remained in place. In October 2011, Parliament was successfully moved to the Waterfront Complex, clearing the way for a serious effort at the restoration and repair of the 166-year-old building, due for completion in December 2014.
The building desperately needed that kind of focus. Prior efforts at repair had compromised the original building’s design and had done little to manage leaks and insect infestations. Quality restoration work, the type of effort required for historical buildings in need of delicate repair, takes time and demands a certain sophistication. Ancient materials are likely to be unavailable and must be matched with newer analogues, while craftsmanship and specific architectural styles must be honoured when damaged sections of buildings must be replaced or re-imagined.
Other major works of restoration are either planned or are underway. The Tobago House of Assembly is considering a collaborative project with three major churches to restore five historical buildings on the island, including the Scarborough Methodist Church built in 1824. In October 2011, former Finance Minister Winston Dookeran announced that Fort Picton at Laventille had been identified as a heritage site and would be the focus of a restoration effort.
The long-abandoned Heritage Library, a classic building next to Port-of-Spain’s City Hall, is identified as a structure in need of urgent restoration by the National Trust. Described as structurally sound, it’s certainly lower hanging fruit than a project like Mille Fleurs, one of the great embarrassments of the Magnificent Seven, the row of celebrated historical buildings on the western end of the Queen’s Park Savannah.
Up the street from Mille Fleurs, restoration work continues at Stollmeyer Castle at an estimated cost of $48 million, with an end date set in 2013. Such details are notably missing for the project to restore President’s House. Neither former Works and Transport minister Jack Warner nor the new Works Minister Emmanuel George seemed particularly clear on either the status of the work or its completion date.
The Government should count itself fortunate that President George Maxwell Richards is a patient and measured man who has not taken any of the many opportunities open to him to point out the slur that this leisurely repair process represents to the highest office of the land.
President Richards has chosen to be diplomatic about this travesty during a 50th independence anniversary celebration that has avoided these aspects of our legacy, and the inability of the Government to speak clearly on the project raises questions. What, as a nation, are we choosing to say about our system of governance and our leadership, when nobody in charge seems to know what’s happening with President’s House?
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