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A friendless hall
Last month, another piece of Trinidad and Tobago’s history quietly disappeared. Like so many others, this building had its champions. Guardian columnist Angelo Bissessarsingh wrote early cautions about the structure and its curious history on his popular Facebook page, explaining the precarious state of the building. Documentarian Paolo Kernahan visited the home with cameras rolling.
Despite growing attention and concern for the structure, the Friendship Hall Great House at Freeport was razed for what will probably be another anonymous concrete structure that will prove more efficient at attracting money but ultimately, little attention. Does it have to be this way?
Consider what has been lost with the destruction of Friendship Hall. The building, in addition to the traditional architectural flourishes appropriate to its century-old heritage, was the repository of a most unusual collection of design eccentricities, the legacy of its original owner, Norman McLeod, a Scot who served with the British East India Regiment.
While serving in India, Mr McLeod was believed to have chosen to convert to Hinduism and his home in Trinidad bore a swirling, slightly mad mix of Hindu iconography and art and British architecture. Norman McLeod died in 1965, passing the great house to the daughter of one of his servants and over the next five decades, the massive structure began to crumble around the humble family who struggled to maintain it.
Long before it was bulldozed and carted away, Friendship Hall had fallen into a twilight existence, the front of the building still standing in testimony to its original design, much of the rear of the building collapsed where it wasn’t fragile. Lost to us is an astonishing narrative that’s such a powerful example of the capacity of this country to gather and harmonise such a remarkable mix of races, cultures and histories into engaging cultural artifacts.
Restored, Friendship Hall might have been one of those remarkable, must-see attractions that explain what’s special and unique about this country. Perhaps it might be argued that Freeport is a bit off the beaten path. What then of the fate of Mille Fleurs and Whitehall, shuttered and forgotten by successive governments? Cabinet needs no directive from the National Trust to do their duty with regard to these rare assets. All that’s needed is the budget, an acceptance of duty and the will to make things happen.
The architecturally curious tourist will share the national embarrassment in the prolonged repairs under way at President’s House and Stollmeyer’s Castle, both far from their most glorious days. But at least they are still around. Bagshot House. Perseverance House. Ice House Hotel. Customs House. All gone.
In Tobago alone, according to Rudylynn De Four-Roberts, chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the Speyside waterwheel is collapsing and the Blenheim spring bridge is beyond restoration. Despite being a signatory to the practices and expectations of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre since 1972, Trinidad and Tobago does not have one site on that body’s World Heritage List.
The National Trust, the local body charged with preparing a local list of protected sites, has been throttled by bureaucratic red tape for more than ten years. There are no financial incentives for the owners of homes likely to be listed by the National Trust to restore their homes and therefore no reason for anyone to buy them beyond a sense of history and patriotism. These intersecting failings have led, inexorably, to the end of Freedom House and the death by neglect of many more examples of our history and culture.
This is a problem that can be fixed. If the Government started by being publicly committed to funding and establishing a schedule of restoration for the buildings it owns, it would represent an important advance on a hands-off approach that’s costing us our heritage.
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