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The Trinidad Arcade

Sunday, December 8, 2013
Back in Times
The ornate façade of the Trinidad Arcade in 1897.

Frederick Street in Port-of-Spain has always been a mecca for shoppers. The city’s main thoroughfare, it draws to its busy sidewalks people from all walks of society regardless of age, colour or economic standing. 


This is especially so at Christmas time, when the hum of activity seems to be increased tenfold. Stores answer to the occasion by vying to outdo each other with enticing window displays and sales. 


Truly the advent of shopping malls has drawn off some of the regular clientele who in years gone by would have braved the throng to do their seasonal spending, but there is still an indescribable allure that emanates from Frederick Street. 


Part of the longstanding fascination came in the wake of a devastating fire in 1895 which razed dozens of ancient and rickety wooden buildings that had stood since another great conflagration in 1808. A new style of architecture, pioneered by Scottish architect George Brown, was implemented and heavily incorporated elements of wrought iron and plate glass. 


Buildings were illuminated during the daytime by innovative “lantern roofs,” which were glass-box skylights that provided a suffused but beautiful light inside the otherwise dark interiors. The transformation of Frederick Street made it a showpiece in the Caribbean. 


One of the emporiums which rose from the fire and which was already an established name in the city was the firm of James Todd and Sons. 


James Todd was an Englishman who had come to the island in 1852 and commenced business in a modest way with a small dry-goods shop on rented premises at 12 Frederick Street. He was well-poised to ride the tide of a colossal boom in cocoa prices and production, which was stimulated by progressive land reforms implemented in the late 1860s. 


James Todd acquired several cocoa estates, especially in the rapidly developing hinterlands east of Chaguanas and in the rolling hills near the Caparo River valley. As with most other large businesses at the time, Todd’s offered a line of credit to cocoa farmers that allowed them to take goods during the year without cash payment, the score being settled when the cocoa harvest was brought in. Sacks of dried beans would be valued as currency and thus the merchant was able to turn an additional profit from exporting cocoa. 


This activity coupled with his thriving mercantile trade made him a very affluent man indeed by the time he died in 1884. 


The keenly observant reader would have noted by now that this was the origin of the district later and still known as Todd’s Road. He had taken his son, David, into the business as a director, but tragedy struck when David died a year after his father. 


The reins passed to James’s grandson, James B L Todd, who proved that he was very capable of assuming stewardship of the work of two generations. The younger Todd had a knack for feeling the pulse of the economy and in a time when a new middle class was emerging, he realised that there was a need for cheap, elegant furniture at reasonable cost since hitherto, the best furnishings were imported from the United States and Europe and were very expensive. 


Todd and Sons opened a workshop on Chacon Street, which used local woods culled right from the Todd estates. Another subsidiary, on Queen Street, was called the West End Carriage Factory, which encompassed a saddlery and blacksmith shop as well, since this was the era before motor traffic. 


The showpiece of the Todd empire was the store it owned on Frederick Street. In the wake of the 1895 fire it was rebuilt completely in signature George Brown style. Dubbed the Trinidad Arcade, it was one of the finest establishments in the city and occupied the entire width of the block between Frederick and Henry streets, with entrances at both ends. Schoolbooks, toys, clothing and hardware were attractively displayed along the corridor between the entrances. 


James B L Todd died in the 1930s, and the firm founded by his grandfather was forced to undergo several mergers and acquisitions in order to survive. 


Older generations would remember the establishment of Stephens and Todd, which in another incarnation was called Stephens, Fogarty’s and Todd. These were names that once stood on their own as proud remembrances of a prosperous time in our history but which had all vanished by the end of the 1970s.