Last update: 28-Jul-2014 4:28 pm
Monday, July 28, 2014
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Sammy daughters win National Heritage Preservation award
The Sammy daughters looked pleased as punch, if a little shy, as they made their way to the stage to accept their prize for Best Historic Restoration Project (Small) at the fourth Biennial National Heritage Preservation Awards at Knowsley on June 27.
After the event, hosted by Paolo Kernahan, Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration Rodger Samuel and Dr Kumar Mahabir, interim chairman of the National Trust, they posed for pictures.
The mystery surrounding the incredible transformation of the Boissiere House, for which they were awarded, is part of the fascination of the project.
One day it was a dilapidated mess, then, seemingly the next day, it was shiny and brand new.
The awards were handed out to the owners of various properties, the people who have coughed up money.
The ceremony, televised live on CNMG, was trimmed down and delivered in a straight-to-the-point fashion, with no discussion of how these projects were undertaken. For heritage enthusiasts, these details would have been nice to know.
If the point of the awards was to encourage people to be more “concerned and involved” with heritage preservation, as the honourable minister said in an interview, it would have benefited this cause if viewers watching at home had something to sink their teeth into—hints and tips on how to do it themselves.
The awards will also throw up the inevitable question: if a privately-owned property can be restored as quickly and brilliantly as Boissiere House, why is the nation still waiting for the Red House, President’s House and Mille Fleurs to be returned to their former glories?
Is it lack of budget?
“The budget is hefty. But there is never enough money,” said Samuel on the phone from the ministry’s new home on Wrightson Road. “You can never have enough money for heritage preservation. It’s a very expensive hobby.”
The word “hobby” is, perhaps, accurate if a little alarming. The National Trust, the responsibility of Samuel’s ministry, has only two employees and a small group of, mostly elderly, volunteers. Compared to other countries, where heritage is taken more seriously, T&T’s National Trust lacks the financial backing of central government.
“Other countries have enough money to acquire heritage properties, “says Rawle Mitchell of the Historical Restoration Unit, part of the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure. “Here, we have the authority under the 1991 National Heritage Act, but no money to do it.”
“Money is allocated from the central budget, but I can’t divulge how much that is,” he said, before warning that, “Government has to ‘buy in’ to heritage, particularly for the sake of tourism as an alternative industry to gas and oil. Heritage is a viable and sustainable industry.
All countries are currently clinging to it. Countries which have the history of human civilisation are right now at war and under threat,” he continued, referring to Syria, Iraq and other turbulent Middle Eastern states. “That should be an advantage to T&T. People looking for alternative places to visit are considering the Caribbean. The climate is perfect for walking tours and T&T has the most diverse heritage properties in the region.”
But who can be blamed for the problems with our crumbling built heritage?
Somebody, somewhere with their hands on the purse strings of central government must surely wake up to what is being risked and lost, conservationists feel.
As Mitchell says, when the natural energy resources run out it may be too late to turn to the other assets the country has to offer to generate revenue.
If the leader of the opposition, Dr Keith Rowley, is elected in 2015, it appears Samuel’s ministry may even be disbanded. Rowley labelled it as “nonsense” a fortnight ago and indicated it would cease to exist. In response, Samuel issued a strong rebuttal.
Last week he said in an interview, “Rowley has no clue what the ministry is about and no idea what it requires to preserve the nation’s heritage.”
“Look around and you will see the state of our heritage,” he continued, citing the failure of successive governments to address the situation.
“The remit to protect heritage has not been a priority for the past 30 to 40 years. This Prime Minister felt it was of the utmost importance. I believe you have to have a passion for it. So, for Rowley to make a statement of that nature, labelling the ministry as nonsense, well, out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
SUCCESSES AND FAILURES OF THE NATIONAL TRUST
For a year, this reporter has travelled past the Magnificent Seven along Queen’s Park West on a daily basis and seen no changes to Milles Fleurs, Hayes Court or Stollmeyer’s Castle.
A year ago the T&T Guardian reported that the castle was “90 per cent” complete, according to a statement provided by Udecott. Last week, Mitchell said that figure incorrect and it was more like “85 per cent finished.”
“It should be completed by the first quarter of next year,” he confirmed.
What Stollmeyer’s Castle will be when it’s done, nobody seems to know.
“The State will decide,” Mitchell said.
“A visiting site,” Samuel told us, adding, “Maybe a facility for functions.”
That no concrete plan is in place for its use post-restoration has raised a few eyebrows but Samuel and Mitchell both emphasised the heritage successes of recent times such as the listing of 13 of 460 gazetted sites with protected status, privately-funded restoration jobs such as Archbishop’s House, and the campaign for Hayes Court by Citizens for Conservation (CFC) (with whom relations have improved) which has prompted the Anglican Church to begin raising $24 million in funds for its restoration.
Both men reiterated that Mille Fleurs is their main priority. The old house still lies in a pitiful state and it is alleged that $4,000,000 paid into the project last year to the contractors (Canadian engineering firm, Genivar) was simply absorbed by the firm as money owed to them by Udecott after the Canadians sued them for $122 million in outstanding fees in 2012. Genivar allegedly insisted that no work would begin on Mille Fleurs until part of the outstanding monies were paid.
Mitchell says Udecott awarded a contract to a firm to do a dilapidation survey on Mille Fleurs a year ago to stabilise the building and prevent further collapse, this work, he says, has been done. “John Public would like to see work begin tomorrow after announcements are made today,” said Mitchell, “but many things have to happen behind the lines before physical restoration can begin. In the case of Mille Fleurs, those things have started.”
Shivonne and Shayanne Sammy, daughters of Junior Sammy, said the restoration of Boissiere House was a 61st-birthday present from Sammy to himself. Shivonne told the T&T Guardian, “It has been his dream to own a house around the Savannah and he is very proud to own it. We now use it as a family dwelling where we go on a Sunday and we have a permanent caretaker there. It’s very comfortable to live in. I tried to furnish it of the era (early 1930s) and have bought antiques. It definitely feels like a home and the nicest thing is the porch where you can sit out and feel the breeze, it’s very relaxing.”
The Sammys—who have not disclosed the cost of restoring the house since they used their own construction company and equipment to do the work—took advice on the restoration from Rudylynn Roberts, architect and president of CFC, the conservation group which routinely writes to private owners offering assistance.
Roberts spoke admiringly of the Sammys' efforts.
“They did not change anything, just replaced like for like,” she said. “Where there was rotten wood they replaced it, where there was painted wood they repainted it, where there was polished wood they repolished it, where there were roof tiles missing they replaced them, where fretwork was missing they replaced it with plywood. They replaced the guttering, stripped the wooden floors, re-finished the wood panelling and doors.”
Roberts says the Sammys’ instinct to preserve was pleasing and spoke highly of the Heritage Awards, saying, “It is good what the National Trust is doing as it draws attention to heritage preservation, it’s good for educational purposes and it allows owners to understand what they are doing has value to people other themselves.”
Russell Nath, whose Ortinola House won Best Kept Heritage Landscape, told the Guardian he acquired the property in 1998 and restored it between 2001 and 2003. Since then it has been preserved as an events venue for conferences and weddings.
“When we acquired it the nine acre open pasture had 25 buffalypso grazing,” he said. “We kept the pasture but added crotons, hibiscus and shrimp plant which brings the hummingbirds. My wife and aunt bought all the plants and local shrubbery from places in Santa Cruz. We planted three or four samaan trees, as some had fallen, some fruit trees and 15 pink and yellow poui to add colour. The remaining part of the estate—across Acono Road and up into the mountains—is all former cocoa plantations owned by the Cadbury brothers in 1890 and former scrubland, which was abandoned. We planted a few thousand cedar trees and a few hundred mahogany trees as well as oranges, kaimite and grapefruit.”
Ortinola Great House sits at the centre of all this in the lush Maracas Valley, a remarkable example of how the nations built and natural history ought to be managed and respected.