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Govt focuses on Magnificent Seven, President’s House

Move to preserve historical buildings...
Monday, March 26, 2012
President’s House under renovation.

Works Minister Jack Warner has asked the National Trust to work with him to fast-track the restoration of President’s House and the Magnificent Seven. Vel Lewis, chairman of the trust, said this last week in a telephone interview. The National Trust works in an advisory capacity to oversee the preservation of heritage buildings and sites in the country.


While the trust does not control budgets or make financial decisions in relation to restoration or renovations of these buildings, its mandate is to oversee and advise the Government on these sites. The ministry responsible is the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure. The Magnificent Seven are historic buildings known for their European-style architecture, built in the early 20th century along Queen’s Park West, Port-of-Spain.


Over the past several years, some have been allowed to fall into disrepair, with Mille Fleurs reaching a particularly dilapidated state. Four of the buildings—Whitehall, Mille Fleurs, Queen’s Royal College and Stollmeyer’s Castle—are owned by the State. The other three—Archbishop’s House, Roomor and Hayes Court—are privately owned.


Lewis said the trust had been encouraging the private owners to respond to calls from concerned citizens about the state of the buildings. He said the Archbishop’s residence and Roomor had been painted and undergone some renovations recently. He said the Government had already begun work on the buildings under its control and had finished renovations on Queen’s Royal College.


Lewis said although work had not begun on Whitehall, demolition and stabilisation had begun on the other two buildings, Mille Fleurs and Stollmeyer’s Castle. He also said stabilisation work had been completed on President’s House. “Over $1 million has already been spent on the stabilisation of Mille Fleurs,” said Lewis. He said the rough estimate was $32 million, but the figure may go up, because work on the building had not been started on time.


Lewis said the National Trust had proposed to use Mille Fleurs as its office and as a museum—construction designs for the building included the stables being converted into office space. He said the main roof at Stollmeyer’s Castle was 55 per cent complete, the verandah had been replaced, and the building had been treated for termites.


Lewis said the restoration work was designed to maintain the country’s historic architecture. “We have done a draft proposal for a historic preservation fund so that people who owned historic properties could apply to the fund for assistance.” He added that only properties listed as heritage properties with the National Trust would receive assistance.


He said he expected the fund would be set up in the new fiscal year. The proposal for the fund itself was a result of calls from concerned citizens as well as the interest group Citizens for Conservation. In an interview last week, Citizens for Conservation chairman Rudylynn Roberts said in developed countries like England and the United States, financial assistance was available for private owners of  historic buildings.


She said at present, the Government was not doing enough when it came to preservation of these buildings. “What must be understood is that these people are preserving these buildings not for themselves, but for future generations,” Roberts said. “These buildings are an example of history that we can touch, in contrast to what we see or read about.”


She said if the Government did not move quickly to restore the Magnificent Seven, they would become dilapidated and would cost even more to fix. “Look at President’s House...Whatever the cost was when it collapsed, it will now cost more taxpayers’ dollars to fix,” she said. “After two rainy seasons and two dry seasons that have been relatively wet, it is going to be more costly to restore.”  


Roberts said the country needed to give greater priority to maintaining these buildings rather than waiting for them to fall down. “In preserving these buildings, we are also preserving the craft and skills of bygone generations of our people,” she said. “Someone’s grandfathers’ father painted those buildings and did the work on them.”


Roberts said she had seen painting on the Archbishop’s house, but could not recall any visible renovations to the other buildings. Lewis said no timeline, construction period or deadline had been put in place for the buildings. Warner said last year that the restoration of President’s House would be completed by the end of 2013 and would cost $4.5 million.


Since the roof collapsed in May 2010, T&T President George Richards has not used the building, but has held official functions at Knowsley, formerly used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


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