Ed De Shae is going home.
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Losing an architectural treasure
A few weeks ago, the country lost one of its most valuable architectural treasures. For generations, the magnificent Friendship Hall Great House stood astride the Southern Main Road, just north of St Mary’s Junction in Freeport and reminded us of an era long gone.
Not only was the structure imposing in its sheer size, but also for its eccentric style and the story it bore. Constructed in the 19th century, it was initially a prime example of colonial plantocracy architecture which far outshone the less substantial planters’ residences which dotted the sugar cane fields of central Trinidad.
Its owner was an eccentric Scotsman named Norman McLeod who had served as an officer in the British East Indian Regiment in the early 1900s. Whilst in India he apparently underwent a conversion to Hinduism and upon his return to Trinidad he employed his considerable artistic ability in transforming his palatial home into a mandir.
On the ground floor, the goddess Durga peered forth, while on the sweeping portico, McLeod placed a self-portrait, wearing a turban. He even constructed a throne with the words “Friendship Hall” above it. The Scotsman filled his home with priceless treasures ranging from a World War I German bugle to invaluable silver from India.
Gripped with a growing delusion that the young daughter of one of his Indian servants was a reincarnation of his dead mother, McLeod willed his mansion to them when he died in 1965. We live however, in a nation where all but a few place no value on the legacy of the ages. Friendship Hall fell into neglect and after nearly five decades of decay, was bulldozed into the ground to make way for concrete blasphemies which are a sad travesty of the Scotsman’s gift to his heirs.
As appalling as this assault on our built heritage is to conceive, it is but a single chapter in a long history of annihilation which cannot be blamed on any one person or sector, since it is a reprehensible burden we must all bear as a people. The basic argument which may be proffered for the fate of Friendship Hall is that without legitimate state support, this is to be the future of many of our historic structures which exist in private hands which are either unappreciative of their significance or cannot afford to sustain them.
Part of the problem stems from a scarcity of compassion and public edification regarding the value of heritage assets. There are now two ministries dedicated to multiculturalism and tolerance, yet nothing has been done to inculcate a sense of national pride in our past.
Students are still taught that Columbus sighted Trinidad from the helm of the Santa Maria accompanied by the Nina and Pinta, even though he was barely able to walk from a smart attack of gout and all three ships had been sunk years before. I dare say if the owner of Friendship Hall Great House had possessed a cultured appreciation for what was gifted into his care, it would not have been destroyed. The wholesale slaughter of leatherback turtles but a couple decades ago has been all but halted, thanks largely to the foundation of a sense of ownership which was instilled in the minds and hearts of those who shared a common breathing space with the turtles.
Most communities in possession of heritage assets cannot see the economic opportunities which can arise from these treasures. This is another page we can take from the book of the leatherback turtle story, since turtle-watching is now a lucrative money-earner for several sectors, spawning downstream industry on a micro-economic scale.
Lest it be said that I lambast the State too sternly, an example must be drawn from the awful condition of the Magnificent Seven. These turn-of-the-century masterpieces appear in virtually every tourist guidebook which beckons the unsuspecting to view a spectacle which must surely stand as an indictment against us.
From the boarded-up windows and unkempt lawns of Mille Fleurs to the threadbare grandeur of Whitehall, successive administrations have gleefully ignored their responsibility to history. Those few public institutions dedicated to conservation have consistently failed in their mandates and seem quite happy to continue on their losing streaks while our past is trampled and lost.
I recently visited the National Museum and it pains me exceedingly to see the vast potential for public education therein and the deficiency of interest which is shown in it. The proverbial icing on the cake in the visit was that in one section, artefacts were strewn willy-nilly with no security, begging the souvenir hunter to pocket one of our national treasures.
There is a Restoration Unit within the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure. Had I not been aware of its presence, I would be as stunned as most people would be to learn that such a high-minded department could exist within the wreckage of our civil service. One only has to look at our communal architectural treasures to see the impact of the unit on the landscape: the still-caved roof of President’s House, the fire-gutted shell of what used to be the historically significant San Fernando Police Station and the sapling which threatened to grow into a mighty tree from the roof of the now dismally abandoned Red House.
The lack of zeal or even periodic enthusiasm from the public sector towards preservation is really an extrapolation of a national mentality which frowns on the past. Our own first prime minister, Dr Eric Williams, was, most ironically, a historian. Even more than three decades after his death, the effects of “doctor politics” still shape the general psyche of the nation, wherein he transferred his inner demons of his own exclusion from colonial elite society to his people, teaching us that all that was connected to massa was bad and should be obliterated if we were to find ourselves.
In this way, we indemnify the Plantation Society model of the late, great Lloyd Best, since our idea of nationalism finds expression in raging against the European metropole and its relics by extension. We are a plural society thrown into each other’s company with no real formation of the characteristics of a nation.
Yet, amid the morass of destruction and callous ignorance, there are beacons of hope. For many years, a small band of dedicated people calling themselves Citizens for Conservation has been striving against enormous odds (political obstacles being the most frequent) to raise the national consciousness of our heritage and to persuade the relevant authorities of each administration to take a vested interest in preservation lest all be lost too soon.
I doubt any of the members of Citizens for Conservation throw a good javelin or sing melodious rum-drinking ditties, but this is an organisation which truly deserves a medal for the tireless commitment to history of its members. Citizens for Conservation stalwart architect Geoffrey MacLean has devoted a lifetime to conservation and singlehandedly rediscovered our great 19th-century artist Michel Jean Cazabon and his works.
Only recently Geoffrey and I were bewailing the fact that during the 1970s and well into the 1990s, most of our architectural heritage had been destroyed in the name of progress. Called to mind were the demolition of Bagshot and Perseverance Houses in Maraval, the Ice House Hotel on Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain, and the old Customs House on the waterfront. The loss to posterity has truly been immense. Our most current dialogue on the demise of Friendship Hall Great House had a tone akin to that of lamenting the demise of an old friend.
There is only so much that can be done by those of us who have spent our lives in ferreting out forgotten history and coping with the ever-expanding wasteland which our heritage landscape has become. Government malaise, ignorance of the general citizenry and corporate greed have combined to form a daunting front against conservation and as long as we see no value to cherishing the legacy of our ancestors, we face a very grim future, for it is from the glories and teachings of the past we must draw on to find inspiration for tomorrow. If this is indeed our lot, where then can future generations turn to find themselves?