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I can’t make guarantees

New Greyfriars owner on site’s future
Published: 
Monday, August 18, 2014
The historic Greyfriars Church of Scotland in Port-of-Spain which was recently sold. The National Trust is now reportedly moving to protect it as a national heritage site. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

Alfred Galy, the businessman who has bought Greyfriars Church of Scotland in Port-of-Spain for an undisclosed amount, says he bought it for its “sentimental value”—but cannot guarantee it won’t be demolished. He said if the Government wants to intervene and offer financial assistance for its restoration he would be open to that.

Galy, who made his money in retail, merchandising, supermarkets, building and construction, owns other properties in Port-of-Spain, including an office complex on the corner of Prince and Frederick Street, a few shops away from the vacant plot of land which is part of the church grounds. 

This means he now owns the majority of land and property on the east side of Woodford Square. The sale of the building has sent historians and the Presbyterian community of Trinidad into a tumult, fearing it could be the end for the symbolic and historic building. The National Trust issued a statement last week saying the building will be listed imminently and afforded protected status, but that process can take years to complete, following surveys, valuations and planning. 

In the meantime, Galy, as the legal owner, has the right to do whatever he wants with the building and land. There was no congregation attending the church, which closed its doors eight years ago and Galy says it has sat rotting ever since. The decision to sell the church was made both locally, by a senior church official, and by the heads of the church Presbytery in Europe. “I have no plans for it right now. I bought it for sentimental value,” he told the T&T Guardian at his offices. 

Asked if he belonged to the Church of Scotland, Galy said no but said he’d “been in the area all my life.” Asked whether it would be knocked down, he said, “We don’t know yet what we have in mind. When we go to the drawing board and the trust keepers we’ll have a chat with them and see what happens. “I haven’t gone inside to do an assessment. It depends on the structure,” he said, listing the problems with the building.

“Right now the roof is toxic. There’s asbestos which needs dealing with. There’s rats and vermin and other things to be addressed. So we have to look at it very critically. It’s in a bad way.”

12m to restore
The church was briefly surveyed last year but it has been eight years since the whole building was thoroughly explored. “Sometimes it’s worth your while to renovate and sometimes it’s not worth your while,” Galy said. “It would take an investment of between $10 million and $12 million to restore.” Asked if he had that kind of money, he said he could raise it if required, “But it would have to be worth my while. Maybe Government could intervene and say, ‘Look, take a $50 million and see what you could do with it.’”

As to what the building might be used for if it was restored he said, “A business maybe, I don’t know. We have a lot of ideas we are kicking around still. But it's not going to be cheap.” Galy declined to say how much he paid for it but, said it wasn’t cheap. “I didn’t get it for a song. I paid pretty much the market price.” He said he could also see himself developing it into apartments, retaining the original structure, and said “Port-of-Spain needs to bring more people in.”

He doesn’t think it could ever be used as a place of worship again, however. The Church of Scotland has lost hundreds of members since its peak in the early 20th century, many of them having converted to other religions or died. “The Presbyterians have a weak following,” he said. “And they have another church up the road which was restored and they did a great job as it lent itself to restoration.” That was the St Ann’s Church in Belmont. “In Europe today they're selling off churches,” said Galy. 

“Several properties have been offered to me, for a song. “They almost knocked down the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. They got a little opposition because they got some money. That’s a prestigious, classic building. There’s nothing classic about Greyfriars.”

National Trust too slow
Galy is right in the sense that the external original features have been plastered over, rendering the building modern-looking and rather plain, unlike the magnificent architectural splendour of the other period buildings surrounding Woodford Square—the Red House to the west, the old Public Library to the north and Holy Trinity Cathedral to the south. 

“It’s made of very common material,” said one of Galy's family relatives, who interjected during the interview, “Whereas the material of, say the Red House, is ‘roadworthy’—it will go the distance.” Galy will “take into consideration whatever relics are inside, if there are any,” but acknowledges that most of the important features have already been transferred to St Ann’s, including stained-glass windows and memorials.

Pressed on what heritage experts really want to hear—a guarantee the building will remain standing—he said, “I cannot give that guarantee, but we will do our best.” The National Trust has not been in touch with Galy but he is aware the building is not on its protected list. “If the Government want to list it they ought to intervene and make money available,” he said. 

“Look what’s happening with all these listed properties. Stollmeyer’s Castle took 40 years to get where it is. It isn’t finished. Milles Fleurs is 20 years outstanding. “This talk about ‘National Trust and government want to help you,’ it isn’t getting us anywhere. The country is going to hell. We have enough classics around that need to be restored and updated.”