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Greyfriars demolition stopped

Published: 
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Citizens for Conservation executive secretary Michele Celestine, left, appeals to workers on the site of the Greyfriars Church to stop demolition work on the building yesterday. PHOTO: ROBERTO CODALLO

Three hours after workmen began demolishing the historic Greyfriars Church of Scotland, Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain, staff from the Port-of-Spain City Corporation yesterday ordered them to stop. The demolition crew were told to stop work and vacate the premises because they were operating illegally. The stop-work order was delivered by the chief building inspector at the City Engineer's Office, Deoraj Ramtahal, just after noon.

Accompanied by municipal police, along with members of the group, Citizens for Conservation ,and Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration staff, Ramtahal read the notice to the ten workers before presenting it to them through the bars of the locked gate. Told by a policeman they needed to vacate the premises, the workers said they had been locked in for "safety reasons." As the policeman enquired who had the keys, in the event that there was an emergency, the worker, who said he was in charge, said they would need to contact the contractor, former Congress of the People parliamentary candidate Rocky Garcia.

Arriving shortly after, Garcia said he had been hired to carry out a health and safety assessment on the buildings, which were not structurally sound. He said his findings revealed the buildings were termite-ridden, contained asbestos in the ceiling and that the concrete used in the two previous restorations was flaking off. By the time the notice was delivered, the workers had already removed the roof and ceiling of the manse (church hall) and had begun taking off the galvanize sheeting from the church roof. Garcia said while he intended to abide by the order, he would report to the owner and relevant action would be taken.

Inspector: No approval to demolish
Speaking with reporters minutes after he delivered the notice, Ramtahal said no application had been made to the corporation for permission to carry out demolition work on the site. After noticing the workmen around 9 am yesterday, Ramtahal said he visited and asked to see the documents approving the demolition but was told the owner had them. Ramtahal said attempts to contact Alfred Galy, named as the purchaser on documents submitted to the corporation, were unsuccessful so the notice was prepared and served on the workmen. Pointing to the locked gate, Ramtahal said: "It is strange that the gate was locked because up to 45 minutes ago the gate was open. I walked into the site and spoke with the worker purported to be in charge.

Now that we have shown up with the notice, the gate is locked. "However, that does not deter us from serving the notice and issues concerning the workers’ health and safety have now arisen and we will have to address that. “The corporation will monitor it and do our due diligence and see what activities are taking place here. I have spoken with my superiors and we may have to look at other measures to ensure compliance."

‘Preserve this landmark’
Members of the NGO Citizens for Conservation, who included president Rudylynn Roberts, executive secretary Michele Celestine and executive member Margaret Mc Dowall-Thompson, yesterday went to Greyfriars to try to prevent further demolition. Expressing their gratitude to the corporation for the swift action to halt it, Roberts said they were concerned the structure would now be further ruined by the elements. "We must now find a way to get tarpaulins onto the building to temporarily protect it until the whole thing is sorted out," she said, as she pointed to the dark clouds above.
Blinking away tears, Roberts said her group had submitted a dossier to Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration Rodger Samuel three weeks ago, proposing the church be listed as a historical site.

She said it would have formed part of the legendary Woodford Square Historic District, which proposed to transform the old national library into a museum, housing memorabilia on past prime ministers and presidents. "We just have to see what happens from here," she concluded. Mc Dowall-Thompson accused the owner of disrespecting the national culture, the efforts of the conservationists and the law. Celestine said they had proposed to transform the Greyfriars property into a usable space as they had plans to turn the manse into a dinner/dining area and the church as a theatre space for the spoken word.

As the situation unfolded yesterday, passerby Lynette Sookoo, who works at the Ministry of Education, said her parent — Esther Martha and Morton Sookoo — were married at the church in 1957. "I felt very hurt this morning when I walked past and saw the demolition work taking place. It is a landmark in this country and to think of how it is so cheaply going to be broken down, it is painful. If my mother were alive, she would have been very hurt and must be turning in her grave right now," she added. According to records, the church site at Frederick Street was bought for £300 and the foundation stone laid in April, 1837. It was completed at a cost of £4,858.

It was opened for public worship in January 1838 and was named Greyfriars after the mother church in Glasgow, Scotland. Three years later, a manse was built next to the church for its minister, the Rev Alexander Kennedy, who was succeeded by the Rev George Brodie who died in 1875. In the church are memorial tablets commemorating their work, as well as members of the congregatio­n who fell during the two World Wars. The graves of three children lie in the churchyard.

What the law says
Section 164 (1),(2) and (3) of the Municipal Corporations Act says: "No person may pull down or remove from its site any building within any municipality unless, not more than 14 days and not less than two days before such removal, he gives notice in writing to the CEO of his intention to pull down or remove such building. “Any person who pulls down or removes any building from its site, and any owner of any such building who causes or permits any building to be removed from its site without having first given the notice prescribed by this section is liable to a fine of $4,000."