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Govt to spend $millions to restore five buildings

Published: 
Thursday, February 18, 2016
The main hall at President’s House is observed by members of the touring party yesterday. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

The Great Hall of President’s House resembles a war zone, as if a bomb went off, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of a hall where public officials were once sworn in to serve the country.

Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis made the comparison to a bomb site as she peered over a wooden barrier, constructed to keep people from toppling about six feet into an open cavity.

The building is empty but for forgotten furniture, Christmas decorations and a broken piano. In one abandoned room, a glass sign for the Caribbean Court of Justice was on the floor, surrounded by fallen bits of concrete, paint that had flaked off walls and boxes of left over bits.

With the exception of noises made by bats, the setting provides a stillness in direct contrast to the importance of past events held in the space years earlier. Prime Minister Keith Rowley, who toured the house last week, said it was an absolute disgrace.

The President now conducts official swearing-ins and other official ceremonies in a small office in the first level of the administrative building. Robinson-Regis, chairman of the Urban Development Corporation of T&T (Udecott) Noel Garcia and several Udecott project managers and other employees, led media through a tour yesterday of five historical buildings to be restored by Government in the coming five years.

While Robinson-Regis denounced the prior government for not keeping promises regarding the restoration of the buildings, she promised that the People’s National Movement (PNM) Government viewed the restoration of the buildings as a priority to take place within the next five years.

The cost to repair the five buildings — President’s House, the Red House, Whitehall, Stollmeyer’s Castle and Mille Fleurs —  will cost Government hundreds of millions of dollars, with a significant chunk going toward the Red House restoration.

Speaking to media yesterday, Robinson-Regis said despite the economic situation the country was in, having been declared to be in a recession late last year, the Government was prepared to spend money to fix the historical properties.

“If we don’t do it now, it will get even worse, you saw Mille Fleurs. Mille Fleurs may have to even be demolished, given the state that it is in and another five years is going to make it worse and it is going to cost even more,” Robinson-Regis said.

Mille Fleurs, one of the magnificent seven buildings around the Queen’s Park Savannah, is nearing crisis, covered by a temporary galvanise roof to protect it from the elements, the building is crumbling, with the floor rotted through in some parts.

Project managers for the building said it may need to be completely reconstructed. 

Robinson-Regis added: “It is important that our heritage be restored and even during a time of stringency there are some things that must be done and we feel certain that this is very important for our history and for our people going forward.” She said she was saddened that nothing had been done to repair President’s House over the past five years.

Robinson-Regis is a member of a restoration committee established to oversee the restoration of the  five buildings. The committee comprises Rowley, Finance Minister Colm Imbert and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi. Robinson-Regis said the committee would determine the eventual use of the properties and that would determine how they were renovated or restored. 

The Red House remains the location of Parliament. Plans to make Stollmeyer’s Castle a protocol guest house are being reviewed and Whitehall, once the office of the Prime Minister, may still be used as such. No decision has been made on Mille Fleurs, which has remain untouched and unoccupied for over 20 years.

Work on Stollmeyer’s Castle is 85 per cent complete, with most of the remaining work being external. The Red House has been excavated but is still in initial stages while at the President’s House no recent restoration has take place.

Garcia told reporters the major problem with Whitehall was the roof, as the building had received a $20 million restoration which was completed in 1996. He said one of the suggestions Udecott would make to the committee would be to appoint a curator for each restored building so that the State did not find itself with the recurring problem of having to restore buildings frequently after spending taxpayers money.

“We need to ensure that the necessary maintenance is done,” Garcia added.

Architect Bernard Mackay is working with the State on the restoration of the buildings. Rowley is expected to give the public an update on the properties in a press conference tomorrow.

Initial project estimates

Last month, Udecott chairman Noel Garcia said $110 million had already been spent on the Red House and Government would pump an additional $400 million into the project. Garcia said to bring the project to a close, Udecott would inject a further $381 million on construction of a Parliamentary Complex — phase two — taking the total figure for the iconic building to a whopping $891 million.

In 2012, then chairman of the National Trust, Vel Lewis said the budget to restore Mille Fleurs would be $32 million. That same year, then Works Minister Jack Warner said that the restoration of President’s House would be completed by the end of 2013 and would cost $4.5 million.

By 2013, Zanim Ali, director of the ministry’s Restoration Unit, said the figure for the repairs would be over $100 million. Stollmeyer’s Castle, also called Killarney, is 85 per cent complete with the only external work and the upstairs balcony left to be completed.