Architecture: Lost art survives in Guyana

Alan Miller, writing for Dispatch, looks at how vintage building techniques survive in Guyana, making it possible for the nation to protect its significant architec- tural legacy.

Despite the poverty in Guyana, or maybe because of it, the capital of the South American country is a trove of architectural delights from the Victorian era and beyond.

Concrete is the modern, cheaper construction material of choice these days in the Atlantic Coast city, which is a little bigger than Akron and below sea level, like New Orleans. But even cheap materials are beyond the reach of many residents, so old buildings often age with less grace than those that are better tended.

But at least they remain standing.

The architectural beauty of the structures designed by Dutch and British colonists and built by the legions of African slaves and indentured servants the British brought from China, India and Portugal remains clear for those who look past the peeling paint, broken windows and rotting wood.

Many are endangered, including national treasures such as St. George’s Cathedral, a mammoth wooden structure with flying buttresses and a rich history as the centerpiece of downtown. Locals proudly tout the Anglican church as the second-largest wooden structure in the world, and for decades the largest until surpassed by a building in China, they say.

They apologize for the broken windows, leaky roof and missing ceiling pieces.

The country is desperately in need of many basics – electricity and plumbing in some neighborhoods, and decent roads – that it’s difficult to champion the preservation of old buildings. Yet, if ever Guyana would become a tourist destination, its architectural heritage would be among its top two selling points. The other is its vast jungle, which is rich with potential for eco-tourism.

So it was with great excitement that I found some preservation work being done here – all at neighborhood churches.

One was at the first church built by freed slaves in the mid-1800s.

Another is a recently restored Presbyterian church built in 1912.

And a third is the 108-year-old Queenstown Moravian Church built of massive timbers and currently being restored using the techniques of that era.

“Some of the older guys working on this crew were around back then; that’s how they know how to do this,” said a smiling Vibert Prescott, a strapping young man who did the heavy lifting.

Pastor Nigel Hazel said that despite the extra cost of using new greenheart timber, the same as was used 108 years ago, there was never a thought about using any other method to rebuild the tower that holds the bell that calls his parishioners to worship.

“It’s a national treasure, and, as such, we can’t change it,” he said. “We want to keep the history of the structure.”

The sill of the old tower had been whittled by termites, which generally shy from the rock-hard greenheart, a rival for teak in durability.

So the crew carefully took down the tower, saved all the pieces, and is using as many as possible in the restoration.

They use some power tools for mortising and for drilling, but they also use chisels. And they use mallets to drive wooden pegs into the mighty beams to secure them.

I felt as if I were watching my great-great-grandfather build the barn at our family farm.

The men raced up and down the scaffolding like spiders spinning a web. They joked and laughed as they worked, taking time to appreciate the beauty of the structure and their craft.

They take great pride in their work, which is becoming a lost art here and elsewhere in the world.

“We learned it from our parents and grandparents,” said Lawrence Profitt, the crew’s supervisor. “These are skills that were passed down from generation to generation.

But they don’t get to do it as often as they’d like.

“The art of woodcraft is declining,” Profitt said. “It takes more time and manpower to do this.”

The tower should be done in another couple of months, and the crew will speak of it proudly.

“It’s not just a job,” Profitt said. “It’s an occupation I enjoy.”

Let’s hope that he and his crew will get to do it again. Guyana’s historical heritage is at risk without them.

Alan D. Miller is a Dispatch managing editor who writes about old-house repair. Read his blog at  

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