Battle for an old, historic Jamaican building

Group wants to set up cultural centre on Lady Musgrave Road property where UWI started, Janica Budd writes in Jamaica’s Observer.

THE fate of an old building that housed the first offices of Jamaica’s first university is now in question after a two-year-long battle between a non-profit organisation and a government agency.

Sixty-four years ago, the University of the West Indies was officially opened in a short ceremony at a stately building on the corner of Lady Musgrave Road and Hopefield Avenue in Kingston.

In fact, the very first chapter of Sir Philip Sherlock and Professor Rex Nettleford’s book The University of the West Indies: A Caribbean Response to the Challenge of Change, speaks about the first home of the institution.

“On 1st February, 1947, Thomas Taylor (our first principal — an Englishman) opened the first office of the University College of the West Indies at 62 Lady Musgrave Road in Kingston,” it reads.

The relatively humble location belied the historically momentous beginnings of an institution which was to eventually move to a larger campus at Mona, St Andrew before spreading overseas to Barbados and Trinidad.

The building on Lady Musgrave Road changed hands over the years, serving as the home of the country’s first parliamentary ombudsman, Errington George Green, and in more recent times, a base for a tactical arm of the police force.

But the years have not been kind to the historic site, with looters reducing it to a mere shell. When the Sunday Observer visited the premises several days ago, aside from a small patch of freshly mowed grass, the massive corner lot was a tangle of weeds and thick overgrowth behind a tall chain-link fence.

From a distance, the house itself looked fine, but close up it was more like it had been the target of precision bombers who had left the external walls relatively intact while inside had been stripped clean. The entryway was littered with the remnants of the porch’s wooden roof which had fallen in. A glance upwards provided a direct view all the way to the second storey ceiling, as every single floorboard — mahogany, according to the caretaker — had been savagely ripped out and carted away by persons unknown. All but one section of the grillework that once enclosed the ground floor and upstairs wrap-around verandah running almost the entire circumference of the house, had been pried from their moorings to feed the once-vibrant scrap-metal trade.

Every window still left had at least one smashed pane of glass, in some rooms the windows had been completely dug from their recesses in the walls, along with the burglar bars. The light sconces had been ripped from the walls and ceilings and floorboards were missing from the upstairs hallway and almost every room. Looters had even made off with the toilets and washbasins in all the bathrooms, and pried the tile from the walls and from around the old stained bathtubs.

The caretaker — employed by the National Insurance Fund (NIF), which now owns the property — said drug addicts and homeless people had taken up residence before he came there. He had to force them to leave.

Despite the ravages of time and man, for the last two years Music Unites Jamaica Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to the preservation of Jamaica’s musical history, has been trying to convince government agencies to let it take over the property and turn it into a profit-making cultural centre.

The group, which is under the patronage of Jamaican-born British bass-baritone Sir Willard White, counts among its members, renowned Jamaican composer/musician Peter Ashbourne, former Cabinet secretary Carlton Davis, the wife of the former governor general Lady Hall, Custos of St Andrew Marigold Harding, and Austrian-born naturalised Jamaican music educator, composer and performer Rosina Christina Moder.

Since she first set eyes on the “sleeping beauty” as she calls the property, Moder has been spearheading her organisation’s drive to make it the home of the Samuel Felsted Institute & Archive.

Felsted (1743 – 1802), is the first ever Jamaican classical composer on record, and the institute in his name would be the centre for research, archiving and promoting the history and works of Jamaican composers, starting with his legacy.

While giving a lecture on Felsted in Havana, Cuba early last year, Moder said she became acutely aware of how much more needs to be done to record Jamaica’s musical history.

“He was an organist for 19 years at the Kingston Parish Church, eight years for the St Andrew Parish Church. It is all documented. A man from America spent 10 years on this research (on Felsted) and then they found out he was Jamaican. It’s sitting in my little shelf and I want to put it in an archive,” was Moder’s impassioned plea.

“Few Jamaican teachers and students are aware of this important historical figure at the moment, and the world at large needs to know where to find all information on one of the outstanding historical music icons of the Caribbean,” she said.

If Moder had her way, 62 Lady Musgrave Road would house a permanent exhibition, data bank on Jamaican composers — from classical to reggae for international and local students/researchers — a listening library and cultural centre, as well as the offices and practice facilities of the premier Jamaican classical performance groups, such as the Kingston Philharmonic orchestra. In publishing existing works (and commissioning new ones), the legacy of the mostly unsung creations of Jamaican composers would be preserved for generations to come.

“We are appealing to the National Insurance Fund to consider our plea positively, and to assist us by offering a long-term lease of a NIF property for the establishment of the National Music Centre of Jamaica,” said Moder.

“Admittedly, we have our eyes set on a perfect choice that would offer space for all the aforementioned needs. It is the former Ombudsman House, located on the corner of Lady Musgrave Road and Hopeflield Avenue,” Moder said in a letter to the NIF’s Ludlow Bowie, who is the director, Real Estate & Property Management.

“There are also plans to open an inter-cultural meeting place in the form of an Arts Shop and Internet Café called IMAGI-NATION. Jamaican publications and recordings will be promoted while patrons listen to soothing, high-quality music produced either live or via CD. The closing hour is to be 10:00 pm out of respect for the local residents,” added Moder.

“It is a very beautiful old building, deserving to be saved and restored, which also has the potential to become an additional tourist attraction for Kingston. It is located in a very central area with ample parking space for cars and buses, and is furthermore an easy and safe commute for the choristers and the musicians attending rehearsals.”

According to Moder, Music Unites even envisioned building a small amphitheatre to reinstitute cultural events such as the famous ‘Ring-ding’ for children in honour of the late Louise Bennett Coverly, known more widely as ‘Miss Lou’.

However, according to Moder, when she first proposed the venture in 2009, the NIF said that there were still technicalities to be ironed out in the handover of the lease from the Housing Agency of Jamaica, the property’s previous owners.

Undaunted and driven by the magnificent vision of the cultural centre that seemed at the time still attainable, Moder persisted, writing and meeting with officials in her quest.

Meanwhile, with the last occupants of the premises, the police force, long gone, the house became an easy target for looters and vandals. One day, after passing by the premises for the umpteenth time and seeing a thief make off with a large section of the iron grille on his back, Moder said she called Labour and Security Minister Pearnel Charles to see if the property couldn’t be made more secure.

Charles, she said, was very agreeable and immediately posted a security guard at the premises and the chain link fence around the perimeter was repaired.

“The minister, I have to commend him, he said let us not let anybody take anything more,” Moder said. She added that he also seemed eager about her organisation’s proposals for restoring and utilising the historic site.

At his prompting, she even wrote to Prime Minister Bruce Golding in March last year.

“We are appealing to you, sir, and all ministers related to our plea, to act very swiftly; since the date of initial negotiations (October 22nd, 2009), the property has been subject to horrendous vandalism. The looting of the house has increased over the last couple of days; the large grilles have been cut out, almost all the doors and electrical appliances have been stolen, and this morning at 6:30 am an unchecked fire was set on the property,” Moder wrote.

“We respect the fact that the legal paperwork could take more time, and we also recognise that the house is in a prime area of land value; however, nothing is of more value than saving a historical treasure for the generations to come, and preserving the rich history of this beautiful island,” she added.

“Music Unites — The Jamaica Arts Endowment Fund — has all the motivation and human power in place to start this mission immediately. We appeal to you for an immediate commitment towards confirming a 10-year ‘one dollar lease’ of the property to start with, and the option of extension and first option to purchase,” she added, promising that Music Unites would foot the bill for security in the interim, if needed.

“We will collaborate with the Government in all aspects, and hope to expect the same from the official side. We hope that, for example, the restoration of the building to its former glory could be financed with funds out of the music portion of the EPA grant. The well-known architect Ann Hodges has committed to assist us with her expertise.

“We will seek further grants for the administration of the ‘Felsted Centre’ and all projects attached; first and foremost, however, we would need confirmation of permission to lease the property, even prior to the completion of the paperwork,” was Moder’s plea to Golding then.

She said Charles had more talks with her, expressed his support for the preservation of the premises and told her that the prime minister liked her foundation’s plans.

Buoyed by this informal show of support, Music Unites started scouting sponsors and donors who would help them pay for the lease they hoped would soon materialise, the extensive repairs they would need to carry out and the research they intended to conduct.

And they were successful, with the Jamaica National Building Society Foundation coming on board. In addition, Moder said the group is likely to receive research funding from overseas interests.

Moder said she wrote a letter to Audrey Deer-Williams, the manager of the National Insurance Fund, with whom the foundation had been meeting regularly in August this year with what, to her, was good news.

“We hereby submit a request for a three-year “As Is” lease. We are aware that the house needs a lot of repairs to make it habitable. For this reason we hope that you and the NIF board would be satisfied with the lease of J$200,000 per annum, as well as the first option to extend and/or purchase the said property.

“Furthermore, we are proud to tell you that we have secured the funds for the three years of our lease offer. In addition, we also have granted the funds for a project which will start October 1, 2011. We sincerely hope at this date to be in possession of the keys of the property, in order not to disappoint the funding agency and not to delay the start of the project,” Moder wrote.

But her repeated entreaties to government officials to let Music Unites have the property for a peppercorn lease have not borne fruit. She said two years of lobbying for the rights to lease the building landed the group right back where it started — arguing the merit of their cause with the same two NIF officials whom they had talked to at the start of the process. This is despite the claims of support for Music Unites’ venture by Golding and Charles.

“I have to commend his efforts — and the PM is also in favour of the preservation of the house — but it seems that NIF and its board are the ones who decide, and they basically said no,” Moder lamented, citing a terse rejection via text message that a member of the foundation received after the last meeting of the NIF board earlier this month.

There is no sign that the agency, which safeguards and manages the pensions deposits of millions of Jamaicans, will be looking at any peppercorn rentals any time soon, based on Sunday Observer’s check with the NIF management.

“We bought the land for long-term investment,” Deer-Williams told the Sunday Observer. “We have a responsibility to ensure that as guardians of the people’s pension funds, that the NIF secures a good yield on its investment.”

That’s because the old building is smack-dab in the coveted real estate ‘Golden Triangle’, and is on a huge corner lot within walking distance of Vale Royal, the official home of the prime minister and various embassies, where luxury townhomes and apartments would sell like hot bread. To top it off, the property, purchased by the NIF for $200 million a couple of years ago, is now worth some $300 million, based on a valuation conducted last year.

When asked if the building would be bulldozed to make way for upscale housing, the Sunday Observer was told that there was no timetable yet on anything, since there is a caveat on the property having to do with its historical value and preservation.

“Now, I do not know how much the board was informed, as I feel that the managing body at NIF does not share historical preservation sentiments, but rather defend their role of investors, which is, I suppose, in their job description,” said a not-quite-resigned Moder.

She wants the NIF to rethink its decision and endorse the importance of this historical house.

Music Unites is not the only entity with an interest in securing the premises. Moder said her connections at the University of the West Indies have confirmed that that institution also tried to get the historic building back from the Government for its 50th Anniversary celebrations in 1997. They, too, were denied.

Moder said the battle her group and the university has had seems to suggest that “the previous Government, like the current one, displayed no interest in preserving valuable historical properties”. She pointed to the Urban Development Corporation’s plans to redevelop downtown Kingston, noting that it should be restored, not just revived.

She also pointed to other historic buildings like those in old Spanish Town that are crumbling to dust or have been vandalised and altered beyond recognition.

“The Institute of Jamaica is storing most of their artifacts in the basement, which will be brought to the public’s attention thanks to a newly formed board. But where are the old buildings to house them?” Moder asked.

“In my view, the beautiful Richmond Great House on Half-Way-Tree Road should belong to the people of Jamaica. Buildings like those should house museums in various forms.”

“Why is there so little historical consciousness?” she asked. “How can the National Heritage Fund get their well-deserved respect and be listened to?

“Why does every other major country in the Caribbean have a historic centre? Old Havana, Old Panama City, Old Santo Domingo, etc?

“Future generations will hate us when little or nothing of Old Kingston is left,” Moder declared.

For the original report go to http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Battle-for-an-old–historic-building_9870327#ixzz1bfJwui9Y

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