Healing heritage – Trinidad ‘Gingerbread’ house restored

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This article by Joshua Surtees appeared in Trinidad’s Guardian.

It was fitting that social media was the first place 23-year-old architecture graduate Laura Narayansingh announced the restoration of a 1920s house, in the same week that one of the older generation began demolishing a piece of Trinidadian history, Greyfriars Church of Scotland, just a couple of miles away in downtown Port-of-Spain.

“Grateful for all the hands, minds and thoughts that went into restoring this house,” Narayansingh, who recently completed her studies at the University of Miami, posted on Facebook and Instagram. The picture of her smiling on the steps, overhung by fretwork, leading up to the porch of the blue-and-white house was captioned: “It’s my hope that Trinidadians can continue to create without destroying. What a dream it would be to one day see Port-of-Spain value its own architectural identity.”

The house is at 65 Gallus Street in Woodbrook.

That same Sunday at 5 am, businessman Alfred Galy, ordered his workers to begin demolishing the north face of Greyfriars.

Having acquired it in July, Galy had given no promises for its future. In an interview with the Trinidad Guardian he had complained that the church, the first built by the Church of Scotland on the island, was in a bad state of repair and that the roof contained asbestos. Its last minister, Rev Clifford Rawlins, had told the Guardian that church members who had pushed for the multi-million-dollar restoration of St Ann’s Church in Belmont had also pushed for the sale of Greyfriars and its land. The National Trust and the ministry which oversees it were powerless to prevent the partial demolition, having failed to list the building under its heritage preservation programme.

Narayansingh’s success story is welcome news to the trust, which now has a new council and hopes to list hundreds more than the 13 buildings listed in 13 years under the previous administration. This restoration also indicates there are young people in T&T who not only have respect for the built heritage of the country (something largely absent in the post-Independence decades) but are also bringing back skills learnt abroad to benefit it.

Her father “told me from the age of about five to be an architect,” she says, and when asked if she’s staying in T&T now, the reply is: “For sure, for sure.”

She’s a graduate architect working at the firm ACLA: works and went to school at St Joseph’s Convent in Port-of-Spain. Her eyes light up whenever she’s talking about buildings in and around the capital. Her favourite is Queen’s Royal College.

“QRC’s gorgeous,” she says. “I submitted sketches of the Magnificent Seven when I applied for university and the funny thing about those buildings is they’re really like doll houses. When you go to England you realise how tiny they really are. To have that view of the Savannah, the only green space in the whole of that concrete jungle, is awesome.”

But it’s houses, not schools, that appear to enthuse her the most. For her thesis she studied three types of houses going back through generations in her family.

“My great-grandmother owned the house opposite St Mary’s Church and Moviezone in St James, so I studied that. I studied the house my grandmother lived in and brought my mother up in. And I also studied my house that I live in now (in Petit Valley). I did an analysis of the areas, the footprints and elevations of the buildings and did fenestration-ratio studies to see which one was the most efficient house, which used energy the best and was the most cost-effective. And of course it ended up being my great-grandmother’s house.”

She used the information she had researched to design plans for a house for her final university project, which “learns from the mistakes of the past.”

As well as learning from the past, she’s also preserving it. This was a privately undertaken project, funded by her father, (2014 national award-winner Dr Gordon Narayansingh). The house on Gallus Street was on its last legs when he bought it from a woman in her 50s who was born and lived there her whole life.

“The first time we visited the house it was midday and the family had come to congregate in the central room with a jug of juice on the table,” says Narayansingh. “My mom came with me and said to me, this is literally how life used to be when she was growing up.

“The previous owners are extremely happy. They drove past a few times taking pictures, and we invited them to the open-house event, where she was moved to tears. She said it was her mother’s dying wish that the house be sold to someone who could keep it up, if the family couldn’t keep it up themselves.”

Narayansingh explains why colonial-era houses deteriorate. Unlike elsewhere, T&T appears to be letting its homes collapse—places the rest of the world would give anything to have and preserve.

“In Trinidad we’ve reached the point where these houses all need attention because of the wood and the weathering and all the pollutants we have now in our society.

“I’ve been to other Caribbean countries on class trips, like Puerto Rico, which has a huge historic district and they care so much about their history.

“In Trinidad we never had to fight for our independence, our culture is not about fighting for any kind of history. We were handed our independence and things come easily to us, so we don’t put the time into caring for things because they don’t have so much historical significance. So buildings are being torn down because Trinidad is like a camp—all these houses are like camps, they go up and they come down.”

She saw beauty in this typical “gingerbread” vernacular-style house, where others just saw a slowly-collapsing building. She quotes Vitruvius, a Roman 1st-century BC architect whose three principles of architecture were: utility, durability and beauty.

“The roof and the floor were in really bad condition, so we started construction one time. It’s not a true restoration, in the sense that we didn’t get the exact wood that was there 100 years ago, but we preserved the footprint. There are no changes, it’s literally as it was when we got it.”

The work was done by Nicholas McGrath and his construction crew, who “felt the history” of the place and worked all hours from May until December. She too was on site day in, day out. She gives a ball-park figure of $1 to $2 million for a project like this.

“Purchasing a property here; the house itself is worth nothing, the value is in the piece of land. That’s why they’re so readily torn down.”

The Greyfriars situation, she says, has raised awareness, even if the media haven’t focused on it as hard as they should.

“It has made us question our laws and why it was so easy for someone to come and bulldoze that building. Sometimes it takes something drastic to happen to make us see.”

Young, educated professionals like Narayansingh are bringing hope that the past can be salvaged. And as one of her peers, historian Angelo Bissessarsingh, suggests, it’s people with the necessary funds and skills rather than the authorities who are taking the bull by the horns.

“In a short space of time, we have witnessed the restoration and rescue of three architectural treasures by private-sector entities,” Bissessarsingh told the Guardian. “The George Brown house, Globe Cinema and Boissiere House.”

(The George Brown House was saved from destruction and restored in the 1980s and has recently been restored again.)

“This is why the fate of Greyfriars is a heinous crime against heritage. It’s a burning slap to the cheek of national identity and a reminder of how fragile our heritage resources are and how susceptible to mercenary ideals if we do not move swiftly to protect what little is left.”

For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.tt/lifestyle/2014-12-11/healing-heritage-‘gingerbread’-house-restored

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