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The forgotten architectural gems of Trinidad

The forgotten architectural gems of Trinidad

Posted by Shanelle Weir on February 18, 2015

As carnival revellers throng the streets of Port of Spain this week, most will be oblivious to the beautiful old colonial houses along the route. But a tour of Trinidad’s architectural heritage offers a fascinating insight into the island’s history.

Roomor, one of Trinidad’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ houses that has stood the test of time.

 Roomor, one of Trinidad’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ mansions that has stood the test of time. All photographs: Micheal Bruce

As thousands of sweat-soaked carnival revellers dance their way through Port of Spain’s streets wearing little more than bikinis and feathers this Monday and Tuesday, some visitors may be forgiven for not noticing the backdrop to all the partying: the city’s remarkable architectural heritage. Come Ash Wednesday, however, the streets will be quiet and peripatetic travellers would be wise to walk off their sore heads with a fascinating tour with some of Trinidad’s heritage enthusiasts, listening to their stories of the fight to preserve the island’s built history.

The carnival parade route passes through the Queen’s Park Savannah, a huge grassy park framed by the lush Northern Range mountains and lined on one side by the “Magnificent Seven” – a group of colonial mansions on the corner of Queen’s Park Savannah, built in 1904. Some, such as the majestic Queen’s Royal College school and the fairytale-like Stollmeyer’s Castle, are freshly restored, while the once-resplendent Mille Fleurs is crumbling and its restoration is just beginning. Others, including Roomor, have somehow stood the test of time.

Queens Royal College, Trinidad

Queens Royal College.

Nearby, the Royal Victoria Institute – housing the national museum, art gallery and, until recently, the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago – is one of only a handful of listed buildings in the country. A long list of others waiting to receive protected status has taken more than 15 years to even begin to be processed. Meanwhile, tall, flashy, new glass and metal buildings are erected downtown in the financial district – conspicuous symbols of Trinidad’s oil-rich priorities.

“The mansions around the Savannah are often forced into European terms to describe the architectural styles but really they are all eclectic, each one trying to outdo the others,” says Rudylynn Roberts, an architect and president of Citizens For Conservation (CFC). “They don’t follow the rules. Instead, they borrow from various countries and styles and then adapt the whole to a tropical aesthetic and utility. Trinidadian architecture expresses our free spirit, multi-ethnic and cultural origins. Our desire to be different from our neighbours and our creative individuality.”

Her conservation group comprises architects and engineers; they persuaded the government to pass the National Trust Act in 1991 and put in place public awareness campaigns in an effort to list and protect the nation’s treasured sites. The sites include the Hindu Temple In The Sea to the south of Port of Spain and the Speyside waterwheel on a former sugar plantation on the sister island of Tobago, but it is the capital’s grand buildings and colonial-era gingerbread houses, in historic neighbourhoods such as Woodbrook, Belmont and St Clair, that are most interesting to foreign visitors.

The Gingerbread House, Trinidad

The Gingerbread House, now a pretty guesthouse.

One of these wooden, fret-worked houses has been renovated and is now a guesthouse: The Gingerbread House, close to the pretty Victorian-era Adam Smith Square, which is on the carnival parade route. It is run by Rosemary Mackay and her husband, Bernard, an architect whose firm is working on the repairs to theRed House (the seat of parliament, painted red for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897) and President’s House – two of the island’s finest official buildings but which are both in need of renovation.

To the back of The Gingerbread House are three double rooms (£45 a night) with air conditioning, Wi-Fi and a sun deck with plunge pool. To the front is a garden with fruit trees and bougainvillea where the Mackay’s terrier basks in the afternoon sunshine – and barks at passers-by.

Protecting Trinidad’s buildings is a struggle, as writer Judy Raymond explains: “Maintenance is not a word that you hear often here; far less restoration. Trinidad has always been about change and modernity. Islands such as Jamaica and Barbados have carefully preserved some of their estate great houses, like Rose Hall [on the former]. Barbados even has two Jacobean buildings. Trinidad’s grandest old buildings are a lot less ancient than that: they date not from the sugar era but when cocoa was king, at the start of the 20th century. But they’ve been left to fend for themselves.”

Shortly before independence from Britain in 1962, the country’s first prime minister, Eric Williams, famously declared “Massa day done” [the era of colonial masters is over]. The sentiment encouraged a nation to turn its back on its colonial past and look to the future; sadly, that included the buildings too, and conservationists have been fighting an uphill battle ever since.

Whitehall, modelled on a Venetian-style palazzo, is the T&T prime minister's residence.
Whitehall, modelled on a Venetian-style palazzo, was formerly the T&T prime minister’s residence.

Woodford Square is a beautiful fountained square in the centre of town bordered on all sides by eye-catching buildings such as the Red House (whose restoration has been delayed by the discovery of Amerindian burial remains during excavations), Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Old Public Library and the Old Fire Station – the latter formerly home to St Lucian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott’s Trinidad Theatre Workshop. The square has just been designated a heritage district by the government, following lobbying by Citizens for Conservation, which stepped in after an 18th-century church, Greyfriars, was demolished by a property developer in December 2014.

“The UK-born architect John Newel Lewis [in his book Ajoupa] described Port of Spain’s old houses as ‘Queens of the Bands’,” says Judy Raymond, “making a link between these ornate, one-of-a-kind mansions and the fanciful, elaborate confections that lead carnival bands.”

It’s a comparison that is poignantly apt, says Raymond, because after carnival the costumes that took weeks to make are simply thrown away: “That’s how most Trinis regard the buildings as well: they were wonderful in their own era but their day is done.”

The carnival parade route passes through the Queen’s Park Savannah, a huge grassy park framed by the lush Northern Range mountains and lined on one side by the “Magnificent Seven” – a group of colonial mansions on the corner of Queen’s Park Savannah, built in 1904. Some, such as the majestic Queen’s Royal College school and the fairytale-like Stollmeyer’s Castle, are freshly restored, while the once-resplendent Mille Fleurs is crumbling and its restoration is just beginning. Others, including Roomor, have somehow stood the test of time.

 

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