Already Grieving for an Imminent Loss

The Boissiere house a.k.a. The Gingerbread house front view taken from across the street. Click for more images from the NY Times article.

Within the first week of being in Trinidad, I was introduced to a prevalent issue surrounding the value of architectural heritage. While on a tour of Port of Spain, the Boissiere house was pointed out to my group and a few words were said about its current state of neglect. Those words stuck out to me so much that weeks later I expressed interest in expanding my knowledge on the subject. Almost immediately I was given a list of names to contact for further information. Conversely, I was more interested in capturing these decaying homes rather than talking about them because at the current rate of progress occurring in Trinidad, especially in Port of Spain, these buildings would disappear soon.

Only recently have I been involved in any discussions about the house that initially peeked my interest. After the bus tour and venturing out on my own photographic endeavors, I watched an interview with Colin Laird where he mentioned the importance of the Boissiere house for Trinidad and history. Next, I read blogs written by Nicholas Laughlin and others concerning the issues of the house. Eventually I was able to meet with Sean Leonard and Rudylynn Roberts, both architects, who also have strong opinions about the state of the house. I pulled a lot of information from these readings and interviews to get a good understanding of the significance of the house to the country and people. It is obvious that the controversy surrounding the house stems from the country’s lack of concern in preserving its past. About a year ago, the owners put the Boissiere house up for sale. Greta Elliot (maiden name Boissiere) inhabited the space, but a Scotsman named Edward Bowen imagined it into existence. He lived in Trinidad for quite sometime; therefore it is assumed that he was well acclimated with the climate. If you don’t want to assume, then take some time and analyze the house based on its architectural and structural details.

Honestly, I had no idea I was interested in architecture before coming to Trinidad. However, I attribute this newfound fascination to the ongoing debate concerning the value of architecture in Trinidad. Somehow it makes me feel like I am either experiencing something rare or I am involved in a discussion that will be important for future conversations. If in fact the house is bought and knocked down, I will feel sorrow for the loss Trinidad obliviously allowed, but I would also feel lucky to know that I was able to witness a magnificent building before it disappeared. However if the building does, by some miracle, get an investor who wants to renovate and put it to public use then I will be content knowing that I was aware and somewhat involved in the dispute regarding its status within Trinidadian society. If my children ever said, “Mom, I went to Trinidad for a semester and I saw the Gingerbread house” I will have a story to tell them.

Currently the house in question is stalled, locked up in political and social discrepancy preventing buyers from investing and keeping the bulldozers at bay. One of the people adamant about saving the house is Nicholas Laughlin, a blogger and editor of The Caribbean Review of Books, who has written and kept track of dialogues surrounding the topic. In his February 14th, 2008 article entitled, “Can We Save the Boissiere House,” he talked about the growing trend for destruction. He suggested that the community has waited around too long and should consider putting a stop to the eminent devastation. The Boissiere house should be the last straw, or at least the community should take a stand against this one since many others have already disappeared without much protest. But what stood out to me, and to Mr. Laughlin considering his lengthy response to the same comment, was the anonymous contributor who stated that they wished they could burn the place down themselves.

On the one hand, I could understand why people would associate the heritage of the house with only Greta and her family. However, the house is up for sale, it should not be considered solely the family’s property. Arguing that the building has no relevance to your personal history or Trinidad’s for that matter, suggests that you did not investigate deep enough into the subject. According to Colin Laird, an architect responsible for the National Library and various other restoration projects, the Boissiere house belongs to Trinidad just as much as it belongs to the owners. It is a precious piece of Trinidadian history and should be saved. In any other country it would have already been on the National Trust list because it is unique and tells something about the architecture from that age. If the family is willing to part with the house doesn’t mean that Trinidad should let it go just as easily. Initially I was also under the impression that these homes are not very representative of Trinidadian heritage, but as I have learned, the buildings contain intricate elements that need to be analyzed in order to interpret them. Which is similar to what Mr. Laughlin was saying is his reply to the anonymous commenter. A part of me wished that Mr. Laughlin had replied to another post suggesting an alternative use of the space.

Wrecking the house to make room for a health center may be a good idea. It could be more beneficial to Port of Spain than leaving a dilapidated house to cover over and eventually fall apart on it’s own. But why couldn’t the restored building house the health center? And if space becomes an issue, then you can still argue that the piece of land isn’t very large anyway. As for building vertically, then the new building would resemble the rest of the buildings that stick out as odd formations in Port of Spain. Is it so bad to have a modern business ran inside an old building? After all Mr. Boissiere ran his business from the study.

As the saying goes, there are always two sides to a story. Well, for this story there are about four sides. One concentrates on the family’s reasoning for putting the house up for sale and their ideas about the value of their property. The other story has to do with the potential buyers and their intentions. The third aspect incorporates the conservationists’ speaking out against the treatment of the house. Finally, but probably not last, the forth point of view revolves around the Trinidadian community. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been exposed to the third story the most, I have taken up a position resembling their ideas. Not to say that I don’t have my own opinion concerning conservation, but after some discussions I definitely changed my outlook. It is necessary to have historic buildings open to the public because people are always curious about the past.

To prove my point I’ll go on a little tangent, take for example dinosaur bones which have been found and analyzed to such an extent that archeologist are now able to produce computerized recreations of the earth during that time period. Without those bones, investigation into our past would have been a bit more difficult. Even though no one has any memory of living amongst dinosaurs, their presence still lives on in fossils so that curious humans can deduce stories. Similarly, the Boissiere house is like dinosaur bones in that it may be one of the greatest examples of Trinidad’s past and if the structure remains intact then specialized researchers can delve into the architecture to reveal something about the past. I would argue that it is in human nature to leave something for future generations, so what is being left for the future? Memory is such an important aspect of living and for the anonymous commenter who implied that it is better to leave things to memory, I would ask what happens when memory dies out with the storytellers? Once this house is gone, not even bones will remain; everything will be erased from memory and history. At the very least it will all die with Greta’s children. Saying that something has no meaning to you does not mean that it does not have a meaning to someone else: one mans trash is another mans treasure.

The interior front room of the Boissiere house also taken from the NY Times article

Not only does the exterior of the house say something about the family and about Trinidad, but so does the interior design and usage. Coming from an architect, Sean Leonard, I respect his opinions about the architectural value of the Boissiere house. It has some very unique aspects that you can’t really find anywhere else in Trinidad. You can tell that the people who lived there had money, more than likely they were plantation owners because that is what Trinidad was at the time when this house was built. More than likely The Gingerbread house was a vacation home for the family. However, I doubt that many people know about the house beyond its pretty structure. For one, it represents a past that many don’t want to relive, but Sean thinks that there is more to be said about the history separate from oppressive memories. Now is a good time to tell people about these features of the house, so that citizens can learn why it is necessary to be grateful for this building and others like it, which are disappearing fast.

Unbeknownst to Sean, he mentioned something that clearly had a deeper meaning than intended. Numerous times during the conversation he would call it The Gingerbread House as if to say that it is the official name of the house. This whole idea of a house having a name is also quite interesting because naming something infers that you are giving it meaning and presence. The fact that the house has been dubbed The Gingerbread House long before any talk of selling, buying or demolishing proves that it has already been accepted as an important feature in society. So why do people ignore this fact and let it sit in ruin?

We can assume money has a huge role in dictating the treatment of the house. Mrs. Elliot put the house up for sale approximately a year ago for 60 million TT because, we assume, she needs the money and because the house is hard to maintain. That price has since reduced to 23 million; clearly she knew that the house is worth a lot. As soon as one hole is fixed, ten more will surface and that can get stressful for a homeowner. It’s quite obvious that if anyone were to buy the house the easy way out would be to demolish it. Not many people are willing to buy the house, pay more than the asking price to restore and renovate it, then willingly give it back to the community, much less keep up with maintenance for the rest of the time they own the property. That is why it would make more sense for the government to buy the land, fix the house and reuse the area. Granted, as noted in the NY Times, some people have invested large sums of money in remodeling their old homes, but they are a few of a handful.

As for the government actually taking responsibility for the house, Mr. Leonard knows that a document was drafted roughly 15 years ago listing the various places that should be protected. Unfortunately, the National Trust has not come to a consensus, why? The February 26th article in The Express by Andre Bagoo provided one explanation: a “bureaucratic disagreement.” In addition, the government claims to have no money to invest in these types of projects. Never mind they just built a National Academy for Performing Arts for a large sum of money and currently building a theater for the Prime Minister in his backyard. For some reason Trinidad has the mentality that it is better to move forward with modern structures while leaving the past in the dust. In some ways it is disrespectful to our ancestors to disregard their communal efforts.

It’s a shame to see any of the unprotected historical buildings go, and if anyone was still alive who had a helping hand in creating one of the buildings lost to modernization, then I am sure that a part of them is hurt. To know you put so much effort into an activity and to see or hear it was wiped away in a matter of hours is traumatizing. In a way national pride, which was not something I associated with conservation, is damaged. Mr. Leonard introduced the idea to me by prefacing with the fact that Trinidad didn’t have to pay so much money for their football team to go to World Cup qualifying match. But they did and it helped to increase national pride because everyone was walking around sporting their flags and proudly supporting the 11 players on the field. In the same way, maintaining and keeping these houses would boost the pride of the laborers knowing that they/their ancestors were responsible for putting together such a great creation that is nationally known, respected and valued as a piece of Trinidadian heritage and culture.

On a deeper level, is it possible that the act of realizing some buildings need to be saved is indicative of modernization? The acknowledgement that there is a past and it is worth saving is something that developing societies can identify. So in addition to building structures that look more like they fit in a different city, Trinidad could demonstrate their intellectual tolerance by recognizing that the past is worth saving.

As a woman who already recognizes that the past is worth preserving, Rudylynn Roberts, architect renowned for restoration work and founding member of Citizens for Conservation, reminisced about a time when she triumphantly helped to push a part of Trinidad’s past further into the future. You should have seen her, her eyes lit up and a slight smile peeked through the inner turmoil constantly and unknowingly expressed on her face. But even though she is stressed about her work, Trinidad, the economy, the new building, the prime minister, she couldn’t help but to show a sliver of happiness as she rehashed the successful story of the George Brown House and birth of Citizens for Conservation.

Approximately 20 years ago, a house built and designed by George Brown in 1888 was in danger of being demolished. George Brown was an important architectural contributor to Trinidad beginning in 1883. He was responsible for fireproofing buildings, utilizing cast iron in functional manner and introduced fretwork. He is responsible for producing and influencing the unique buildings that are in danger or being torn down now. According to John Newel-Lewis, another architect and author of Ajoupa, “Port of Spain without George Brown? ...[would have looked] attractive but without class, without style and without panache,” which is why the house should be restored instead of demolished. So when Mrs. Roberts received the call from a friend who saw the bulldozers situated near the residence, she quickly responded. Immediately, Mrs. Roberts rallied as many people she could, approximately five, went down to the house locked arms and stopped the demolition. Within a day T-shirts were printed saying “Save the George Brown House”, a vigil was scheduled; radio announcements and flyers promoted the protest against destruction of the house and within two days the Prime Minister arrived on site. There were hundreds of people around the area all standing in support of keeping and preserving the house, hard to imagine since the same thing is happening now with a different house, but the reactions are not the same.

Rudylynn Roberts asserted that the Boissiere house is probably one of the best examples of Caribbean style architecture. What does that really mean? As I’ve discussed in Architectural Heritage with Rudylynn Roberts what makes a building distinctly Caribbean depend on two things. The fact that it was built to fit the climate of the country and the laborers were local. This house was undoubtedly constructed with the country’s climate in mind and almost every structural design has a function.

Noticeably, the house was built off of the ground, which is one of the most distinctive features of a Caribbean structure. Building a house on stilts allowed for privacy. As I’ve noticed, many Trinidadian homes are built rather close to the street and having the house raised from the ground gave a bit of privacy. Not only that, but air flowed under the house which helped to circulate cool breeze throughout the house. Lastly and most importantly, it kept the timber/floor dry to prevent rotting. This idea of building on stilts was taken from the adjoupa, Amerindian style of constructing homes. It is amazing to still see evidence of such a distant past in a relatively modern structure now almost irreversibly damaged.

As mentioned, Amerindians indirectly had some influence the design of the house, but so has other cultures/countries, thus giving it the rightful title of Creole. For instance the pagoda is a style taken from Chinese construction, who have also inspired the painted glass in the study. The architect was of Scottish decent and the fretwork and cast iron was imported from Scotland. Italian workers had a hand at painting the fresco inside the house. And the wrap-around porch was distinctively from the Spaniards/French. Functionally, the porch was essential for preventing direct sunlight from entering the front room. It became a cool place for families to sit and interact with the community; people would eat, people watch, play games, everything on their porch. Nowadays, everyone is locked indoors with air conditioning limiting socialization. All of these different styles could be found in other areas of the world, but here they are combined and implemented in a way that is specific and unique to the Caribbean.

Another structural technique used to build houses, which can also be found in The Gingerbread house lay within the wooden beams. Framing the house, these structural support beams were covered by a lime mortar and brick, incidentally ideal for the climate. Lime mortar allowed the stones/walls to breathe. It is more flexible and softer than Portland, cement that is often used in restoration, so when the ground moved the bricks could adjust easily. It is not advised that Portland cement be used to restore a building, although it is being used in some cases, because the cement is too rigid and could cause cracking in the walls over time. Also the lime mortar will allow moisture to escape via evaporation faster to keep the walls dry. Ironically, if Trinidad decided to go green (as suggested as reply post to Mr. Langhlin’s blog), the Boissiere house would probably be more environmentally friendly than the newer, more modern buildings.

boissiere house north gable by nicholaslaughlin.
Notice all of the opportunities for air to flow, even on the side of the house. See Nicholas Laughlin's photo collection of the Boissiere house.

As mentioned, Citizens for Conservation was created shortly after the George Brown uprising; the members vowed to help preserve as many buildings representative of Trinidad’s heritage. Unfortunately their efforts are futile. It seems as though their most successful project occurred some 20 years ago and now it’s not their fault that so many buildings are disappearing from the county. They have left a list of only 30 buildings (and trust me, there is a 10 page list out there) that the National Trust should consider protecting under law, but that list is seldom discussed. The new project for Citizens for Conservation has to do with tax breaks for the people who are living and restoring their own historically significant buildings. And even though the National Trust is not making much of an impact as yet, they are in the process of trying to gather money for the already inhabited homes in need of repair. When asked about the current state of the organization, Ms. Roberts mentioned that people are tired. There are rarely any new, young, energetic members willing to put up with the constant let down. Most of the members have been doing this for 20 years and Mrs. Roberts is one of the youngest.

A part of me thinks that if I had this conversation with Mrs. Roberts in September I would have been much more involved with Citizens for Conservation. So far, I have been a below-the-radar supporter of maintaining these nationally recognized, but locally ignored establishments. However, the few people I’ve interacted with have strongly voiced their Mr. Laughlin thinks the house is important to society, Mr. Laird sees it as a indispensable caricature of Trinidadian heritage, Mr. Leonard believes that it will further improve national pride and Mrs. Roberts simply wants to preserve the integrity of old Trinidad in a developing environment. Obviously, each person shared the same opinion: the Boissiere house should be saved. It surprises me that the value of this house is only understood or voiced by such a small group of people. Then again, a popular overseas newspaper (the NY Times) published an article, “A Painted Lady in Distress,” summarizing the discussion of architectural conservation in Trinidad, with a focus on the Boissiere house. The NY Times article should have been an advantage for the conservationists’ yet little has changed since the day the house was put for sale. In theory, now that a foreign paper is expressing the same thoughts as some of the locals, the country will take heed to the quiet pleas and find a way to invest and save this national treasure.


S. Clarke said...

I was advised to correct some misinformation in this post. I would like to clarify that most of what I wrote came from interviews, however I did not quote anyone. Instead I paraphrased a lot of the conversations. When I talked about the wealth of the people who lived in that house in paragraph nine, I was merely reiterating what Sean Leonard supposed about the family. However it has come to my attention that the family did not have an incredibly high social class.

"In 1904, when the Boissiere House was built, the Savannah was a fashionable address for wealthy Port of Spain citizens--this house was very much the main residence for the family, not a vacation home. What's interesting about the family is that they were what would then have been called coloured--i.e. mixed race, with roots among both the French Creole elite and formerly enslaved Africans or perhaps even free coloured migrants from one of the French islands. They were related to the wealthy French Creole Boissieres but with a different social status--i.e. they were a "minor" branch of the family--and not accepted as truly French Creole by the elite of the time. Building a house like this in a location like this would have been an assertion of status by the family, a way of claiming a presence in the social landscape, subtly defying the social and ethnic status quo..." --Nicholas Laughlin--

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