The making of Fort San Andres

Ten years ago, Dr Clare Broadbridge invited me to see the work in progress on the restoration of Fort San Andres. Failing the original photographs published with this piece, Newsday readers must imagine the ugly, bare concrete Ministry of Works’ staircase blocking the entrance to the Fort on the seaward side, and the excavation of the original sea wall.

It was Dr Broadbridge who insisted that those stairs be torn down and replaced with the graceful twin flights of steps we see today that made an ideal setting for the speeches at the opening of “The Story of Port-of Spain.” But that was not all. Imagine, then, a building painted a tasteful fawn-beige fronting South Quay and dusty pink facing the sea as you read what I wrote a decade ago. “Those who stop to stand and stare at the work in progress where the Beetham Highway meets Wrightson Road in Port-of-Spain will see what has been hidden for a hundred years or more. Exposed to public view for the first time this century, sea water once more laps against the stout walls of Fort San Andres, the historic gateway to Port-of-Spain. Until the Traffic Branch moved out of that venerable building, few people knew that it was once a fort. Two or three old canons and a low wall at the back of the building bore mute testimony to what it had been at one time.

Those who had business with the Traffic Branch might have noticed (as I did while awaiting an interview with the Assistant Commissioner, Traffic) the thick, semi-circular rubble walls, and wondered whether this was an historic site — and why it had been allowed to go to wrack and ruin. Others just hurried past the sagging chain-link fence enclosing a wilderness of weeds, a car park and the dilapidated old building. Today (April 1993), Fort San Andres is being restored. The restoration is supervised by the staff of the National Museum, the work carried out by the Ministry of Works (2003 note: hence the need to tear out the staircase and replace it — to the bewilderment of workers, with twin flights of steps). Under the museum staff’s direction, they have uncovered part of the massive sea wall enclosing what was originally a small offshore island fort when Trinidad was a Spanish colony. Inside the building, the foundations of the original blockhouse are being laid bare while the building itself is having a facelift. Gone are the makeshift galvanised sheds of toilets and showers for the police; with these removed, the pleasing proportions of the building are being revealed. Any historic tour of Port-of-Spain should begin at Fort San Andres.

Before the Spanish colonists settled here, native Arawak hunted in what was then swamp. The Spanish built the fort to defend their colony from marauding buccaneers and foreign powers. Here the slave ships landed their cargoes of misery. French planters fleeing the Revolution in Saint Domingue (Haiti) disembarked here. Ships, or lighters, full of immigrant indentured East Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, tied up alongside the mole built in 1770 by Don Jose Maria Chacon to connect the island fort to the mainland . . . The restored Fort San Andres will provide our National Museum with space for displays explaining the history of the Fort — and the Port; it will show the background of each immigrant group. A son et lumiere is planned as well as a craft workshop to employ local people. This is an exciting project to beautify that part of the city, to educate Trinidadians old and young, to attract tourists and to provide employment in the craft workshop (including on-the-spot sale of craft items).

The museum staff are hoping to train young people to act as guides to the city, to show local people, school parties and tourists our interesting city churches, point out the intricate ironwork on the Union Club and other buildings (2003 yes, I know Nicholas Towers is pretty impressive, in both senses of those words, but the Union Club was a lovely old building. Which reminds me, historians today surely are concerned about the fate of Harriman’s/McDonalds — one of the few original historic buildings still standing on what was Marine Square). Guides will also be pointing out the delicate tracery of our gingerbread houses — and of course the Magnificent Seven, those majestic buildings on Maraval Road facing the Queen’s Park Savannah. (2003 note: again one shudders to think what the Ministry of Works could be doing in Stollmeyer’s Castle behind the high galvanised fence fronting Wildflower Park. One prays they’re not demolishing that antique plunge bath).

The museum staff are hoping that Fort San Andres will be unveiled to public view in August (1993) and by year-end the son et lumiere and the craft workshop will be operational. Perhaps guides may be recruited and trained, ready for the next tourist season. That done, the museum staff intend focussing on Fort George, the burned-out police HQ on St Vincent Street . . . (2003 note, but the Police weren’t having that — unfortunately, for what one sees there today.) The Ministry of Works and LID (2003 note — was that what CEPEP was in ’93? It would explain the mistake of the staircase) have given the necessary labour for the work, Canada has provided voluntary service consultant experts in restoration, the EEC (European Economic Commission) has promised all the equipment needed for the son et lumiere and multi-media display. Local architects are donating their services to the project. Money and materials are problems that Republic Bank is hoping to solve. The bank will double any contribution made by covenant — or otherwise — by business, big or small in the private sector, and by individuals who give as little as a dollar to Friends of the Museum . . .”
Next week — Where is “Encounter with Worlds?”


"The making of Fort San Andres"

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