Newsday was told that following Friday’s heavy showers, the roof and wall facing the Botanic Gardens, collapsed. No one was reported to have been injured and there was no confirmation, up to late last night, on whether or not President George Maxwell Richards was on the compound at the time of the incident.
In fact, what is amazing, is that there has been no official statement from the Government on what can aptly be described as a national shame and disgrace. For several months, President George Maxwell Richards and his wife, Dr Jean Ramjohn-Richards, have been living in a cottage near to their Official Residence.
Not too far away from President’s House is the posh Prime Minister’s Official Residence and Diplomatic Centre at La Fantasie.
When a Newsday crew visited President’s House yesterday, a guard on duty said that no one was at the residence and he could not make any statement on the collapsed top floor of the west wing. When asked if the President was at home, the guard said he could not divulge that information. There was no work crew on site to remove the rubble and not even a tarpaulin to cover the exposed top of the west wing and thus protect it from the elements.
That area of the President’s House which collapsed played host to several formal functions including the Independence Day Awards ceremony and was used up to last week when new United States Ambassador to TT, Beatrice Wilkinson Welters presented her credentials to President Richards at President’s House. On the ground floor below where the collapse took place is the visitor’s entrance to President’s House.
Newsday Feature writer, Anne Hilton, who recently toured President’s House, yesterday said she was not surprised on hearing of the collapse. She said that on her visit, five weeks ago, she saw that the parquet flooring was coming apart and was told by Comptroller of President’s Household, Lt Commander Cedrick Belafonte that she could not go to the upper floor because, “it is unsafe to do so”.
“I saw that the parquet flooring was coming apart and the surrounds of the doors there were holes that you could literally put your fingers through. I was not allowed to go upstairs because it was not safe for me to do so,” Hilton said.
“The whole thing is just falling apart. It has been neglected for so long and I am not surprised that the roof and walls have fallen in. Four to five weeks ago, I asked to speak to the Comptroller of the Household and he gave me an interview. While I was in the President’s House, just before he came in, I had to wait on him and that was when I noticed that the parquet flooring was coming apart.”
Speaking at a Congress of the People (COP) rally at Constantine Park in Macoya yesterday, United National Congress (UNC) chairman Jack Warner condemned Prime Minister Patrick Manning for constructing a multi-million dollar mansion for himself while the Head of State, President Richards, continues to live in a dilapidated structure.
“I asked myself how could a Prime Minister think about himself first and not the President?” Warner asked. The UNC chairman said he could not understand how the President could live in a broken down home while nearby Manning lives in splendor in a “palace”.
Newsday understands that the President’s secretary Hydria Hemnath visited the site yesterday along with the President’s aide-de-camp.
Former member of the National Trust, the statutory body which had been charged with monitoring the restoration of President’s House, Rudylynn Roberts yesterday described the collapse of the building as “a shame”.
“I am very upset because there have been plans for the restoration of this building all along,” she told Newsday. “The Ministry of Works had done all the working drawings for the restoration of that building. In fact it was in the process of taking out tenders when they stopped the work in 2006. That is such a shame.” Roberts, an executive of Citizens for Conservation, said Works and Transport Minister Colm Imbert stopped the project. “And now for us to go back in there, such a project would now be a reconstruction rather that a restoration. They will have to rebuild that part that’s collapsed,” she said.
Roberts lamented that there appears to be a widespread neglect of heritage buildings across the nation and warned that the roof of an architecturally important building mere blocks away from President’s House is also on the verge of collapse.
“You get to the point where you wonder if anybody is serious about restoration work because Mille Fleurs is also collapsing. The veranda work at the back is also collapsing,” she said of the building which was built in 1904 and forms a part of “The Magnificent Seven” heritage buildings surrounding the Queen’s Park Savannah. The building, first used as an official residence for the Anglican Bishop, is being restored by Udecott, a few metres away from the Queen’s Royal College (QRC) which was recently restored at a cost of $44 million.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the QRC on May 7, Works Minister Imbert assured that restoration work will start on other Magnificent Seven buildings, with the first one being Mille Fleurs, some time this year. “The President’s House will also be restored but that is an occupied building. Once we can resolve issues with respect to alternative accommodations we will be tackling that in 2010,” he said, then. At a press conference yesterday, Imbert did not address the issue of the collapse of President’s House, nor did any member of the Government. Roberts yesterday lamented that the failure of the State to implement legislation designed to protect heritage buildings has in part contributed to the state of President’s House.“If the building had been legally listed as the National Trust Act allows, then that could have been used by private citizens to pressure the government to do what it should be doing,” she said. “But currently, there no buildings that have been listed by law.”
Sources at President’s House yesterday disclosed that the building had been damaged by an earthquake in 2007.
“It was scheduled to be restored since ANR Robinson was the President back in 1997,” one source said. “I remember Sadiq Baksh was the Minister of Works. People came and looked at it. There was a big earthquake around 2007 an earthquake which affected the structure though.”
President’s House is famous for its distinctive architectural profile. The house was built in 1876, with a stonework facade made from blue limestone quarried from Laventille. The roof, parts of which have now been lost, was covered with Welsh Dutchess slate.
President’s House is situated on land that was once a part of the Peschier family’s Paradise Estate.
The building contains Italian-style arched doorways and loggias, as well as Victorian-style columns and railings.
Historically, the residence was used as the residence of the Governor of Trinidad and Tobago until 30th April 1958, when it became the residence of the Governor-General of the West Indies Federation. After Trinidad and Tobago attained independence on 31st August 1962, the building was used as a museum and Art Gallery for a time, before the house became the residence of the Governors-General once again. When Trinidad and Tobago became a republic in 1976, the Governor-General’s house was subsequently officially designated as the President’s House.
In 1938, the building was almost completely gutted by fire and re-planned and modernised internally.
Former President and the last Governor General Sir Ellis Clarke yesterday recalled his time at the building, which he said was clearly in need of renovations for some time.
“Everybody knows that it was in need of renovations,” he said. “It is undoubtedly a building of architectural importance. I certainly remember my time there. I was given the honor by my people and I have those recollections.”
“It’s extremely unfortunate that it was allowed to get into such a state before it collapsed,” said architect Geoffrey Mc Lean, executive member of Citizens for Conservation, said yesterday.
Efforts to reach officials of the Ministry of Works and Transport, Minister of Information Neil Parsanlal; Ag Comptroller of President’s Household, Chief Kurt Babb and President of the Joint Consultative Council of the Local Construction Industry, Winston Riley, for comment proved futile.