In a press release issued two days after a substantial section of the historic building, which had been assigned to controversial state enterprise Udecott for restoration since August 2007, collapsed. Imbert said the structure buckled in part because it had suffered “substantial” damage in a 2006 earthquake.
“A team of officials from the Ministry of Works and Transport visited President’s House ... and reported that the western upper section of President’s House has collapsed,” Imbert said in a faxed press release. “The team has also advised that the remaining portion of President’s House is structurally unsound and unsafe.”
“The Minister of Works and Transport has therefore advised his Excellency the President that President’s House be vacated with immediate effect in order to ensure the safety of the current occupiers of the building.”
As such no official state functions will be held inside the building which had been used for this purpose for decades. Richards does not live in the structure, but rather in a cottage on the grounds. However, official functions which he has normally hosted in the building will be moved out and will now have to be accommodated elsewhere. These include: swearing-in ceremonies for the next Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet, National Awards ceremonies, the swearing-in of judges and commission members, diplomatic events and other charitable events which Richards hosts on the compound.
“It is to be noted that only certain sections of the ground floor of the building were in continuous use, such as the sitting room, ballroom and dining room were used only on special occasions and the upper floor was not in use,” Imbert said.
“The primary cause of collapse had been determined to be a severe earthquake that occurred in 2006 and caused substantial structural damage to the building,” Imbert said. “It should be noted that the original building, which was completed in 1873, was built without any significant structural reinforcement or interlocking structural elements which has made it unable to withstand the stresses and strains induced by seismic forces, ground movement and differential settlement.”
Imbert’s release was at odds with statements from members of the architectural community and persons who had, for the last decade, held briefs to monitor the restoration of the building. Former member of the National Trust and current executive member of Citizens for Conservation Rudylynn De Four Roberts yesterday said the Ministry of Works and Transport had actually condemned the building almost ten years ago, even as presidential events continued to be hosted there. The National Trust has been charged with monitoring the stalled efforts to restore the building.
“The building was condemned by the Ministry of Works as structurally unsound almost ten years ago and the recommendation was that it should be vacated and restored,” Roberts said in a statement published on the website of Citizens for Conservation yesterday. “Numerous warnings were given by the ministry’s engineers and architects over the years regarding the safety of the building.
“Work drawings and specifications for restoration work were completed and ready for tender in 2006 when the project was halted by the Minister of Works,” she said. The discrepancies in her statement with Imbert’s raise questions over the practices of the ministry and of President’s House and will attract criticisms over the apparent failure of the State to enforce a condemnation order at the building that officially houses the highest office-holder of the land.
It also emerged that the restoration of the building had been a Udecott project since 2007 and remained so up to the swearing-in of the new Udecott chairman Jearlean John in March.
John yesterday said the project was a “priority” one at Udecott and revealed that she instructed Udecott staff to go into the building just two weeks ago with a view to stabilising the structure.
“Udecott has done an evaluation of President’s House,” she said. “When I came in, that was one of the buildings listed as a priority. Two weeks ago, I had sent in a team to look to stabilise the building and they had gotten to the point to go to tender. We are at the stage to go out to open tender.” She said a Udecott team visited the site yesterday and over the weekend, “to start some work with respect to stabilisation and to prevent further destabilisation.”
Asked then if, given the collapse, Udecott had failed to secure a project which it deemed a “priority”, John said, “The building is a very old building. There was an earthquake which further destabilised the building. I gave the instructions. The chief construction engineer, he would have gone in. He knew. When I went in it was given to me a as a priority project.” Her comments raise concerns over the competence of Udecott in relation to the handling of the restoration project.
Since August 2007, former Udecott executive chairman Calder Hart indicated that President’s House was being restored by Udecott.
“The President’s House...is now a condemned structure and Udecott has taken on the responsibility of restoring this particular facility,” Hart revealed in a press release issued on August 10, 2007 in the wake of a Newsday report that revealed that the National Awards ceremony for that year had been shifted to the adjoining $250 million Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre at La Fantasie.
Manning declined to say how soon repair works would begin at President’s House when questioned by Newsday as he left his San Fernando East constituency office, Coffee Street, San Fernando yesterday.
In his statement yesterday, Imbert said that a “specialist contractor” is to be engaged under “emergency procedures” which he will invoke to deal with repairing the building.
His statement did not make clear where the functions of the President will now be accommodated or whether Richards’ residence at the cottage on the grounds will be affected. The President uses a separate smaller building on the grounds as his office but it is not suitable for hosting function.
“The Minister of Works and Transport has instructed the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Works to invoke emergency procedures with a view to ensuring that a specialist restoration contractor is on site by this weekend, using the design-build approach to construction,” Imbert said.
“As soon as this specialist contractor is engaged, a decision will be taken in consultation with the contractor and local and international historical building restoration experts as to which sections of the building can be repaired and which sections require complete reconstruction. Reconstruction work will commence shortly thereafter and will continue until this historic building is completely rebuilt.” Imbert failed to make clear whether an open competitive tender will be held for the repair of the project, amidst concerns that the collapse of the building could be used as a pretext to hand-pick a contractor for work.
“The worst thing you could possibly do is have a design-build contractor on a job like this,” noted president of the local construction industry’s Joint Consultative Council (JCC) Winston Riley said. “It’s like signing a blank cheque for a building of this one’s importance. It should be open to tender. You need proper architectural input on this.”
He described the fact that the building was allowed to collapse as “ridiculous” and lamented that it indicates a culture of neglect of heritage sites. “What is important here is that this reveals generally how we treat our heritage. It is ridiculous. This was just one of the many properties that are supposed to be protected under the National Trust legislation,” he said.
It will not be the first time that a new Prime Minister will not be sworn in at President’s House. In 2007, Prime Minister Patrick Manning opted to have his swearing-in ceremony at Woodford Square, Port-of-Spain.