Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Boissière's House


Driving around the Savannah in Port of Spain is a unique experience in the West Indies, for preserved are, to a degree, a parade of splendid residences that in many ways reflect the multi-cultural nature of our society. One writer, Patrick lee Fermor, wrote in his book "The Traveller's Tree":
"The buildings around the Savannah at Trinidad are some of the most remarkable buildings in the world. The essential skeleton is the high-garbled, acute-angled gingerbread house of the witch in 'Handles and Gretel'. Bristling with pinnacles and weathercocks, spiked and filled along the coping. Georgian bow windows, roofed like Chinese pagodas. Pillars and porticoes from the Parthenon or Ankor buttresses, the fabric and the mosaic of Byzantium and from the steep roofs grow the spines of Hohenschwangau."
Fermor is almost incomprehensible - the words tumble from him. In comparing the mansions to the witchhouse in 'Hansel and Gretel', using words describing architecture from around the world, he really describes what the magic of these buildings have done to him!
Of these buildings, No. 12 Queen's Park West, the home of the Boissière family for almost 100 years, is of special interest. It is the only residence around the Savannah that is still lived in by the family who built it. John Newel Lewis, architect, remarks that it is a classic, Trinidadian building, not in a Greek or roman sense, but in its own league and norm of excellence. Comparing it with the other houses, Newel Lewis says in his book "Ajoupa":
"This dwelling is not a mansion. It is on a smaller scale and it is a simpler building, heavily embellished."
Commonly called the "Gingerbread House" by Port of Spainers, the house's main element is its steeply pitched roof, covered by green slate. A large dormer gable is most beautifully decorated with fretwork. The gallery projections are incredibly beautiful and include a whole Chinese pavilion. With this house, one feels that the fretwork has reached its ultimate. the wood is heavily undercut and exaggerated, so that there is an impression of lace work, resembling a woman swirling in a lacy dress.
#12 Queen's Park West was built in 1904 by the architect Edward Bowed, a personal friend of the owner Charles Edward Hamilton Boissière. C.E.H. Boissière was the eldest son of Eugene Boissière, a merchant of Port of Spain and a cocoa planter, a descendant of the Boissière family of Champs Elysées. Charles had built this home for his wife Alice, née Elegon, a gift that was presented to her on their return from a visit to England.
The ceilings in the drawing and dining rooms are of gesso work, done by the Italian craftsmen who did the ceilings in the Stollmeyer's house and in the Council Chamber of the Red House. The stained glass windows with their meandering strawberry vines in the little study with its Chinese roof filter the morning sun and cast a soft light into this cheerful room. The floor tiles in the study as well as the gallery were imported from England and the large single slab marble steps at the entrance come from Italy.
The whole effect is magical and nostalgic, with mysterious colours and a melancholy air. This house is an example of Trinidad's visual heritage as its best.
The houses that ring the Savannah are well built and sensibly engineered. They have weathered well, considering that they were built almost a century ago. It is important that these valuable examples of our heritage be maintained, so that our children's children too may marvel at them.

1 comment:

kaara s said...

This blog perfectly articulates the beauty of Trinidadian architecture. I agree with the blogger where he expresses that these works of art should be maintained. I will go further to say that more buildings should follow their path (with respect to construction).

Nowadays the majority of Trinidadians have abandoned their culture for that of the American or European standard. This is no less true in the case of architecture. Structures that are meant to keep Americans warm in the winter with heat trapping features are brought to our shores despite the impracticality. Persons constructing buildings should take some time to admire the gingerbread houses- their beauty coupled with climate practicality is astounding. For example, their high ceilings with vents dispel hot air efficiently while adding character to the house.

Why would persons want to conform to the American/European housing norm when the classic gingerbread houses can be adapted?