Wednesday 1 February 2012

The Red House

It was a hot night in the dry season of 1808. Mosquitoes seemed to be attacking the little town of Port of Spain by the millions, swarming out from the nearby swamplands. It was one of those nights when the noise from the streets was especially annoying. Tossing and turning in the bed, sweating; why isn't there the habitual cool breeze?
Suddenly, a piercing scream disrupts the uneasy slumber. Governor Thomas Hislop sits bolt upright in his soldier cot. The blanket slips to the floor. The scream, and the stinging smell that gets the adrenaline pumping instantly: smoke. Now, he hears the crackling. Yes, fire, and a big one at that.
The fire that had Governor Hislop startled from his sleep destroyed a large part of Port of Spain. The small town had grown tremendously in the last twenty years, since thousands of French immigrants and their African slaves flocked to the island to establish plantations and businesses here.
The prevalent building style of the city was wood and shingles, a bad choice of materials as this night of flames and smoke was to prove. Hislop had to deal with hundreds of homeless people from one day to the next. Valuable historical records from Spanish times were destroyed. To deal with the chaos and to prevent such a disaster in the future, Hislop's administration passed legislation with regard to building regulations, stipulating that the re-building of the destroyed parts of town and any other new construction had to be made with brick and stone.
A wise decision, which was put into action by Hislop himself and his successors Munro, Woodford, Grant, Hill, Gregor and McLeod. The latter, Sir Henry McLeod, laid on February 15, 1844 the foundation stone for a new government building on the west side of Brunswick Square (now Woodford Square). This was to be the first building on the site where the Red House now stands - let us call it the "first Red House", even though it was not then known by that name.
The architect of the first Red House was Richard Bridgens, known to us also by his drawing of Trinidadian people, i.e. Amerindians, the "Negro Figuranti" and scenes of Tobago. He was then appointed as the Superintendent of Public Works, a sector of the public administration that had been very busy since the 1810s and 1820s, when Governor Woodford did some major structural changes in the town.
The builders of that first Red House were G. de la Sauvagère and A. A. Pierre. The final building was somewhat smaller than the second (present-day) Red House. Somewhat artless, it was comprised of two blocks, connected by an archway through which coaches could pass from Abercromby Street into Prince Street (now Sackville Street). In those days, it was exclusively pedestrians, people on horseback, and carts and buggies that populated the streets, and a detour around the Red House would have been inconvenient for those muscle-powered means of transport. Also, in case of fire or public turmoil, the part of town behind the Red House had to be easily accessible for fire fighters or for the police.
The first Red House was opened in 1848 by then Governor Lord Harris, an enlightened man who contributed much to the development of the island, in particular to learning and education, founding a library and the first public school system that included Indian and black children in the countryside. The building was then not quite completed, but the inauguration ceremony in the Trinity Cathedral took place anyway.
Fifty years later, it was still not completed, for reasons unbeknownst to the author. Olga Mavrogordato in her book "Voices in the Street" quotes the Port of Spain Gazette of 1892:
"Nothing further had been done to complete the buildings since their erection some fifty years ago. The only attempt to relieve the monotony of the whole is to be seen in the arching of the carriageway through the courtyard which is a perfect skeleton and, like the ruins of Pompeii, is more suggestive of what the buildings must have been than of what they were intended to be."
The Director of Public Works in the 1890s, J.E. Tanner, apparently took those comments to heart, and together with the increasing need for a proper public records office, £15,000 was allotted over the next years to carry out extensions and alterations. The first Red House started to look a little more stately.
In 1897, the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria was celebrated all over the British Empire. Trinidad, too, spruced up, and the first Red House was painted red. This was when it got its name - not officially, but by Trinidadians, who henceforth referred to it by that name. The name stuck, and so did the red colour, at least up to the year 2001 when this article was written.
Five years later, on the 23rd March 1903, the first Red House was destroyed. Its windows were smashed by stones, the plaster of the walls damaged here and there by bullets, and then the whole thing went up in flames: an enraged mob vented its anger on the government's property. This incident is known today as the "Water Riots", since it started with the discussion of the increase of water rates by the Legislative Council, and ended with panic, death and destruction on the side of the protesters outside. The governor then was Sir A.C. Maloney. Again, for us interested in history, valuable records were destroyed, making it at times impossible to retrace the facts of times past.
In 1904, re-building began. It was a time of construction on the whole. Cocoa had brought a lot of cash into the economy, and the administration and some private individuals invested in beautiful buildings that are today Trinidad's heritage treasure: the Magnificent Seven were also erected in 1904.
The second Red House is the one we know today. Designed and built by German architect D.M. Hahn, who was Chief Draughtsman of Public Works, it cost an estimated sum of £47,485. It was much more splendid and elaborate than the first Red House, with beautiful gesso work in the Legislative Council Chamber (now the Parliament Chamber) and in the Justice Hall, which is depicted in its old, undecorated form in the first house on the cover of the Digest. The gessowork and the panels were in fact made in England, shipped to Trinidad in parts, and installed by Italian craftsmen who also worked in the halls of for example Whitehall.
The carriageway between the two wings of the Red House was closed by Hahn for vehicular traffic, but remained open to pedestrians, and had a beautiful fountain in the centre under the rotunda. The square opposite to it was renamed Woodford Square during World War I, when Germany and its city of Braunschweig (Brunswick) had become enemies of the British Empire and no major landmark was to be named for them. Similarly, Hanover Street (named for the German House of Hanover, whence Queen Victoria's husband hailed) became the extension of Abercromby Street.
Inspite of all these name changes, the Red House remained the Red House and is now officially referred to under this name.

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