GUYANA: Saving the Georgetown City Hall Building – commentary

City Hall . Georgetown. Guyana


It is entirely possible that there is a point to the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) once again deeming City Hall hazardous, but it is certainly very murky. For one thing, the heritage building is over 130 years old. Not that there is anything wrong with that per se, there are older buildings in this country and around the world that are not only still standing, but are in superlative condition. Sadly, that is not something anyone can say about City Hall. For another, while its faulty electrical wiring is definitely a fire hazard, this finding had already been made by the GFS so why is there need for repetition?

Here’s the thing, City Hall’s overall deterioration is very well known by those who occupy it, those who pass by it, and the powers that be. However, over the years, it has seen only very basic, stop-gap repairs that have likely done little but prevent it from collapsing.       
The GFS had previously inspected the building and declared it a fire hazard, most recently in 2015 just prior to Nomination Day leading up to the general elections in May that year.

Mr Marlon Gentle, who was the fire chief at the time, had warned that there should be no mass gatherings at City Hall. He had cited 18 major issues of concern that were revealed during the inspection. They included, but were not limited to, loose and hanging electrical wires and a wiring system which had not been upgraded in over a century, a fire escape that was out of order, a leaking roof and severely deteriorated sections of flooring and support beams. The then fire chief was no doubt concerned over the fact that traditionally, political parties presenting their lists did so amidst a throng of supporters.

Mr Gentle’s advice, as everyone is well aware, was disregarded. No less a personage than Attorney-at-law Raphael Trotman, then co-chair of the APNU+AFC campaign, had told the media that while “all Guyanese are concerned about the overall state of City Hall,” and his party had “noted” Mr Gentle’s concerns, he was sure the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) would “do nothing to endanger any life and limb as it fulfils its mandate”. The ludicrousness of Mr Trotman placing assurances from Gecom (if that was indeed the case) above warnings from a trained fire chief will never grow old.

Nevertheless, the crowds were not allowed in and the building held up. It is worth noting here that there was a change in venue for Nomination Day for the 2020 general elections. Despite Mr. Trotman’s stated concern over the state of City Hall in 2015, no finances were directly budgeted by his party after it won the election to attempt to address any of the issues.

Instead, in 2017, the European Union (EU) funded a study for a Comprehensive Restoration and Sustainable Conservation Management Plan that cost €79,196 ($64 million).

In 2018 a workshop was held in May, where the National Trust of Guyana, British Conservation Architect Francis Maude and British Conservation Engineer Ed Morton engaged stakeholders on what needed to be done to save not just City Hall, but also the City Engineer’s building which is of similar historic value.

It was not until seven days before the shocking no-confidence motion against it at the end of that same year that the APNU+AFC government announced plans to spend $75 million on an administrative building that was to be constructed in 2019. The proposal was that the offices housed in City Hall would be moved there to allow for what then communities minister Ronald Bulkan had said would be phased restoration of the building.

It is now 2021 and that administrative building is still to be completed. Last month, the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development handed over a $30 million cheque to the Mayor and City Council (M&CC) towards its completion. It was not stated whether the $75 million previously allocated had already been received and spent. Is the $30 million part of that original allocation or additional funds? At the handing over of the cheque it was also reported that the M&CC was spending an additional $50 million on the building. Though where it will get that sum of money from is anyone’s guess. The end of this year has now been given as the completion date for this project.

One expects then that sometime in 2022, City Hall’s restoration will begin with the $100 million pledged by the current government and announced by Minister of Local Government Nigel Dharamlall early this year. But no one should wait until then to exhale. Lest we forget, this same PPP/C, while in government in April 2014 had pledged $200 million for restoration of the City Hall that was never forthcoming.

For reasons that remain elusive, successive governments have been content to either do the bare minimum or nothing at all while moving at a snail’s pace with regard to the deterioration of City Hall. Instead, there is a lot of finger pointing and politicking over responsibility and accountability, when it is pellucid that the National Trust of Guyana, does not have the requisite funds.

It has been said that one of the ways to take the measure of a country is to listen to the heartbeat of its cities. There is no doubt that the pulse of a city speaks to its survival and that of its cultural heritage. The disregard for Georgetown’s built heritage has surely led to clogged arteries and a weakened pulse. But perhaps recovery is in sight. One can only hope.

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  • brandli62  On 06/13/2021 at 12:17 pm

    Georgetown’s City Hall Building is an architectural jewel and preserving it for future generations is a national duty. The Guyanese tourist industry should spearhead the efforts to renovated this historical landmark.

  • wally n  On 06/13/2021 at 12:29 pm

    This is one of the glaring omissions by Guyanese. Many Caribbean islands and other Hispanic tourists areas highlight their historical buildings and birthplaces of their residents with international fame. Surprisingly popular. I agree.

  • brandli62  On 06/13/2021 at 12:43 pm

    I am dreaming of a fully restored Georgetown city center, which includes historic government buildings, private homes, and tree-lined streets. This would qualify Georgetown as a UNESCO World Heritage site!

    And just imaging how many jobs such a restoration project would generate for young Guyanese! A win-win situation!

  • wally n  On 06/13/2021 at 1:14 pm

    “They” better get on this quickly, even w/o the UNESCO. Georgetown is being replaced with “Chinese Boxes” one look at any Guyanese Video, you will not be able to recognize much of the past. I remember when we were #1…so sad.

  • JoE  On 06/13/2021 at 7:13 pm

    Brandi: Dream on. I’ve given up. Those who were middle class and privileged appreciate what we had. Those who came to tear down the symbols of such “privilege”, themselves having lived only to serve the former, had more pressing issues like “making a quick buck” as the Min. of Labour opined was the concern of the youth, and no time for the finer points of our civic heritage. The addition of oil money doesn’t shift the equation one iota. Those who valued the beauty of our surroundings, could afford to leave and did. The culture and management of city maintenance has disappeared. The ensuring years of hand to mouth existence left no time for the finer points of life. Where there is some restoration, we can count that situation fortunate. From what I can see..the statements are made in concrete and garish colours…and with the country set to shift in different directions from migrants from far and wide, the old will disappear. So be it. All my and our wishful thinking will avail nothing because the Government really doesn’t care to hear from us. I wish someone could tell me otherwise.

  • brandli62  On 06/14/2021 at 4:03 am

    JoE, I understand from where you are coming from. My hope rests with people back in Guyana that run the Moray House Trust. This organisation is run by amazing people that a dedicated to preserve the history and architecture of Guyana. Thanks to Cyril Bryant of Guyanese Online, we get informed about their highly interesting events such this recent one:

    As long as there are knowledgable people back in Georgetown, we should help and support their efforts to preserve and restore the historic center of Georgetown. I also believe that there are people in government, who understand that by doing so you raise the pride of Guyanese for their country and history.

    Let’s be optimistic!

  • wally n  On 06/14/2021 at 11:50 am

    Looks like the age old question what is the value of “Art and Culture” In countries where their culture is maintained, it is usually because it is used and honored in schools, all media…
    Maintaining the continuation is a responsibility of every younger generation, which today means fighting against rich powerful companies and countries, the ones controlling International Media. Looking around it would seem an impossible task, especially when the few working so hard to maintain the Culture are branded as Elites.

  • JoE  On 06/15/2021 at 12:25 pm

    Brandli62: Moray Trust is a beacon for us and those at home who listen to its presentations. But as far as I know..some of the people involved don’t live in Guyana. In particular, McWatt’s work is truly a dedication of love. He visits but doesn’t live there. There’s also Alysson Stoll who I think is now in the US. (I stand to be corrected.) As far as I’m aware, the mother lode of information is there…but here’s the rub…there is no direct influence on any Min. of Govt. from the PM down to give a hoot one way or another. Bulkan, the last Municipal Affairs Min. was almost invisible in his portfolio. The City Hall office holders are a waste of time. Those are the facts on the ground. However, at least McWatt’s work should stand the test of time. For that I’m grateful.

  • brandli62  On 06/15/2021 at 3:06 pm

    JoE, many thanks for you insightful comments about Moray House Trust. Unfortunately, I cannot provide any answers to your questions about Moray House Trust. I am just impressed with their work and documentaries of Guyanese history and heritage. I hope they continue with their work.

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