Saturday, February 16, 2008

More on the Boissiere House campaign

boissiere house roofline

Last I checked, there were 234 names on the online petition requesting government intervention to save the Boissiere House. If you haven't signed yet, please consider doing it now. It takes mere seconds.

On the main SBH page: links to Andre Bagoo's article in today's Newsday and very neat "Save the Boissiere House" badges, designed by Georgia Popplewell, which you can use on your website or blog. They look like this:

save boissiere house

So you've forwarded the website URL to your friends; signed the petition; what else can you do? There's a whole list of suggestions here. Getting media coverage is essential. If you have five minutes to spare, why not call the newsroom of one of the daily papers and ask them to run a story on the house, its architectural importance, and the danger it's in?

Trinidad Guardian: 868-623-8871
Trinidad Express: 868-623-1711
Newsday: 868-623-4929

Better yet, write a letter to the editor. You don't need paper or postage stamp. Just send an email to:

Trinidad Guardian:
Trinidad Express:
Newsday: online form at

It doesn't have to be a long epistle--the papers like short letters. Just include these key points:

1. the Boissiere House is an architectural treasure and a major landmark, one of just twenty-five buildings identified by the National Trust as worthy of protection
2. it is on the market and in serious danger of being bought by a developer who will demolish it
3. to avert this tragedy, you urge the government to acquire the house and preserve it, and to fast-track the approval of the National Heritage List, which will afford the house legal protection; also you urge the owners of the house to postpone the sale until this "listing" takes place

Most important of all, keep spreading the word that the house is in danger. That's the only way we can build up the critical mass of concerned people it will take to save the Boissiere House.
"We really reach where we have to go...."

An unarmed physicist gets thrown off a barge by three big black men. It’s the stuff of true independence, this. We really reach where we have to go.

Flipper gets slaughtered and many people have expressed concern, but when do we take responsibility for creating a burden on our resources with our growing demands and our ever increasing levels of waste?

I wonder about public servants who get paid to attend conferences where we sign endless international conventions only to result in unarmed physicists being thrown overboard.

Why did we sign the convention on wetlands? What is going on in our education system that is stopping our children who then become our adults from knowing that wetlands are sacred? What are we not doing to ensure that people have different notions of what sustainable economic and human development means?

-- Attillah Springer, in her column in today's Guardian. She sounds angry. Can we all please start getting angry too? Now is the time. The time is now.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Boissiere House update

If you're concerned about the possible demolition of 12 Queen's Park West, the Boissiere House, visit, which has just gone live--there you'll find information about this historic building, a list of things you can do to help save it, and an online petition. Please forward this link to anyone who may be interested.

Also check out this very informative post on Sharon Millar's blog, which explains Trinidad and Tobago's National Trust legislation and the long process of getting a building legally protected. The Boissiere House is on a list of twenty-five key buildings identified by the National Trust for the National Heritage List, but certain legal procedures must be fulfilled before the list is made official (and the house is legally protected). There are efforts underway to fast-track the listing of the Boissiere House, since it is under urgent threat. What can we do to put pressure on the Ministry of Culture to get this done?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Can we save the Boissiere House?

boissiere house front

Detail of the front facade of the Boissiere House at 12 Queen's Park West. Note the ornate fretwork of the main gable to the left, and the detailing, including painted glass windows, of the "Chinese pavilion" study to the right.

There are so many things to be anxious or angry about in this country these days--crime, corruption, smelters, steel mills, dolphin-slaughter, traffic--that the fate of an old house may seem trivial.

But 12 Queen's Park West, the Boissiere House, is not just an old house. It is a gorgeous example of the late Victorian gingerbread style that was once typical of Port of Spain. It is a major city landmark, familiar to tens--even hundreds--of thousands, and known to many simply as "the Gingerbread House". It is the ultimate creole house, part Amerindian ajoupa, part French chateau, part Chinese pagoda, built with the sweat and labour of forgotten ancestors. It is a national architectural treasure:

It is also, I am afraid, in peril.

Why? Because after remaining in the Boissiere family for 104 years, since it was built in 1904, it is now being offered for sale, at a price of TT$50 million. Any private buyer willing to pay that will almost certainly bulldoze it and build an office block or posh condominiums to recoup their investment.

We've seen this happen so many times before. Just in recent years we've lost the Lee House on St. Clair Avenue, Bagshot House in Maraval, the Union Club on Independence Square, Coblentz House in St. Ann's, and numerous smaller gingerbread houses all over the city. Just a couple months ago, the big orange Pierre house on the Roxy roundabout disappeared, after years of neglect. The Trestrail Building on Broadway, with its cool, understated Corinthian columns, was bulldozed to build another yet office tower.

The architect Edward Bowen designed the Boissiere House with its ornate fretwork -- described 25 years ago by John Newel Lewis as "the finest remaining example in Trinidad" -- its study in the form of a tiny Chinese pavilion, its painted glass windows, and its gesso-work ceilings. It is Bowen's masterpiece, and one of the dozen or so most important buildings in Port of Spain, in the same league as the Magnificant Seven, Knowsley, the Red House, the two cathedrals, and the Cabildo. Though the house and land on Queen's Park West are the property of a private owner, it is also, surely, after 104 years, part of our common heritage.

But with all those other things to be anxious or angry about, all the ills and inequalities of our society, is it really worth getting upset about losing the Boissiere House? I think it is. Because this is a line in the sand, a test of how mercenary and philistine we really have become. Contemporary Trinidad seems hell-bent on destroying everything we have that is beautiful and authentic, usually in the name of the dollar. We knock down gorgeous old buildings, erase their history and stories and memories, and build air-conditioned Miami-boxes. We pave our green open spaces. We drown true mas in floods of sequinned bikinis imported from China. The works of art in our National Museum are literally crumbling from neglect (when last did you go and look at them?). Most of our musicians can't get airplay (when last did you hear jointpop on the radio?). At some point will we say, enough is enough?

Could this be that point?

So what might we do? There seems to be only one realistic option: persuade our government that the Boissiere House is a crucial and irreplaceable part of our national heritage, that it must be bought by the state, restored, and put to appropriate public use.

$50 million is a lot of money. But we can afford to build skyscrapers--ugly ones--and prime ministerial palaces, and buy droning blimps, and build white elephant cricket stadiums, and our prime minister can afford to hire a crack team of private security agents. We have, frankly, more money than we know what to do with.

Can we afford to save this one, beautiful old house--just because it is beautiful, because it makes our increasingly ugly city a little easier to live in? Because it brings a moment of pleasure to everyone jogging round the Savannah or stuck in traffic on Queen's Park West? Because it represents our history, and our collective memory, and that is something no one can put a price on?

I am going to do all I can. Other concerned citizens are already working quietly to save the Boissiere House. I think it's time to stop being quiet. If you want to help, here are some simple, practical suggestions:

- Tell people the Boissiere House is in danger.
- Forward this blog post to everyone you know who might be concerned.
- If you have a blog, write your own post there, or link to this.
- Write a letter to the editor.
- If you work in the media, try to get your newspaper or station to run a story.
- If you own a camera, stop by 12 Queen's Park West, take some photos, post them online, or just forward them to friends. Here are mine.
- If you know someone in the Ministry of Culture, tell them you're concerned and ask them to speak to their superior about saving the Boissiere House.
- Call Town and Country and urge them not to give planning permission for a new building on this site.
- Call the National Trust and ask what you can do to help.
- If you know a politician of any party on any level, tell them you're concerned and ask them to talk to their party leadership.
- Read about the history of the house in Olga Mavrogordato's book Voices in the Street, or John Newel Lewis's book Ajoupa, and share this with others.
- Come to the event we're planning at Alice Yard next week Friday to discuss why this and other historic buildings are worth preserving.
- Email me (my address is in the sidebar to the right) and tell me you'd like to be on a mailing list to hear about further efforts. A website is on its way, also an online petition.
- If you know a member of the Boissiere family that owns the house, ask them to consider putting a no-demolition clause in the sale contract, or to negotiate with the government to arrive at a reasonable sale price that might make it easier to save the building.
- And if you are a multi-millionaire property developer, consider doing something truly enlightened: buy the house, pay to have it restored, put it to some use that will not damage its fabric.

Finally: ask yourself if you'd be willing to stand in the hot sun with a placard, if it comes to that.

boissiere house painted glass

Detail of the painted glass windows in the study of the Boissiere House.

boissiere house pagoda finial

The iron finial on the roof of the "Chinese pavilion".

Monday, February 11, 2008

And that was my Carnival

nicholas jouvert 2008 1

Soft-focus effect thanks to mud smeared on the lens of the not-so-cheap disposable camera.

This is me roughly a week ago--J'Ouvert morning, c. 5 a.m., probably still on Ariapita Avenue. The "band", such as it was, was called Industrialise Dis!--yes, we had a green theme, thanks to Attillah--about twenty of us, coming out of Alice Yard, in Cumuto mud and costumes made from recycled and discarded materials. My own quite dapper costume consisted of a vest and bow-tie made from old insulation foil, a pair of wings (wire, newspaper, black paint), and a placard reading "Make Love Not Aluminium". 3Canal let us infiltrate their band, Shine, and we jumped up with the Laventille Rhythm Section till the sun was well in the sky. Then I took a little dip at Macqueripe to wash off most of the mud and paint, and fell into my bed--where I dozed through the rest of Carnival.

jouvert abstract

Close-up of the mud and paint spatters on my J'Ouvert wings--it pretty, eh?