For more than 120 years the Georgetown City Hall has been standing tall in the heart of the city. It has been hailed as an architectural masterpiece and a historical treasure. Yet as each year passes, the building falls further and further into disrepair with little or nothing done to halt the decline.
Up until 1837, the management of Georgetown was undertaken by a body called the Board of Police. In March that year, an ordinance was handed down that ceded control of the City’s management to a Town Council and the newly established office of Mayor of Georgetown.
Over the next few decades, several councils attempted to have a town hall built, but for numerous reasons both financial and political, they were unsuccessful.
Eventually in November 1887, the sitting Town Council and Mayor resolved to try again. They placed advertisements in the newspapers for designs, acquired the land and secured a loan from the government.
In March of the following year a committee that had been specially selected to review the specifications of the town hall with the assistance of Messrs. J. A. Conyers, a councillor, and the renowned architect, Cesar Castellani reviewed the submitted designs and chose one titled ‘Damus Petimus Que Viccissim’ (the then motto of British Guiana) which had been submitted by the Jesuit Priest Reverend Ignatius Scoles S.J., a trained architect in his own right.
Not only was his design chosen but Reverend Scoles was tasked with preparing the working drawings and specifications for the Sprostons and Son Company to begin construction.
In December 1887, more than 50 years after the Town Council and Mayor’s office came into being, the Governor of the colony, Sir Henry Turner Irving laid the foundation stone of the Georgetown City Hall at the head of Regent Street.
The stone was laid at the northeastern corner of the main building along with a glass jar containing the original documents of the building, several coins, copies of the Royal Gazette, the Argosy and the Daily Chronicle and a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
The construction began in earnest thereafter and was overseen by Reverend Scoles and the Town Superintendent, Luke M. Hill. A year and a half later construction was completed and the building was commissioned. The new City Hall was declared open on July 1, 1889 by Governor Viscount Gormanston.
According to one report, the Invitation Committee, consisting of Messrs. Belgrave and Culpeper, issued some 400 invitations. Despite a continuous downpour, the line of carriages belonging to the guests was described in a report of the Argosy as being ‘one of the longest ever seen in the colony on any occasion.
The building itself is made of timber with the exception of the tile roofs, and cast/wrought iron detailing. The National Trust quotes its architectural style as ‘fancy dress Gothic Revival architecture’ which was quite popular at that period in the British Empire.
It is a rectangular building of three floors with the main entrance at the center of the western façade. Two large double doors lead to a wide mahogany staircase that mounts to the first floor and splits into two more stair cases that run up to the third level where the magnificent concert hall takes up the entire third level.
The hammer-beam roof was one used in numerous churches and older gathering halls of that day. It is featured in Westminster Hall in England and allows for the use of timber to create a strong roof structure that is of a larger span than the individual timber members.
But the climb doesn’t stop there, if one continues up several steep staircases into the very pinnacle of the square tower that caps the entrance hall, the views of the city are nothing short of breathtaking.
Unfortunately, the intricately carved metalwork on the building is falling off in some places such as on the northern face of the tower, and in others is covered in growths that will eventually eat into the metal causing it to weaken and rust.
In other places the detailed carvings are already beginning to show signs of rusting and decay. The detailing on these pieces is intricate enough to include texture lines on the petals of the individual flowers and speaks of artistry in metalwork that is no longer seen in this country.
The wood of the building is rotting and falling apart in several places and the once magnificent mahogany staircases are missing several of the carved spindles that sit between staircase and rail.
The Mayor has been working to raise funding for the restoration of the building but he notes that in their current cash strapped position all they can do is repair those deficiencies such as leaks which could accelerate the damage.
Meanwhile, the director of the National Trust, Dr. James Rose, notes that the official estimates to restore City Hall run to some $400M. He has said on previous occasions that the Mayor’s efforts to raise those funds locally are impractical.
City Hall has been placed on a tentative list of landmarks in Guyana submitted to UNESCO for declaration as World Heritage Sites. According to Dr. Rose, if these sites are declared as such then it becomes much easier for Guyana to seek international funding to have them restored to their original conditions.
He noted, however, that it will be another matter to see if the funds will actually be used as prescribed after they have been secured, highlighting the case of a Chess Hall on Main Street that suffered this indignity years ago.
His recommendation is that the Mayor and Council put together a representative body that will be charged with the task of restoring City Hall to its former glory; a committee of persons committed to the idea of saving a piece of Guyanese history.
Whatever the case may be, something needs to be done urgently to prevent City Hall from falling apart completely.
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