Guyana's Capital, Tropical Victorian
By TUNKU VARADARAJAN
The city of Georgetown
has remarkable colonial buildings;
unfortunately, many of them are falling apart
woman, a noted painter, shifted restlessly in her
chair as I spoke. We were by the swimming pool at the Meridien
Pegasus Hotel in Georgetown, a concrete building from the late 1960's,
sipping tall, iced rum punches. I had spent the day looking at some of the
city's colonial architecture -- seductive, sensitive wooden structures from
an age when the British were overlords -- and was anguished by the state
of slovenly disrepair into which many had fallen. It wasn't merely a
question of peeling paint, overgrown gardens, broken windows and
scarred facades. It was a question, I quickly realized, of the very survival
of an architectural genre.
Was no one interested,
I asked, in ensuring that Georgetown -- the
capital of Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America,
home to some of the most exuberant Victorian architecture in tropical
and subtropical climes -- rescue its built heritage?
Her answer, and
its vehemence, depressed me. She said, "For us to be
preoccupied with colonial architecture is a kind of manifestation of
self-hatred. It's like saying that we are not worth anything." The "we,"
clearly, were the postcolonial Guyanese, the inheritors of a legacy that my
proud interlocutor regarded as poisoned.
But it was a
legacy I'd admired, unabashedly, for several days last June
-- mostly in the company of Guyanese architects, historians and poets
who were not inclined to hostility toward the remnants of their colonial
past. Georgetown is a jaunty city, with a mere 200,000 inhabitants. Built
on a grid plan, it bears on its face the marks and make-up of the Dutch,
who first conceived of the place, and the British, who gave the city its
final form, as well as most of its architecture. To its west sprawls the
Demerara River, grandly slothful, the color of turbid chocolate. To the
city's north lies the Atlantic, a turbulent gray-brown, kept out of low-lying
Georgetown, for the moment, by a crumbling seawall.
domineering bodies of water give the city a honeyed
mustiness, as well as a breeze that tempers the sapping humidity.
central avenues are wide, airy and tree-lined, and the use
of urban space was once so orderly and restrained that the city was
known as "the garden city of the West Indies." Today, the more
prosperous residents dismiss the place -- in my view quite wrongly -- as
the "ugly city of the West Indies."
is in South America, its history has determined that it is
a part of the same cultural and geopolitical family as Trinidad, Barbados,
Jamaica and the other English-speaking, cricket-playing Caribbean
islands. In contrast to these islands, however, the tourism industry is
undeveloped in Guyana, and the country's economy is almost entirely
reliant on sugar, rice, timber and gold, primary products that keep
chronic joblessness at bay, but do not make the population rich.
The city of Georgetown
is not ugly. It is haggard. And it is hovering on a
vulgar cusp, the other side of which lies a great civic shambles. But a
traveler today can still enjoy streetscapes of great grace -- broad
avenues lined with samaan trees, which stand tall against white-painted
wooden houses built in the colonial subtropical style. There is a profusion
of architectural styles in the city, ranging from Gothic to semi-Tudor,
Romanesque to Italian Renaissance, and the remarkable feature of the
buildings is that they are virtually all made of wood.
The wood used
by the British was a mixture of hardy local greenheart
and pine imported from North America, which came as ballast in the
ships that stocked up here with prized Demerara sugar. And the colony's
prosperity attracted a number of enterprising architects, none more so
than Cesar Castellani. The finest surviving building that bears his stamp is
the largely wooden Church of the Sacred Heart, which opened in 1861,
for the colony's Madeiran laborers and which Castellani later expanded.
The British were
inclined to build with wood, which was plentiful, and
which sat more lightly in the lushness of Guyana's green than brick or
stone. The last two materials would have had to be imported at vast
expense from either Europe or North America. Besides, the use of wood
nourished the Victorian conceit that the British were a people more adept
than any other at taming their surroundings, however far from home those
When Sir Arthur
Blomfield, the London architect entrusted with designing
Georgetown's Anglican cathedral, expressed a desire to render his work
in stone, he was told firmly by the local colonial authorities that he had to
use timber. Blomfield buckled down to his orders and conceived a
cathedral -- St. George's -- that is reputed to be, at 143 feet, one of the
tallest wooden buildings in the world. Constructed mainly of greenheart,
the cathedral is an improbably Gothic edifice in a tropical city. Pointed
arches, flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings, traceried windows -- it has
them all, as well as impressive expanses of the Elizabethan "black and
white" stripelike effect, achieved with paint on the walls.
After the artist's poolside diatribe, I went back again to St. George's.
Belying her theme
of "self-hatred," the wooden cathedral did not mock
Georgetown. Instead, it cut the sort of sorry figure that a once-proud
patriarch might do after his children have left the family estate and things
have gone to seed. Dedicated in 1894, it is still a stunning building, and
looks especially so to modern eyes.
Writing in the Argosy in 1903, James Rodway, an
outstanding chronicler of Georgetown's history, had directed these snippy
words at the cathedral: "It is generally admitted that this is ugly, and it is
certainly not water-proof, although we believe the foundations are good."
Rodway was correct,
alas, about the cathedral's permeability. As the
Rev. Derek Goodrich, a former dean of the church, observed in "A Short
History of St. George's," Blomfield, the architect, never visited British
Guiana (as it then was): "If he had experienced tropical rain, it is doubtful
whether he would have created so many gullies in the roof structure, the
cause of many problems." When I wandered into St. George's, I found
the present dean, the Rev. Oswald Trellis, standing lost in thought by the
wondrous wrought-iron chancel screen, which local guidebooks describe
quite accurately as "intricate as old lace."
A stoical man,
Mr. Trellis shrugged his shoulders and spoke of "a battle
against the elements" made unwinnable by a chronic shortage of money:
"The east wall needs repairing on a war footing. We need about G$2
million [U.S. $11,000], or we could be facing an architectural calamity.
All the bad weather comes from the east. Between 7 a.m. and 12 noon,
the sun just steams down on that side. When the rains come, they lash
that side too. Water seeps in and gets between layers of wood. We have
two carpenters working there all day, every day, Monday to Friday."
It was 11 a.m.
I went outside to look at the carpenters. They weren't
there. I returned at 11:30. They were still not there. It's no wonder that
Mr. Trellis fights a losing battle. Decline is not so much palpable in this
city as irrefutable.
In part, that
is because the country has no money for its old buildings.
Albert Rodrigues, Georgetown's pre-eminent architect, told me there are
15 public buildings in Georgetown, including St. George's, that are in
"profoundly critical" need of restoration.
One of these
is the Walter Roth Museum, a winsome wooden building --
formerly a grand residence -- that now houses a desultory
anthropological collection. Constructed around 1890, it is sometimes
attributed to John Bradshaw Sharples, the foremost exponent of the local
colonial style. Its distinctive features include the striking "Demerara
windows," with their louvered shutters, as well as sloping slate roofs.
examples of this style of building are, perhaps,
Austin House, the home of the country's Anglican Bishop, and Cara
Lodge, now a hotel. The former is not open to the public, although it can
be admired satisfactorily from the outside; the latter is open to anyone
who can pay for a room, or a drink at the ground-floor bar.
buildings in need of restoration include the Stabroek Market
and, perhaps most urgently, St. Andrew's Kirk.
1818, the Kirk is said to be the oldest extant Presbyterian
church in South America. Writing in the Guyana Review recently, Lennox
Hernandez, senior lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the
University of Guyana, described the Kirk as "a typical small community
19th-century Gothic Revival-style church, but in wood." I visited the
building with Mr. Hernandez, the principal researcher at his university's
Center for Architectural Heritage Research and Documentation, launched
with Unesco funds. He wasted no time in pointing out that the magnificent
stained glass window by the altar, depicting the Ascension, was slipping
perceptibly out of its molding.
"It could come
crashing down at any time," he clucked, shaking his head.
"Perhaps even before we leave the church." Everything in St. Andrew's is
falling apart: the roof leaks, the walls are wilting, the American-pine floor
is splintered, the barrel vault ceiling is chipped and discolored, and the
greenheart columns look shaky. Yet the church retains its serenity, due in
part to the dark-stained wood of its interior walls.
A visitor to
St. Andrew's should not miss the balcony, where the city's
African slaves -- who were admitted to the congregation in 1819 -- took
their place during service. The slaves could only have heard the Mass,
not witnessed it, as a high wall was built on the balcony to prevent them
from looking down. According to chronicles of the time, "it was not
thought fitting that the slavemasters should be seen on their knees or
bowing their heads, even before their God."
Not far from
the mansuetude of St. Andrew's lies the bureaucratic
bastion of City Hall, a building completed in 1889 that Hernandez
describes as "Danube Gothic" in timber, largely due to its stylized tower,
with wrought-iron crenellations at the very apex. The building is open to
the public, and the once-handsome concert hall, on the third floor, is a
curious sight to behold. It is now the temporary home of the Department
of Environment and Health, whose own building was pulled down
recently after being adjudged unsafe.
The most eye-catching
place in Georgetown, and my own runaway
favorite, is the Stabroek Market, which encapsulates not just the genius
of the Victorian architects and town planners, but also the energy of the
city's present-day inhabitants. The market covers an area of about
80,000 square feet, and is dominated by a broad, dashing clock-tower.
Here, to borrow some lines from David Jackman, a Trinidadian poet:
It have people
sellin' pin, needle, thread, knife, scissors, comb,
toothbrush, toothpaste, copybook, sugar-cake, fudge . . . jersey,
clothes hanger, shoe- brush, bottle-brush, hair-brush all kinda
brush, They have oyster vendor, corn vendor, sno-cone, hairnet
vendor, drawers vendor, papers vendor and it even have people-
vendor call pimp . . .
The clock on
the tower does not tell the right time. It is broken, and has
been for some years now. There's no money, I was told, to put it right.
Lodging, dining, looking
Where to Stay
Visitors to Georgetown
are not spoiled for choice in the hotel
14-room Cara Lodge, 294 Quamina Street, (592)
2-55301, fax (592) 2-55310, is a crisply restored colonial
house-turned-inn that dates back to the 1840's. The wooden building is
an archetype of the local colonial style, and the $88 double rooms are a
delightful bargain. The two suites are $145. Book early.
alternative is Le Meridien Pegasus, Seawall Road, (592)
2-52856, fax (592) 2-53703, which is convenient and comfortable, with
132 rooms; the swimming pool is a definite plus in Georgetown's heat. A
standard double room is $123.
When to Go
temperature is almost unvarying throughout the year,
ranging from a low of 68 to a high of 93. The cooling sea breeze,
however, is God's gift to the city. The wettest months are May, June,
December and January. The rains, then, can be torrential, resulting in
seriously waterlogged streets.
Where to Eat
The Cara Lodge
is home to Georgetown's finest eating place, The
Bottle Restaurant, 294 Quamina Street, (592) 2-55301, where the
menu includes everything from very respectable steaks to fresh local fish,
curried chicken and a lively guava cheesecake. A meal for two costs
about $50 with drinks. Dinner nightly, but on Sundays the restaurant is
open only to hotel guests.
Since half of
Guyana's population is of East Indian origin -- the
descendants of indentured laborers brought by the British to work the
plantations in the last century -- the city has an abundance of curry.
Food, 5 Commerce Street, (592) 2-61844, is the best
Indian restaurant in town. Don't be put off by its charmless appearance
or scruffy location. A mouthwatering meal for two should cost less than
$10. Hack's opens from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for breakfast and lunch
(take-out dinners are available). No alcohol is served. Closed Sundays.
The locals have
a notable obsession with Chinese food, and the most
popular place in which to wield chopsticks is the New Thriving
Chinese Restaurant, 37 Main Street, (592) 2-65492. The food is not
exceptional, but it is fresh and wholesome, which is more than can be
said for the fare served by most of the city's Chinese-run "beer gardens."
A meal for two with beer is about $35. Open 8 a.m. to midnight daily.
St. George's Cathedral, King Street
St. Andrew's Kirk, Brickdam
City Hall, Avenue
of the Republic (Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to
Thursday, 8:30 to 3:30 on Friday. Ask at reception for permission to
Cara Lodge, 294 Quamina Street
Water Street (open from around 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.;
until noon on Wednesday and Sunday)
Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, Main Street
High Street (not open to the public, but it can be
appreciated from the street)
The Church of the Sacred Heart, Main Street
Queenstown Mosque, Church Street
Georgetown Cricket Club, Bourda (ask at the gate for admittance)
out on a grid, is easy to navigate on foot. Parts of
town, however, are not safe for unsuspecting outsiders, so for long
excursions it is best to hire a taxi at your hotel. These cost about $5 an
hour, and the driver is likely to prove an invaluable guide. Always travel
by taxi at night. Georgetown is an impoverished city with a crime
problem, so it is best not to tempt muggers.
-- TUNKU VARADARAJAN