The National Trust of T&T has established a fruitful link with the United States branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS); T&T is the only English-speaking Caribbean country to be a member of ICOMOS. Last year, it sent an “intern” who researched the remarkable complex of buildings known as the St James Police Barracks.
This year, two well qualified experts on the preservation and conservation of historic structures, Stephanie Brisita and Eric Stolheim, came to survey buildings in San Fernando. I was lucky to attend their presentation of their findings, held earlier this month in the auditorium of the City Hall. The Mayor, Junia Regrello, was present, and made his enthusiasm for the project clear.
The plan is to declare the waterfront area the “Plaza San Carlos Heritage District”, after the name bestowed by Governor Chacon when the town was founded in 1792, in honour of his king, Carlos IV of Spain. It will be a key component of the wider San Fernando Waterfront Project. Later on, a second Heritage District, the Harris Promenade, will be developed.
In the 1800s, King’s Wharf was a busy port, and the city grew around it. It was the main shipping port for the sugar estates of the Naparimas; sugar was shipped out, people and goods were shipped in. It was also the transport hub for south Trinidad, where coastal steamers called, where the Cipero Tramway (1859) ended, where the railway terminus was established in 1882. A jetty was built in 1854 and the wharf was extended, after many delays, by 1884. King’s Wharf was the heart of the growing city.
Brisita and Stolheim researched seven buildings near King’s Wharf, outlining their history, their architecture, their present-day condition and use, and their significance as heritage structures. First was the “General Stores”, a solid building from the late 1800s, the only one in San Fernando to have a “mansard roof”, a four-sided “hip” roof. It was a popular store and café, owned by a prominent city business woman, Elvira Glassen, in the 1870s and 1880s. Today, it’s still a store, selling marine and fishing equipment (the owner attended the presentation).
“Happy Corner” was also originally owned by Glassen and was called the Royal Hotel in the late 1800s. By the 1920s, it was the Black Cat Hotel and Bar, a lively place with a rather dubious reputation. It has a wrap-around verandah, and beautiful wooden fretwork.
“Thorpe’s Garage” consists of a row of six warehouses on the waterfront, built around 1885 after the jetty extension. It was built by Tennants Estates, a company which owned several sugar estates in the Naparimas and was in the export/import business. Later, the Colonial Company, which owned the Usine St Madeleine sugar factory, acquired part of it, and later still, Alstons (now part of Ansa McAL) bought it. Tennants Estates also built the fourth structure, “Tennants Building”, as an additional warehouse, in 1911. It features a wrap-around verandah and cast iron pillars, and was a busy transport hub.
The “Old Post Office Building”, with arched openings on the ground floor, is today the PTSC terminal; the “Fish Market”, built in 1924, is architecturally interesting, and reminds us that San Fernando was a fishing village before it became a sugar port in the early 1800s. Finally, the “Railway Station” is a neo-classical building completed in 1901 and in use until 1968. The roof is long gone, but the walls and the cast iron fittings survive. It is an important heritage structure.
The seven buildings, we were told, are all linked together, and closely connected to the city’s function as a port and a transport hub. They should become the core of a vibrant heritage district in the nation’s second city.
• Bridget Brereton is professor emerita of history at The UWI, St Augustine