I was invited to visit the head offices of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, specifically to carry out a pre-proposal inspection. Having previously worked on the renovation of the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity located in Kingston, I have a particular passion for historical buildings and their preservation. Hence, my answer to the request was a quick yes.
Headquarters House, as the head offices of the Trust is named, located just south of Gordon House, the Nation’s Parliament, is the building from which the administration of the colony took place. It was in this building that Governor Eyre plotted his wicked revenge against Paul Bogle and his compatriots of Morant Bay. It was from this building that George William Gordon, a supporter and advisor to Paul Bogle was arrested and taken to Morant Bay for trial and subsequent death by hanging. This was the building where the island legislators, met and where legislations were debated before being passed into law.
On my arrival, while waiting on the wide verandah for my escort, I peered inside the legislative hall which was the first place you enter on leaving the verandah. I immediately felt the presences of our long departed legislators as they debated the issues of the day during their time. Norman Manley, Ivan Lloyd, Alexander Bustamante just to name a few were all there as my mind meandered and I became awestruck. Within the confines of this building contains the political history of this nation and as such it dawned on me that this building must be preserved at all cost for future generations.
After waiting ten minutes, my escort came and we began the pre-inspection tour. I then had another rude awakening as we made our way to the basement. I was brought back to the stark reality that Headquarter house is old and is crying out for attention. Despite the fact that the Duke Street entrance facing east looks magnificent except for the missing wooden window awning, the building on the inside is dying a slow death. The renovation works carried out 27 years ago have been reversed due to a lack of maintenance. Secondly, very little attention was paid to preserving the look and feel of a building built two hundred and sixty-five years ago. Air conditioning condensing units were installed without much regards to the preservation of the Georgian features. Artefacts dating back to the colonial period when the British ruled Jamaica are stored in the basement without adequate fire detection or suppression protection. The natural ventilation system has been compromised as the air conditioning designers and installers did not pay any attention to this detail. The natural question is, can this place be saved?
The simple answer is yes, because as our National Hero Marcus Garvey stated “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” As such the architectural preservation is pretty straightforward, but the same cannot be said for the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems. When this house was built, mechanical cooling, indoor plumbing, and electricity were non-existent. Hence, in any preservation/renovation exercise on a building such as the Headquarter House, this fact must taken into consideration. Due care must be taken as to the placement of air conditioning condensing unit, ductworks, and refrigerant pipings. The same applies to the electrical distribution system, in that surface mounted conduits and cables must be held to a minimum. Indoor plumbing must also incorporate the same strategy as with the electrical system. It is one thing to store artefacts in a supposedly “secure” location, but it is another matter to make these artefacts safe from fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, or the passage of time. Issues such as adequate fire detection and suppression takes centre stage. It is not just to have fire extinguishers stationed nearby, but more to implement a fire detection and protection strategy that will preserve these artefacts even after a devastating disaster.
The tour was over and I returned to the verandah from whence I started my sojourn to depart. As I made my was down the steep steps to Duke Street heading over to the parking lot, I took one last look at Headquarters House. There she stands, still a magnificent presence on Duke Street, but crying out for attention. This place is precious to Jamaica and as such it must be preserved at all cost.