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Conservation in the heart of Kingstown?

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The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture defines “Conservation” as “retention of existing buildings or groups of buildings, landscapes etc. taking care not to alter or destroy character or detail, even though repairs or changes may be necessary.”

Over the last fifteen or so years voices have been crying in the wilderness over the destruction of our built heritage, primarily in our capital city Kingstown. We would all agree that economic development in our island has exerted immense pressures on the built environment. Increased requirements for office and commercial space have necessitated alterations and expansion to existing buildings. {{more}}All this is understood and necessary as our land space is so limited; however, are we in the process destroying and/ or distorting our built heritage.

Kingstown has been unofficially declared the “City of Arches” and this has been used in our advertisements in tourism circles. At a glance our claim is justified – arches and arcades we have, but are they historically true?

The debate on the philosophy of building conservation continues between the purist who holds the view that “correctness cannot be watered down”; the pragmatist who states that “a sound philosophy is one which points in the right direction – that of truthfulness”; while the cynic claims that “preservation is a completely artificial procedure, interfering with natural processes of decay.”

We in St.Vincent and the Grenadines should follow the thoughts of the pragmatist, even though there is truth in all three points of view. We do not have the luxury of a tremendous number of examples of our architecture and as such we should endeavor to keep those which we do have true to our history.

So let us not glance but take a long look at Kingstown to determine what aspects of the City of Arches are true. You would quickly realize that we have conserved the arcades but the original arches have in too many cases been replaced with new arches which are not sympathetic to the character of the original ones. The best example of this is along the Bay Street between South River road and the Immigration Department. We must remember however that those buildings between Egmont Street and the Immigration Department were destroyed in two separate fires.

Notwithstanding this, one can argue that the urban planners could have insisted that the new arches reflect the character of those which were destroyed. It must have been done in the case of one of the oldest buildings in Kingstown, the Jax Department store; take a closer look at the arches of that building next time you pass by.

There exist in Kingstown some fine examples of the original two storey “town houses”. A systematic inventory of these “town houses” and other buildings in St.Vincent and The Grenadines deemed to be of historical value was commissioned recently by the Organisation of American States. The next stage would be to develop a data base of information on our built heritage. Entries to this data base should include, for example, construction methods and connection details, fenestration patterns and measured survey figures from selected buildings typical of their type. This information should be stored in the National Archives as it will be valuable in cases of building restoration and for general study. While we celebrate the arched arcades we must be mindful of the fact that there is more to the character of the buildings in Kingstown and in St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a whole.

Our built heritage is in serious danger; we must therefore remember that we are no more than custodians of these buildings and we are not free to destroy them at will. The next generation will not forgive us.

As we make attempts to plant the seed of awareness of our built heritage into the consciousness of our people, we must consider three keywords in the philosophy of conservation:

• Motive – why we wish to conserve?

• Monument – what are we trying to conserve?

• Manner and Means – how should it be done?

We have work to do. Let’s get the show on the road.

If you are fortunate enough to own one of our priceless historic buildings and have survey details about it you would be doing your country a service if you post a copy to the SVG National Trust, P.O.Box 1538, Kingstown.

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