The New Amsterdam hospital

Stabroek News
July 13, 2001

In most countries hospitals are designed with functional considerations in mind, rather than aesthetic ones. But Guyana has a hospital which was at one time both functional and aesthetic. The New Amsterdam hospital has been so run down for so many years, that we are apt to forget that it was once something of an architectural showpiece.

It was built in 1885, its main beams consisting mostly of greenheart and bullet wood, and its walls and rafters of pine. The purely functional aspects of the structure came under the purview of a certain Dr Grieve, but the institution's overall design was the responsibility of the Maltese-born Cesar Castellani, whose creative genius changed the face of public building in late nineteenth-century Georgetown.

Time and circumstance have not been kind to Castellani's architectural legacy. His magnificent tower on the first Roman Catholic cathedral went up in flames along with the rest of the building in 1913, while the central Palms structure, another example of his handiwork, was simply allowed to decay to a point where it had to be pulled down. Today, we still have the High Court, which while generally associated with the name of Baron Hora Siccama probably was not designed by him. Siccama was a hydraulics engineer by profession who worked on Georgetown's seawall, and he was most likely retained to deal with the the drainage of what was acknowledged to be a difficult site, as well as the foundations of the court building. The architectural work, per se, however, almost certainly fell to the Maltese architect.

Castellani's facade on the Sacred Heart church has also survived, although not in its pristine form. Unfortunately in the renovation process the towers lost some of their original detail. And then there is Castellani House itself, of course, which while well preserved does not carry his imprimatur alone. The first Superintendant of the Botanic Gardens, the cantankerous George Jenman for whom the house was built, insisted on certain modifications being made to it before he would move in.

And New Amsterdam's Castellani gem is its hospital. It was originally designed with breeze in mind, so that the interior would be ventilated by the north-east trade winds for most of the year. In addition, an attempt was made to make the wards more homely with the provision of wicker and rocking chairs, and the decoration of the walls with pictures. The grounds too were formally laid out with banks of flowers set in herbaceous borders, and trees and shrubs provided by the Botanic Gardens.

Those days have gone, but in spite of the dilapidation New Amsterdamers who look closely will still be able to detect the inherent architectural grace of their old hospital. According to reports they are to get a new hospital to be built on a different site. They need that and they deserve it. However, they should learn a lesson from Georgetown, which allowed what was arguably Castellani's best piece to fall into decay as a consequence of sheer inertia. There are few cities which would treat so significant a part of their material heritage with such contumely, and one hopes that the residents of the former capital of Berbice with their great consciousness of the past and their sensitivity to its monuments would not follow the example of their counterparts in Demerara.

If the New Amsterdam Hospital building is to be saved, however, efforts must begin soon to identify some use for it after its medical functions have ceased. After all, there is nothing which falls into ruin faster than an unoccupied structure. In addition, sources of funding would have to be identified to allow for the building's rehabilitation. Perhaps the New Amsterdam Town Council, interested citizens and expatriate Berbicians could take it upon themselves to begin the search for a means of preserving what is an important architectural landmark. If they succeed in that quest, they would be doing not just New Amsterdam and not just Berbice but also the nation an enormous favour.