No comparison to presidential residences elsewhere
Stabroek News
May 30, 2002

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Dear Editor,

Three letters in the Stabroek News of May 22, 24, and 25, headlined 'A palace it never was', 'I saw them with my own eyes' and 'What limousines could John Mair have seen?' respectively have caused me to write once more. This time, merely to state indisputable facts about the official residence of the Prime Minister/President of Guyana in which I lived from 1967 to 1984.

I have noted John Mair's objection to the use of the words 'the Residence' with a capital 'R', attributed to Forbes Burnham. I must admit I do not know who first called or wrote it thus, but the abbreviation with or without the upper case, seemed to me appropriate and convenient.

Incidentally, I recall hearing the residence of the Premier of British Guiana, then occupied by Cheddi Jagan referred to, and seeing it written as, 'The Red House'. It does not really matter, does it? But I suppose there is no accounting for the petulant ramblings of a 'solid rock' journalist.

Fact 1

The official residence of the Prime Minister of Guyana on Vlissengen Road, Georgetown, occupied by Forbes Burnham and his family of four increasing to seven over the years, was formerly the residence of the Director of Agriculture, provided by the colonial government. At the time it was chosen, it was occupied by the Public Service Training Division.

Fact 2

When repaired and renovated, this two-storeyed wooden building accommodated on the top floor - four bedrooms and a room which served as my office and that of my secretary, as well as a utility area for sewing and ironing. There was no room for guests.

The first floor accommodated -

a) living and dining areas in one room (the dining table seated eight; a second table which was often fitted to the first enabling seating for fourteen, also served as a desk for the Prime Minister's secretary; a card table served as the Prime Minister's desk when he worked at home.

b) library much too small to be used as an office

c) visitors' waiting room

d) kitchen

e) staff dining room accommodating both telephone operator and security officer.

The 'bottom house' accommodated -

a) laundry which doubled as staff-women's rest room

b) staff-men's rest room

c) garage for two cars - a Daimler provided by the government and a Jaguar, Burnham's personal property.

Fact 3

By the early 1970's, the 'bottom house' was enclosed to accommodate an office for the Prime Minister and one for his secretary, a conference room and a waiting room.

Fact 4

By the mid 1970's, two guest flats and a garage to house two cadillacs were built at the far end of the grounds. The cars, provided for the use and convenience of visiting dignitaries, were under the control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They were used by the President only when accompanying such dignitaries, or on public ceremonial occasions.

Fact 5

The main building was maintained in design and structure until 1984 when fire and mostly water so damaged the living areas that the Burnham family moved into the two guest flats.

Fact 6

Residencelessness provided the opportunity for such repairs and renovation as could fulfil much more adequately the functional requirements of the residence of a head of state and government.

But Burnham had no hand in the renovation and never set foot in the building under repairs. He died in 1985 while these were still in progress.

Fact 7

After his death, I continued to follow closely the progress of renovation, and was responsible for the interior decoration of the whole building, as I was, earlier, for the entire office of the President including the Cabinet room, the Credentials room, the Ministers' lounge and the Visitors' waiting room at no cost to the Government of Guyana. I sought in every case to use the skills and talents of Guyanese, and all the furniture/art work and decorative pieces as well as more than two hundred gifts indicative of the work of citizens of other countries were left intact up to the evening before the announcement of the 1992 election results as I was reliably informed.

I never knew what became of them.

I do not know to what building, at what period or stage of renovation John Mair refers as 'presidential palace'. But in my opinion, after seeing for myself the exterior and interior of presidential residences in many countries of the world, the residence lived in by Forbes Burnham as Premier, Prime Minister or President pales in every way by comparison. But the pride I felt in the workmanship of all Guyanese who contributed to its construction and furnishing at every stage, glows bright even today.

My anguish and anger arise from the hideous waste of human and material resources incurred in repairing, renovating, and refurbishing, on three occasions within recent years, residences for three presidents, while completely dismantling an existing one into which any president had to walk merely with his clothes and his toothbrush!

Yours faithfully,

Viola Burnham