Celebrating Guyana's built heritage: City Hall, a brief history
History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
May 19, 2005
City Hall from postcard dated 1950
Situated at the corner of Regent Street and the Avenue of the Republic, City Hall, which houses the office of the Mayor and Town Council of Georgetown, has often been described as the most picturesque structure in the Garden City.
On 1 March 1837, the Board of Police, which had managed Georgetown for many years, was replaced by the office of a Mayor and a Town Council through the enactment of an ordinance. The council during its early years had many problems as the city grew. Nevertheless, it preserved and gradually transformed the city.
In 1854 and again in 1862 it was proposed by the councillors that a town hall be constructed to house the office of the Mayor and Town Council, thus giving thema central location to administer the affairs of the city. Regrettably, these early proposals were shelved due to the council's inability to secure loans from the government.
In 1871 the council again proposed the erection of a Town Hall. Reports within the Town Council's archive indicate that all members were in favour of this proposal. In December the council placed advertisements in the following newspapers, the Royal Gazette, the Colonist and the Berbice Gazette, inviting tenders for the construction of a Town Hall. Disagreements within the council over the location prevented the successful execution of this proposal, as all plans were again shelved.
There were difference of opinion over the location of the new Town Hall. Some favoured the erection of the structure in front of the Stabroek market, possibly on the site where Demico House now stands, while others preferred a vacant plot of land at the corner of Church and Main Streets the current site of the National Library.
This site was reported to have consisted of several shanties, which had been cleared in 1861 in anticipation of the visit of His Royal Highness Prince Alfred.
On 22 November 1886 the Council endorsed another proposal for the erection of a Town Hall. A Committee, Headed by The Mayor, R.P. Drysdale, Jas Thomson and J. D. Smith, was established to review the specifications for the Town Hall. Advertisements were placed in the daily newspapers and Mayor George Anderson Forshaw soon acquired the present site where the City Hall now stands.
This plot was occupied by a 'tumble down coffee logie used for dances.'
On 17 March 1887 the committee met and reviewed the designs submitted. They were assisted by Messrs. J. A. Conyers, a councillor, and the renowned architect, Cesar Castellani. They selected the plan, 'Damus Petimusque Vicissim', entered by Reverend Ignatius Scoles S. J., a trained architect who had designed several churches in Europe. For his effort he was awarded a prize of $50, which he declined.
Preparations were hurriedly undertaken and a Government loan was secured. Reverend Scoles was required to prepare working drawings and specifications to enable the Sprostons & Son Company to ensure the timely construction of the edifice.
His Excellency Governor Sir Henry Turner Irving KCMG formally laid the foundation stone at 2:00 pm on 23 December 1887 on the occasion of the jubilee year of the reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The stone was laid at the northeastern corner of the main building along with a glass jar containing the original documents of the building, several coins, copies of the Royal Gazette, the Argosy and the Daily Chronicle and a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
Governor Irving remarked that 'it had been one of his dearest wishes of his heart that he might live to see a suitable town hall erected.' He added that he was particularly gratified that it had been made possible to commence during his tenure in office.
A report of that afternoon's proceedings in the Argosy of 24 December 1887 stated that 'the proceeding was formal in the extreme, absolutely devoid of anything approaching the character of a civic festival which it had been the intention of the Town Council to impart to it, and in our judgment entirely inadequate to the occasion. Excavations occupied almost the entire site leaving space for only a small tent Ô€¦Ô€¦the militia band was in attendance along with the very attenuated garrison at Eve Leary which furnished a guard of honour consisting of about eight and twenty rank and file.'
After the Governor departed, the report further noted that the 'band played a few bars of the National Anthem but even that did not attract the usual bevy of the demi monde and attendants present.'
Under the supervision of Rev. Scoles and Luke M. Hill, the Town Superintendent, the Town Hall was soon completed in June 1889 at a cost of $54,826,62
This figure represented a combined cost for the acquisition of land as well as the construction of the structure.
On 1 July 1889 at 3pm His Excellency Governor Viscount Gormanston KCMG officially opened the building. According to one report, the Invitation Committee, consisting of Messrs. Belgrave and Culpeper, issued some 400 invitations. Despite a continuous downpour of rain, the line of carriages belonging to the guests was described in a report of the Argosy as being 'one of the longest ever seen in the colony on any occasion.'
After the guests were seated in the hall of the building, the venerable Archbishop, William Piercy Austin, blessed the structure through an offering of prayers. The Mayor then read an address to the Governor, which gave a brief description of the development of Georgetown. His Excellency, the Governor, in return congratulated the Council on their sterling achievement and formally declared the Hall open to the public.
The playing of the National Anthem by the militia band brought the afternoon's proceedings to an end and guests were given a tour of the newly constructed structure. The craftsmanship bestowed on the ornate cast iron features and the woodwork was noted for its excellent finish and quality.
The Mayor at the opening ceremony complimented the local artisans. He stated: 'Let us record with becoming pride that the men whose busy hands have placed the hall in position, from foundation to pinnacle, and who have left upon the work unquestionable proofs of their earnestness, their intelligence, their high standard of handicraft are all our fellow citizens. We must, we cannot but feel proud to be able to lay claim to them.'
In the evening the Town Hall was opened to the public. Advertise-ments had announced that the public would be given an opportunity to tour Georgetown's newest architectural masterpiece through the issuance of special tickets.
Though some 6000 tickets were issued, it was reported that as many as 8000 persons may have accessed the building during its formal opening as the 'Town Councillors and the Police reportedly struggled to contain the large crowds. The Militia Band and the Portuguese Band were present and they rendered a choice selection of music to entertain the crowd, winding up at 9:30 pm with 'God Save the Queen'.
The City Hall has been described as one of the Caribbean's finest buildings a near miracle in timber construction boasting the design of 'fancy dress Gothic Revival architecture, which was common during the Victorian era in Great Britain.
Lennox Hernandez notes that the building is rectangular, three floors high, with the main entrance placed centrally at the extension of the western fašade. This entrance is defined by a high square tower, which houses an elaborate mahogany staircase that leads to the first and second floors.
The tower, capped by a square pyramidal flat-topped spire with four conical pinnacles, is easily one of the main attractions of the building. It rises to the fourth floor, and one can easily climb to the very top of the spire and view the city through the wrought iron crenellations around its perimeter.
Hernandez also notes that the other outstanding feature of this structure is its hammer beam roof, a typical feature of medieval Gothic buildings in Britain, a notable example being Westminster Hall. This feature is conducive for acoustics in the concert hall, which served as a hive for cultural activities before the construction of the National Cultural Centre.
Records indicate that several memorable concerts, including those of the British Guiana Music festivals and the Philharmonic Society, just to name a few, were staged here.
In 1891 the Fire Brigade occupied the group floor of the Town Hall and the Council soon purchased the adjoining lots of land between the Town Hall and the High Court. In 1896 the Council decided to erect a fire station, stables for the horse and a cottage for the Sergeant Major in charge.
The erection of an official residence for the superintendent of the Fire Brigade was completed on 15 December 1909 at a cost of $6,500.
Today, those two structures house the offices of the City Engineer and the Mayor and his staff. The latter has been altered through extensions for additional office space, but one can readily identify the original boundaries and features of the building.
The City Hall stands today as an eloquent reminder of Georgetown's past. Few cities can boast of being in possession of such a magnificent structure and where they do exist, no expense is spared to ensure their survival for the benefit of future generations.
Regrettably, the present state of city hall leaves much to be desired. Residents, visitors and tourists constantly lament the advanced state of deterioration, which will inevitably lead to the loss of an architectural heirloom. Hopefully, the officials responsible at City Hall will be inspired by the rich history of this edifice to restore it to its former glory.
It is essential that this structure be restored and maintained, as it is one of the thirteen listed monuments to be submitted by the Guyana National Commission for UNESCO in their bid to have Georgetown listed as a World Heritage Site, placing Guyana alongside fellow Caribbean countries such as Suriname, St. Lucia, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.