A brief history of Berbice's architectural gems
The old New Amsterdam Public Hospital
History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
October 12th 2006
For 121 years the old New Amsterdam Public Hospital has stood, a testimony to the numerous carpenters, masons and labourers involved in the construction of this outstanding example of timber architecture one of the two surviving architectural masterpieces designed by Caesar Castellani, an architect em-ployed in the Public Works Department of British Guiana.
Before the erection of this structure medical service for the residents of New Amsterdam and the surrounding communities and estates was provided through the Berbice Hospital that was located at the site currently occupied by the asylum at Canje. This facility was established in 1837 on a plot of land that was occupied by the Canje Military barracks under the provisions of Ordinance No 72 of 1836.
This ordinance allowed for the incorporation and establishment of a Board for Church and Poor Fund to monitor some activities relating to public welfare in Berbice. According to one report, the hospital became too small, as there was constant overcrowding, particularly by patients from outlying areas. In the circumstance ordinance No 5 of 1862 secured several parcels of land for the establishment of a new hospital to meet the increasing demands of the medical practitioners in Berbice.
For reasons unknown, it appears as though the preparations for the erection of the new hospital never materialised beyond paperwork. The existing board ceased operations in 1872 and by special regulations of Ordinance No 3 of that year the hospital was placed under the direction of the Medical Superintendent. It would take at least another five years before further plans were developed to spearhead the project.
According to one report in the British Guiana Medical and Hospital Journal, the Governor appointed a special committee 'to select a site and draw a plan for the new public hospital for the town of New Amsterdam.' By this time the existing hospital at Canje was described as unsuitable for future use. One report by the medical superintendent stated:
"The hospital has been very much overcrowded during the year on many occasions for prolonged periods as many as 130 were the greatest number in on any day. Many poor creatures requiring indoor treatment have been compelled to be treated as outdoor patients inconsequence of there being literally no bed space, even on the floors."
The committee consisting of Dr Grieve, the Superintendent of the Public Lunatic Asylum; Dr Hacket, a leading medical practitioner in British Guiana and Mr Pollard, the Colonial Civil Engineer of British Guiana began their task with great enthusiasm. A plot of land, measuring 114, 631 acres, at the southern end of the town was selected and the several consultations were undertaken for the selection of an appropriate design.
Unfortunately in 1878 Dr Hacket retired and Mr Pollard left Guyana leaving Dr Grieve as the sole member of the committee.
It was as a result of his zeal that a sketch design for the hospital was completed and forwarded to the Public Works Department for approval. With the departure of Mr Pollard, Baron H Siccama, who supervised the construction of the Law Courts, was appointed as the Acting Colonial Civil Engineer and with the assistance from his chief architect, Caesar Castellani, the plan for the hospital was completed in 1881. Construction commenced in late 1881 with funds provided to the Public Works Department by the colonial administration with Mr E Pitt as foreman.
The hospital was built in stages. The central pavilion was completed in 1881 and tenders were advertised in the Berbice Gazette and the Royal Gazette as well as other newspapers for the erection of other sections of the hospital. However, the Court of Policy, possibly as a result of the cost projected, rejected the tenders that were received by the Public Works Department and the project was temporarily halted. During this period, reports from the director of the Public Asylum, Mr Oscar Dunscombe Honiball, indicate that the situation at Canje had deteriorated as the hospital was overcrowded owing to the increase in patients from Skeldon and Abary. 'A hospital of 180 - 200 beds is by no means too large for the requirements of New Amsterdam and the County of Berbice', he added.
From all accounts work progressed as soon as approval had been granted by the colonial administration and in 1884 the hospital was almost complete. According to one report in the Berbice Gazette:
"The new hospital is now practically completed there only remaining one or two decorative or finishing touches to be put to the work. The building is a very fine one and constructed with an admirable regard not only to the present but the probable future it represents."
The details of the Colonial Civil Engineer's report detail the numerous tasks that were undertaken to ensure the completion of this project. In brief the report stated:
"A new kitchen, wash house and closets for mortuary and shelter shed for a doctor's horse and wagon have been built as well as a concrete drain to carry off water from bathrooms and kitchen etc."
Though the structure appears to have been completed in 1884 it was not occupied until 1885. One of the main problems appears to have been the supply of water. The original plans had catered for the installation of a 10,000-gallon water tank. However, Mr Samuel Leary, the Medical Superintendent, in his reports 1883 - 1885, reflects the desire for a larger storage of fresh water for usage by hospital.
In 1884 another 10,000-gallon water tank was installed but Leary lobbied for another emphatically stating that "it will not be possible to transfer the patients until a proper supply of water has been obtained The 10,000-gallon tanks present are insufficient. I estimate that for an average of 150 people for cooking and drinking during a long dry season additional tanks with storage for 30,000 - 40,000 gallons are necessary."
He succeeded and two other tanks were soon installed.
Whilst most public buildings were opened with much pomp and ceremony the New Amsterdam Public Hospital was notably void of such activity. The Berbice Gazette reported that:
"The new Colonial Hospital was occupied on Thursday 16 instant by the patients removed from Fort Canje. But contrary to our calculation there was no formality attached to the opening."
A report by E D Rowland, a medical doctor, in 1894, provides one of the most detailed descriptions of this building, its environment and operations shortly after it was constructed.
A summary of the various sections of this report is as follows.
The building is a fine example of what can be done with wood, the administrative block with its handsome staircase particularly being worthy of note and never failing to be remarked upon by visitors from all parts of the world.
The building is in wood, only a little iron being used here and there, especially as ties to the beams and joists in the roof the beams and large timbers are of colony wood; greenheart and bullet tree: the smaller joists and rafters are of pitch pine. The walls are composed of two thicknesses of white pine wood the inner layer being grooved and tongued and arranged so that the wall is quite flat and the uprights only visible from the outside.
The ceiling of the lower ward is closed in but that of the upper is open and shows all the beams and rafters rising to the ridge where there is a double 'cow mouth' for ventilating purposes. The whole wood works save for the floor is painted from time to time but hitherto not frequently enough. The floor of the connecting passages is of colony bullet wood.
The general arrangement of the building is that of a pavilion hospital but the wards are placed end to end instead of running parallel from a connected corridor. This plan was adopted in order to get the whole benefit of the prevailing wind, which blows from the northeast.
The hospital measuring 320 feet in length is composed of a double story of two wards... the total accommodation is four wards of 24 beds each, two convalescent wards of 15 beds each and five separate wards of four beds each.
The staff of the hospital comprises a resident surgeon, a steward, an assistant dispenser, an assistant clerk, a matron, a chief laundress, seven male and two female day nurses and three female and one male night nurses, ten male servants (a head cook and boiler men) and nine female servants (laundresses and general purposes).
The grounds are laid out in beds of flowers and shrubberies. Various palms and tropical flowering trees having been a few years ago obtained from the Botanic Gardens in Georgetown and from the garden of the Public Lunatic Asylum. Towards the riverside fruit trees have been planted recently.
Today, The Old New Amsterdam Hospital stands in shame, neglected and abandoned. Will history repeat itself? Will this historic building suffer the same fate as the main complex of the Alms House on Brickdam?
Restoration is indeed a costly undertaking, but this should not dissuade the stakeholders from undertaking such jobs. Most countries would be proud to possess such architectural gems and as such efforts are made to restore and preserve them.
Historic buildings represent an asset if they are properly maintained. There are numerous uses that the old hospital can serve, but urgent action is required before negligence takes its toll.