The old New Amsterdam Hospital
November 12, 2006
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Some months ago we carried a report by Mr Daniel Da Costa in this newspaper about the old New Amsterdam Hospital falling to pieces. The hospital was closed more than two years ago in October 2004, and as with any unoccupied building it has been deteriorating rapidly since then. Mr Da Costa noted that in November 2003, Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy had told Stabroek News that "the old hospital will be rehabilitated for use in several social programmes and training of health personnel including a Nursing School. The building will also house some health personnel including regional administrative staff while we are exploring the possibility of providing day care for the elderly and the sick and a home for homeless children come 2005."
Not much progress, it seems, has been made since then, although in June renovation work did begin on a section of the building to house the School of Nursing. However, Mr Da Costa reported that a source within the regional system had told this newspaper that the works had been halted pending additional funding being sought externally, and they were expected to re-commence some time next year. There was concern on the part of some nurses about the state of the roof and the stairways, and the fact that on the south-eastern side sections of the walls and several windows had fallen off.
Last month in History this week, Mr Lloyd Kandasammy wrote on the history of the hospital, tracing the story of how it came to be built and how it began admitting patients without fanfare in 1884. He quoted ED Rowland, a medical doctor as describing it in the following terms: "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 design was largely the work of one of Guyana's leading nineteenth century architects, the Maltese Cesar Castellani. He was attached to the Public Works Department, and functioned during the heyday of public building in the urban areas. He collaborated with Baron Hora Siccama - an engineer who had been responsible for Georgetown's first stone seawall - on the Victoria Law Courts (now the High Court), and it was Siccama too who brought him into the New Amsterdam Hospital Project.
Perhaps Castellani's piÃ¨ce de resistance was the central Palms Building, which one wag suggested was too grand for an alms house and should be used as the Governor's residence instead. The inmates, according to this notion, would then be accommodated in Government House which had infinitely less to recommend it architecturally speaking than did the Palms. To their eternal shame, the PNC government allowed this grand edifice to fall to pieces on their watch.
Castellani also designed the magnificent tower of the first Catholic Cathedral which was burnt down in 1913, as well as the façade of the Sacred Heart Church, which was destroyed by fire in 2004. In addition he was responsible for the original design of the structure which now houses the National Gallery and which bears his name - Castellani House. However, in that particular instance modifications were made to the building at the instigation of the temperamental Supervisor of the Botanical Gardens, George Jenman, for whom it had been constructed.
So now the old New Amsterdam Hospital, it seems, faces the same fate as the Palms, albeit under a different government. Where these old wooden structures are concerned, good intentions are not enough; there has to be timely action. One might have thought that the administration would have learned its lesson from the Chess Hall in Main Street, which had been deteriorating undisturbed for some time when it was decided it would be rehabilitated as an office for the Tourism Authority. After this announcement, however, nothing much happened, and just when the powers-that-be were teetering on the brink of doing something, they woke up one morning and found that the Chess Hall had gone.
"Today," wrote Mr Kandasammy, "the Old New Amsterdam Hospital stands in shame, neglected and abandoned," and in a reference to the Palms, he mused whether history would repeat itself. If it does, it would be to the eternal shame of the government in general and the relevant ministers in particular. There can be no excuse for those who hold responsibility for our heritage effectively depriving Berbicians of arguably their greatest public building, and Guyanese as a whole of the architectural bequest of their forefathers.
Minister Ramsammy was full of plans for this building three years ago, but as indicated above, plans alone will not save our material heritage. Minister Anthony is new to his job in Culture, and is no doubt tied up with the arrangements for the World Cup. But the hospital, like the Chess Hall, will not wait patiently for cricket to finish and then for the authorities to recover from the unaccustomed excitement, before it crumbles into dust. If the government is not exactly brand new, then at least this is a brand new term, and it should start to look with fresh eyes at some of the urgent things it neglected to do the last time around. And high on the list is the old New Amsterdam Hospital.
Berbicians in particular, for whom the building has been a landmark for the past 121 years, should demand that something be done urgently to save it from collapse, even if these are temporary measures until more permanent rehabilitation and conservation work can be embarked on. And all those Guyanese who hold the unique heritage of this land dear - whether in or out of Guyana - should speak, call or write to the Ministers concerned as well as to the President, explaining the importance of saving the structure. If enough people want to rescue the hospital building, then something may happen. If not, the old New Amsterdam Hospital will sink into oblivion and end up like the Palms - merely a memory in the minds of the older generation, and for everyone else just a photo in the newspaper.