Celebrating Guyana's built heritage: Parliament Buildings, a brief history
History This Week
By Lloyd F. Kandasammy
September 1, 2005
The Parliament Buildings
Situated in Stabroek, that ward of Georgetown, which bears the original name of the city, is the Parliament Building. This magnificent brick structure, which has graced Georgetown's landscape for 171 years, represents a unique form of building construction, a change from the refined and elegant timber structures for which the city is famous.
During the 18th century and the early 19th century the offices of Guiana's administration were housed in the Court of Policy building, which was also located on the same site as the present Parliament Building. This was one of the first structures erected by the Dutch as they settled along the Demerara River in the 18th century. The French retained it when they briefly occupied the colony of Essequibo and Demerara in 1782.
Henry Bolingbroke described this structure in 1799 as a 'large white building about one hundred feet long and thirty-five feet wide, and two stories and a half high. On the second floor is the council chamber, the court of justice and the secretary's office, where the colonial business is transacted'.
By the early 19th century this structure had become cramped and overcrowded, unable to accommodate the affairs of the town's increasing population. In addition reports indicated that not only was the structure too small, but also that it was in severe need of repairs.
In January 1813, when the completion of St. Andrew's Kirk had been hampered by financial constraints, Issac Hadfield, an architect, petitioned the Court of Policy. He stated that he had been contracted to complete the joinery work of the building, but that he was constrained by the lack of finance and building materials and that he was owed a great sum of money, more than 15,000 guilders.
Hadfield indicated that he was heavily indebted and recommended that the Court intervene, as the church could without any alterations be converted to a Court House and the offices of the Public Buildings. According to one report, the Court had considered the acquisition of this structure, as their offices were housed in a 'tottering building' supported by poles, but the decision proved problematic as the Governor had agreed to support the petition to allow the Dutch a place where they could worship.
Nevertheless, the Court of Policy appears to have agreed that there was a need for the erection of a new structure as the old building from which their offices were administered could not be repaired or extended to accommodate the increased affairs of the colony. In the circumstance a proposal to erect a new building was endorsed by the powers in charge.
The first notice of the government's intention to erect a new building was by a letter signed by 'An Old Inhabitant' in the Royal Gazette of Demerara and Essequibo on 11 February 1826.
As it is reported to be in contemplation of His Excellency and the honourable Court of Policy to erect what has long been a great desideration in the colony an edifice for the Court House and the public archives, which is also intended, I understand to comprehend a great part of public offices.
The plan I would suggest is first to advertise for designs, specifying the number and kinds of apartments required for the court and the public offices intended to be attached and the materials which they are to be composed and in order to do this on as liberal footing as possible sufficient time and publicity ought to be given to obtain even the works and ideas of European artists on the occasion should any be disposed to tender them offering a premium for the plan that should be most approved and an inferior one for the second best and so forth.
Though this was done, all indications are that the designs submitted were not favourably considered as a second advertisement published on 26 June 1828 in the Royal Gazette bluntly stated
'None of the plans for Public Buildings hitherto given in having been found suitable the Committee now fixed on a general outline are desirous of obtaining plans corresponding with viz a building 2 storeys in height, raised upon a basement of 3 feet, the lower storey 14 and the upper 16 feet high, consisting of a main body of 260 feet in length in the exterior or rear side and width 35 feet with a wing at each end and in front thereof 65 feet in length and 40 ft wide. The principal front to lie east and west and the wings projecting north to the same, leaving the front of the body 180 feet clear with a sufficient gallery of communication between the departments and offices.'
The committee set up to judge the entries consisted of James Johnstone, Peter Rose, Evans Fraser and George Rainy. Those interested in competing were given an extremely short deadline of one month as the entries were required to be submitted on 26 July 1828 at Colony House.
Following this advertisement, several plans were submitted, but it was that of Joseph Hadfield, a sworn surveyor and architect, which would be selected as the design for the new Public Buildings.
On 29 December 1828 there was a disastrous fire, which destroyed almost the whole of Newtown with the exception of the old courthouse. According to one report,
The great mercantile centre of Georgetown was a scene of desolation. Homeless people watched the great sheet of flame, which extended from Water Street to High Street in one direction and from Commerce Street to Croal Street in the other.
Many government records were lost as even then thieves were busy, taking their share amidst the confusion as officials scrambled desperately to pack records and books in fear of destruction. Fortuna-tely the building was spared.
Hadfield's design called for the use of brick. Though this was an unusual choice of building material, it is very likely that the disastrous fire in December 1828 played a determining factor in the selection of the design of the new public buildings. Indeed, in March 1829 many proprietors petitioned the Court of Policy seeking permission to have structures constructed entirely of brick to be erected in the burnt out areas of Newtown.
On 27 March 1829 the foundation stone was laid and construction commenced almost immediately by the contractors, J. D. Patterson, Roderick M'Kenzie and Hector Kemp, under the supervision of Joseph Hadfield. The operations of the Court of Policy and the various offices were temporarily relocated to Colony House, which was situated on the site of the High Court.
During the early phases of construction the contractors and Hadfield encountered tremendous difficulties as the building's foundation proved too heavy for the alluvial soils of the coastal land. In addition, the reports to the Colonial Secretary indicate that water was seeping in from the South Canal, now Hadfield Street.
In the circumstances it was resolved that this canal, one of two which were originally dug by the French in 1782, would be filled in to facilitate the construction of the structure. A raft-like foundation of greenheart logs was used to stabilize the building's foundation.
After five years of construction the building was completed and occupied in April 1834 by the governor, before being formally handed over to the government on 5 August 1834. Dispatches from the governor in the Royal Gazette indicated that they were addressed from the Governor's apartment in the Public Buildings. The first of these dispatches first appeared on 1 May 1834.
The newly completed Public Buildings apparently generated little excitement among the colonists, as the Royal Gazette did not even feature the official handing over of the new structure to the government.
The lone writing on the structure was a letter authored by a planter (no name given) who stated that the colony was in too great of a financial crisis, given the loss of enslaved labour, to be pondering the construction of grand and elaborate structures such as the Public Buildings.
This may well explain why the building was used to house several offices of the government's administration. Before the building was completed, Colonial officials had recommended that a separate edifice be erected for the proceedings of Court and also accommodation for public officers. There are varying figures for the final cost of the structure.
However the estimates of the budget of funds spent by the Government for 1834 record that the New Public Buildings were completed at a cost of 50,000 pounds sterling based on a special arrangement with the contractors. Additional sums listed under the expenditure for the completion of this building included the sum of 6,000 pounds sterling for the architect and 20,000 pounds sterling for the fitting up of the Court Hall and the Registrar's office.
The additional sum for the Court and the Registrar's office may have been a second thought probably as a result of the sums needed for the erection of a separate building which would have placed a severe strain on the plantocracy. It is doubtful that they would have been willing to finance a new structure, as many claimed that they were facing ruin with the loss of their labour force, the enslaved Africans.
Upon completion the offices of the Public Buildings were arranged as follows:
The Court of Policy Hall with offices for the Governor's, secretary, his assistant, clerks and an office for the Attorney General were located on the upper floor of the Eastern wing. On the lower floor of this wing were the offices of the Customs house and the offices of the Pilot Committee.
The halls of the Supreme Court of Criminal and Civil Justice were located on the upper floor of the western wing, whilst the lower floor of this wing was divided into offices for the Registrar General and his staff.
The central portion of the building, on the other hand, consisted of several apartments on the upper floor for barristers, the Administrator General, the Financial Representatives and His Excellency the Governor. The lower floor consisted of the offices of the Administrator General, Auditor General, Provost Marshal, Deputy Post Master General, Financial Accountant, Receiver General and other functionaries.
Reverend Ignatius Scoles, in his celebrated article on the Architecture of Georgetown, which was first published in 1885, offers this interesting analysis of the structure. He noted 'that there was no other building in the town at that time that was of such architectural merit as the Public Buildings.'
He pointed out that 'whoever was responsible for the design of the building knew his work well.' Evidence of this, he wrote, could be seen in the way the designer handled the details and the decorations of the building. They were neither overdone nor underdone. The priest also observed that the structure was built with good bricks well-stuccoed over to give the impression of large slabs of stone. Scoles further noted that if there were any faults with the building it would have been its appearance, the height of which he stated, was too low for its length.
Before the erection of the handsome flowered picket cast iron fence in 1873, the structure was open. In 1840 when Sir Robert Schomburgk visited Georgetown he noted that the courtyard of the Public Buildings was used as the location for the public execution of criminals.
Indeed, it was here that Damon, an enslaved African was executed on 13 October 1834 for his role in the Essequibo Rebellion. He had led a rebellion against the system of apprenticeship which had been implemented by the British after the enslaved population was legally freed in 1834 to bind them to the estates, while the planters sought an alternative source of cheap labour to keep the wheels of the sugar industry running.
In 1875, Cesar Castellani, the renowned Maltese architect, installed the elaborate ornamental plaster ceiling, which was recently replaced with a fibreglass reproduction due to severe damage by termites and continued exposure to water.
Typically such ceilings were manufactured with plaster of paris, but the tropical climate would have had a disastrous effect on the ornaments. In the circumstances Castellani employed the use of compo plaster mixed with alum to create whiteness.
The dome of the structure does not appear to have been a part of the original design. It is believed that Castellani was also responsible for this addition in 1875 when he was contracted to install the plaster ceiling. This dome was used for the storage of archival records, many of which were carelessly stored in bags before considerations were made for the formation of a National Archive in 1958.
Today the Parliament Buildings stand as a proud reminder of the nation's heritage, a reminder of the enslaved Africans who were the masons and carpenters, a testimony to those who were hung for their cry for justice and a symbol of the country's colonial and national legacy where the national assembly sits.
Its endearing value to the cultural landscape of the city has been identified, as it is one of the twelve essentially listed monuments to be included in Georgetown's nomination dossier to the World Heritage Centre for inscription into their prestigious list of sites of universal and outstanding value reflecting a unique and diverse craftsmanship.