Friday, 4 January 2008

Our Architectural Vernacular

Where does the nostalgia for these houses come from? I grew up in the 1970s in a standard suburban Caribbean home, so it's not to say that I have childhood memories of this architecture.
Perhaps it is that these remarkable houses are so representative of our diversity. These old houses call to mind slower days, days when each house had to be crafted to catch the dying breezes of the rainy season, channeling them through wooden louvres and demerara windows. The steep gables give an indication of the high ceilings of most interiors, an integral part of keeping the house cool. The much beloved gallery was a place to relax, look out upon the happening of the world and entertain visitors.

Trinidad was a Spanish colony for far longer than many of the other English speaking islands. But being so close to the coveted mainland we were often bypassed in the busy traffic that was hurrying to get the plunder fresh off the Lama trails and across the Atlantic.
What does this have to do with our houses in Trinidad? Quite a bit. Our history was very different to most of the region and by extension, so is our architectural heritage. Never a French colony, yet very French in both custom and style. Many of the gingerbread trimmings such as fretwork bear a strong similarity to period houses out of Louisiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe; a reflection of the influence of the French cocoa planters that came to the then Spanish colony to plant cocoa, develop estates and escape political unrest in the French islands.
A visit to other islands throws up similarities, but Trinidad cannot be pinned down as being primarily Georgian like most British colonies, neither are we classically Spanish like much of the mainland and the Spanish islands such as Puerto Rico.
Strange because we were in fact only colonized by these two countries.
Our national architecture was influenced by many immigrants- East Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Syrian/Lebanese. and others.
Throw the weather into the mix and things really get interesting. The heavy humidity and rainfall during the long rainy season dictated practical aspects such as long useful verandahs, often adorned with breadfruit fern baskets to provide shade and the beautiful demerara windows that have just begun to make a resurgence. Many of the older houses had lovely fretwork built into the sides of the windows. These windows are ideally suited to the climate and were often found in the kitchens as the served the dual purpose of letting in breeze and providing shade at the same time.
The building below is one of the Magnificent Seven that are found around the Savannah.
Roomor, as it is now known, was once known as "Mr.Ambard"s House".

According to "Searching for SugarMills. An Architectural Guide to the Eastern Caribbean" by Suzanne Gordon and Ann Hersh, the house was built by Lucien. F.Ambard, a prominent cocoa proprietor, after a Parisian chateau of the Second Empire where he had lived with his family. It is sometimes called the "Queen of Architecture". Towers, pinnacles, dormers and cupolas accentuate the roofline and the galleries. The house had Renaissance-style ironwork made in Scotland.
The Queen is a bit down on her luck these days. Privately owned, she is suffering from the ravages of a hot, humid climate, her glory days behind her.


Jen said...

How lovely! We are lucky to have some nice old architecture here on Dominica, too. Most of ours is not quite as ornate as yours, but still lovely. It makes me sad that new housing has abandoned the traditional style and now is now just ugly concrete boxes.

kml said...

The details are so pretty on some of the older houses. We have many here in New England - some of the Victorian ones are quite ornate and beautiful.

Jen said...

Hi Sharon! I have given your blog the "You make my day" award at Living Dominica!

My Chutney Garden said...

Thank you Jen!
That's so sweet of you. I really like that the Caribbean boundaries are broken down on-line and we can all get a look at life in the other islands. Your blog is an amazing insight into life in Dominica.

Lapa said...

Very nice house and place an blog.


Cynthia said...

Sharon this was such a delightful post. Of course as you said, each Caribbean country has their own share and tale to tell and show of their various colonial masters. What saddens me is that often these buildings are not maintained, such artistry and architectural treasures left to rot and decay. And then we have on the other hand, the pulling down of these buildings to build concrete-block like structures that are so unattractive with no thought of light and air contemplated.

P.S. I don't mind you adding me to your blog roll at all. Thanks.

No Rain said...

Very educational post. I learned a lot reading this. Thanks.

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