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Notes on the Geography of Guyana: Guyana: From Wood to Concrete

Until 1945, buildings in British Guiana were almost always made of wood. A downtown fire that year triggered rebuilding in concrete, which soon became the material of choice throughout the city, especially in the form of concrete blocks. Smart? Maybe, but if the city had chosen to stick with wood, Georgetown might have become a major tourist center. That would have created problems of its own, but it would also have made money for somebody, and money trickles. Doesn't it?

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This is the prime minister's house. It's on High Street about midway between St. George's Cathedral and the ocean and was originally a private house built for Samuel Sandbach, one of the so-called "Rothchilds of Demerara." His company survived until 1975, but the house was acquired by Booker about 1911. Booker was a dominant force in the colony's economy, so much so that B.G. was said to stand for Booker's Guiana. The company chairman made this building his home, but the Booker company quit Guyana--or was forced out--after independence. A few years earlier, in 1962, Booker sold the building to the British government for its High Commission. The government of Guyana later bought the building and in 1987 made it the prime minister's residence.

The tower was a common feature in the larger homes of Victorian Georgetown and is said to have given a view of the sea. Whether in fact it does so in this case is hard to say. Maybe. A few strands of rusty barbed wire don't offer much security, but maybe that's a good sign.

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This house is known, none too distinctively, as the Tower House. You might guess it's Victorian, but no: it was built about 1924 as two stories supported by stilts. The ground level has been enclosed to create living space on the assumption that flooding is only a remote possibility in this part of town.

The building had several owners before the government bought it in 1979. It now houses the Guyana Office for Investment. The razor wire doesn't do much to inspire investors.

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Yet another towered building, this time for the Moravian Church. The Moravians (from Moravia, which is to say from what is now the southeastern corner of the Czech republic) were denied permission in 1739 to evangelize slaves but returned in 1878 at the invitation of the locally powerful Quintin Hogg, who wanted someone to educate his workers.

"Eighteen-ninety-eight found us launching a new building programme... The builder, Br. Joseph Harper, led his band of workers with a zeal that was infectious...In 1902, 12th May, the cornerstone of the Queenstown Church in the city was laid...." http://collections.mun.ca/PDFs/moravianmis/MoravianMissionsVol36No101938October.pdf

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This, the so-called Red House, was the home of Eustace Woolford (1876-1966), one-time mayor of Georgetown and Speaker of the Assembly. The government bought it in 1925 to house the colonial secretary--the highest-ranking member of the civil service, but in the early 1960s it became the house of Cheddi Jagan, who was then British Guiana's premier.

The color is probably not original, but the Demerara shutters are particularly fine.

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A welcome breeze blows through the shutters when the tide is rising but disappears as the tide recedes.

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The building has some surprises, like this unlabelled photo of Jagan with no less than Paul Robeson.

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No tower and no razor wire. Before 1977, it had been the home since 1949 of the Sisters of Mercy. But what is it? The maple leaf tells the tale.

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An elegant house designed by the locally prominent and Georgetown-born John Bradshaw Sharples (1845-1913). It's the understated office of Rusal, the Russian aluminum company.

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Here's the Georgetown club, built in 1945, almost as if in a time warp.

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A closer peek.

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Another private house taken over for a government function. It's the Colgrain House, originally built by a Scottish family. It was later owned by Bookers and then the Federal Republic of Germany. The government bought the house in 1975, and since 2005 the building has been the official residence of secretary-general of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

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Ready for Architectural Digest? The colors are non-traditional; so is the detailing, but it's pretty perfect, save for the razor wire. It's at the corner of Peter Rose and Laluni, a five-minute walk from the Rusal offices.

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Another neighbor, the Brazilian ambassador's residence at the corner of Anira and Peter Rose.

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The nearby Suriname Embassy.

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This is Austin House, named for the first Anglican bishop of Guyana, William Piercy Austin, who lived on this site from 1842 to 1892. Ironically, the house was built the year Austin died. It's still the bishop's residence. Funny, how the unusual-for-Georgetown color scheme might be attractive somewhere else but is off-putting.

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Not every wooden building is so well maintained.

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There's a lot of decrepitude.

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And abandonment.

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Shack on stilts.

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A variant.

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Some old buildings have been cleared away but not replaced. The Astor Cinema opened here in 1939 with a William Holden film and kept the projectors running until 2013. It was the last of the city's movie theaters; as late as 1989, there had been 50 of them.

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When did wood bite the dust? Maybe it's stretching things to point to the cemetery, but, hey, it's stone. It's called Le Repentir and stands on the site of a plantation established with that name in the 18th century by Pierre Louis de Suffon, who forever abandoned France in grief over killing his own brother in a duel. The city acquired the plantation in the 19th century, kept the name--Repentence--and converted it into a well-managed cemetery.

The cemetery has since fallen on very hard times. Burials continue, but graves are often almost instantly lost in the resurgent forest. Here, an old carriage lane cuts through the cemetery-turned-jungle.

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Near a crossroads in the cemetery, there's one of the few freestanding monuments. It's almost illegible but is clearly dated 1931 and was apparently erected by Freemasons.

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Here's a more-legible-than-most monument. It reads: "Ma[ry?], beloved wife of W.D. Scott of Peter Hall who died Nov ?9th, 18?? Not lost, but gone before. Asleep in Jesus."

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A family crypt.

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It's the John Fernandes Vault, named for a man who died in 1884 at 53. As late as 2008, his descendants were being memorialized here.

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British Guiana had a railway, too, which meant something besides wood. The 60-mile-long Demerara-Berbice railroad was built in stages between 1846 and 1900 and designed by Frederick Catherwood, best known for his researches into the Maya.

The line was nationalized in 1919 and taken over by the government's transport and harbor department. A World Bank mission of 1953 recommended an upgrade, but poor service lingered until 1972, when the line was abandoned and the station demolished. This iron-roofed shed survives. Perhaps it was used by the buses that for a time replaced the train, but the buses were then replaced by privately operated minibuses.

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A bit of leftover rail, along with the plausible initials of the Guyana Transportation Service.

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Concrete came into its own after the great fire of 1945, which broke out in the Booker Universal Store's pharmacy, here on the far right in a model behind glass at the national museum. The fire jumped across the street to the left and destroyed the museum and Assembly Hall. It jumped another block to destroy the post office (with the octagonal tower). Appropriately, perhaps, the building shown here in yellow survived (and survives still). It housed the Hand-in-Hand fire-insurance company.

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Booker replaced its buildings, but they were nationalized in the 1970s and re-privatized in 2000.

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The stock is still pretty thin.

From The New York Times, May, 1976: "Later this month, to mark the 10th anniversary of Independence, the Government will take over the subsidiaries of Booker-McConnnell, a British conglomerate that controls 80 percent of sugar production and exports, the only department store, 60 percent of the rum industry, a livestock feeding company, pharmaceuticals, shipping and warehouses....It will also virtually mark the end of private foreign holdings in Guyana."

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The dry goods department is in better shape.

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Here was competition for Booker: it's the William Fogarty department store, built after 1945 to replace the earlier Fogarty store, destroyed in the fire.

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The Fogarty store early Sunday morning. The building now houses a collection of tiny shops. The initials over the door signify Guyana Telephone and Telegraph.

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A new post office was built. The Architectural Review in 1950 published a drawing of it and lists Watkins and Partners as the architects. A sculpture by Frank Dobson, professor at the Royal College of Art, was intended to humanize the block but was rejected by the townsfolk as insufficiently conventional.

See https://www.stabroeknews.com/2014/03/30/features/citizens-reject-work-art/

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Here's the Barclay's bank building of 1951. Roy Heath considers it important in a negative way: "The buildings that began to go up on the burnt-out lands where attractive wooden structures once stood were for the most part made of concrete. One of the first, Barclays Bank in Water Street, is a low, featureless construction that set the tone for the others, all, apparently, hastily designed, and none which could be described as Guyanese. If the Great Fire signalled the demise of the old style in Georgetown's business quarters, the reconstruction that followed it dragged us into a modern age dominated by a cold display of glass and concrete" (Shadows Round the Moon, pp. 230-31). The building now houses the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry. The only foreign bank left in the country is Scotiabank, though in 2020 Citibank officials were in town to discuss opportunities.

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A new building was built for the national museum on the site of the old museum. The initials signify the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society, which had housed the old museum.

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The Bank of Guyana rose on the site of the burned Assembly Hall. Pan American, some of whose planes on the Miami-to-Brazil route stopped in Georgetown, maintained a ticket office here in what must have been in the 1970s the city's premier commercial location. Since then, commercial activity has dispersed to newer, peripheral districts.

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The Tower Hotel, made of wood when it opened in 1910, was rebuilt in concrete.

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Houses shifted to concrete as well.

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Wooden survivors linger in juxtaposition to modern buildings.

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A row of social or public housing survives next to the Status International Hotel.

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A house on stilts suvives next to the offices of the Peace Corps, where gate guards, asked about the number of volunteers in the country, say firmly, "We are not allowed to release that information."

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We're on Forshaw Street, named for an early Georgetown mayor, George Anderson Forshaw. The city of wood he knew is being nibbled away.



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