The City Hall in Georgetown, Guyana

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Francis Maude, Director at Donald Insall Associates in London, describes the late 19th century City Hall in Georgetown, Guyana, and its connections with civic architecture in Britain. This conservation project also provides a good example of the benefits of collaborative partnerships, training workshops and formal sponsorship.

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The City Hall in Georgetown, Guyana, is perhaps the most extraordinary example of civic Gothic architecture in the Caribbean region. It was built in 1887-89 to the designs of the architect and Jesuit priest, the Rev. Ignatius Scholes, who won the appointment in competition. His approach combines the then current British layout for such civic buildings, with a great sensibility towards what was both appropriate and buildable in the context of a location on the north east shoulder of South America at the mouth of the Demerara river, linked to the interior of the country as well as to the rest of the world by water transport.

The design of the building may be compared in both layout and scale to the recently completed town hall in Northampton, and the city Hall in Chester, to both of which it bears a considerable resemblance, as well as to later examples in continental Europe.

The City Hall responds to its location though the use of a mass concrete raft foundation, which prevents it from sinking into the soft alluvial mud of the tidal riverside marshes on which the city is built, and protects it from climbing termites, rising damp, and intermittent flooding. The first and second floors, as well as the roof and tower are all timber framed and clad, being built from tropical greenheart timber of the highest quality, available from the interior of the country. The joinery for the ventilating louvres, extensive glazed windows, the doors and the external cladding are all made from pitch pine, probably sourced from Canada; the high resin content makes it unattractive to termites. The cast iron for the verandas on the long sides of the building, and which form a large part of the Gothic detailing, were imported from the UK, as were the original welsh roof slates, ornamental roof crestings and perimeter railings. Overall, the City Hall is a product of 19th century global supply networks. It was constructed by a local contractor, Sprotstons, who remain in business to this day, though now as part of a larger concern.

Concern about the state of the City Hall was highlighted during an unsuccessful bid to have the centre part of Georgetown inscribed as a World Heritage Site on account of this and other wooden buildings which were laid out in the late 19th century as a garden city.

I first visited Georgetown in October 2013, and was shown round the City Hall. The accommodation comprised treasury and finance offices on the ground floor, the council chamber and town clerk’s offices on the first floor and, on the second floor and reached by an impressive staircase, is located a concert hall covering the whole floor area. The condition of the building was affected by water getting in, through the roof which had lost its slates, though these had been replaced by felt, through damaged guttering, and through birds getting in. This had led to timber decay in many parts of the City Hall, and the second floor was no longer in use. During heavy rain, water invaded the first and ground floors too.

In 2016-18, Donald Insall Associates were appointed by the National Trust for Guyana to prepare a Conservation Management Plan and a feasibility study for the restoration of the building, together with the adjoining city Engineer’s building. This was followed by full contract documentation with drawings, specifications and schedules of work, and a series of training workshops, attended by local professionals and trainees, in the methodology of building conservation. We were supported by Ed Morton of the Morton Partnership, and local architect Deen Kalamudeen in the project, which was part sponsored by the European Union. Fundraising now continues, to allow the repair project to be implemented.

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