The Red House, Port of Spain, Trinidad
By Francis Maude, Director at Donald Insall Associates in London, reveals the remarkable architectural evolution and rejuvenation of The Red House in Trinidad…
The present Red House, which has lately been refurbished, is the third incarnation of the Government Buildings on the site, and the development of these buildings closely parallels that of the transition of Trinidad and Tobago from a Crown Colony to a Republic, celebrating almost sixty years of Independence.
A Legislative Council of appointed members was set up in 1831, and met at the Governor’s House. This was never satisfactory, and the first “Government Buildings” were constructed on the site in 1844-48, to the designs of Richard Bridgens. They comprised a duo of two-storey blocks running north-south along the west side of the present Woodford Square: one contained the Law Courts; the other, to the north, contained the Legislative Council Chamber and other offices.
The second building developed from this pair of structures. By the 1890s, the lack of space for Registrars’ departments and the failure of the building design to respond to the climate had become unbearable. The Bridgens blocks were enclosed within a two-storey balcony on all sides, providing shade, to the designs of J. E. Tanner. New offices for the Registrar, and the Record Office, filled the gap between the two buildings, arranged around a central quadrangle, equipped with a fountain, and accessible to the general public. This improved structure, now forming a single building, was painted red in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, since when the Government Buildings have been popularly known as “the Red House”.
The Water Riots of 1903, which largely gutted the Red House, came about when attendance was denied at Legislative Council debates introducing fixed water rates. Peaceful demonstration outside the building became riotous and the police lost control. Afterwards, the standing walls of the 1840s blocks, and the 1890s work were incorporated into the present building. Daniel Hahn, an architect of German descent who had recently completed the construction of Queen’s Royal College (a leading school in Trinidad) entirely replanned the Red House. As completed in 1907, it contained larger Law Courts, Registries and Record Offices to the south, and Land Survey and other government departments to the north, with a large new Legislative Council Chamber at the northern end, suitably scaled to hold the many visitors to the debates, whose unmet demands for attendance had precipitated the riot. The main structure was in mass concrete under a roof of Welsh slate supported on steel trusses, with secondary structures in timber. Many internal partitions were panelled in local tropical hardwoods, and magnificent moulded and enriched plaster ceilings adorned the Council Chamber and principal courtroom. The whole building was crowned by a copper-clad dome, covering the earlier quadrangle in which the fountain still took pride of place.
Since the completion of the building in 1907, the franchise has been extended to all adults since 1946, and with Independence in 1962, a bicameral legislature was established. The pressing need for restoration of the fabric, and the transfer of the Supreme and other courts to a new building in the late twentieth century, created an opportunity to restore the building to meet the needs of a twenty-first century Parliament.
This work was undertaken in 2012 to 2019 to the designs of Bernard Mackay Architect and Donald Insall Associates, working as a joint venture for the Trinidad Parliament. The building has been fully restored, with the two chambers occupying symmetrical locations in the pavilions at the north and south ends of the building, under the restored ceilings, with enlarged visitor seating areas, facilities for cabinet and committee meetings, dining and research. There are also four suites for the principal office holders including the Prime Minister and President of the Senate.
The central domed atrium has been extended downwards into a new basement, which forms a separate entrance for the public visiting Parliament. This spectacular space welcomes visitors to the heart of the building, and host exhibitions, as well as linking the public to seating areas within the two chambers from which the debates may be watched.