Freema­sons Hall

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL NEWS -

The Freema­sons Hall in Com­pany Path, Ge­orge­town, the largest and old­est of the build­ings owned by Freema­sons in gen­eral in the city and pos­si­bly the coun­try, is in a dis­rep­utable state. Why it was al­lowed to de­te­ri­o­rate to such a point is a ques­tion worth ask­ing, when reg­u­lar main­te­nance and re­pairs over an ex­tended time-frame would have ob­vi­ated the present cri­sis.

Build­ings fall down in the city or are de­mol­ished all the time with­out a whis­per of ob­jec­tion from the pub­lic, but in this case there is some in­ter­est – and con­cern – be­cause of the pre­sumed age of the struc­ture. Ac­cord­ing to the late nine­teenth cen­tury his­to­rian, James Rod­way, the Union Lodge erected the build­ing in 1816. The District Grand Lodge of Guyana web­site, how­ever, phrases that more care­fully, say­ing that Union Lodge had its first build­ing on the site now oc­cu­pied by Freema­son’s Hall, which car­ries the pos­si­ble im­pli­ca­tion that an­other one may have been put up sub­se­quently on the site in its stead. If that is what they be­lieve, they give no hint of when this oc­curred, and ex­actly how old, there­fore, the present ed­i­fice may be.

When our re­porter in­ter­viewed Chair­man of the Na­tional Trust Len­nox Her­nan­dez, he just de­scribed the build­ing as “old”, with­out putting any date on it. Cer­tainly, if the ba­sic struc­ture of the Freema­sons Hall which is stand­ing now dates back to 1816, it would make it older than St Andrews Kirk, which was opened in 1818 (al­though the frame had al­ready been com­pleted by 1811). Wooden ed­i­fices of that vin­tage are ex­ceed­ingly rare in the coun­try, never mind the city, and for that rea­son alone might war­rant be­ing gazetted by the Na­tional Trust. The Hall has not been so gazetted, how­ever, al­though it has been listed, a more pro­vi­sional recog­ni­tion of its sta­tus.

In ref­er­ence to what hap­pened after 1816, the web­site says that “The deeds to this prop­erty were granted to Union Lodge on May 10, 1827.” It then goes on to re­late that after var­i­ous vi­cis­si­tudes (the de­tails of which it sup­plies), even­tu­ally in 1970 the District Grand Lodge took over the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the build­ing; how­ever, ti­tle to the land and build­ings re­mains with Union Lodge.

The ex­te­rior of the struc­ture cer­tainly does not con­vey the im­pres­sion of be­ing two-hun­dred years old, al­though it might well be the case that the frame is that age, and the façade has un­der­gone facelifts from time to time. What would be of in­ter­est is whether the frame is green­heart or some less durable wood, and whether any of the boards for the walls are hard­wood. In the case of St Andrews, for ex­am­ple, it is its green­heart skele­ton, so to speak, which no doubt has played a role in its sur­vival. At some point in the Bri­tish pe­riod, colo­nial build­ings be­gan to be con­structed out of im­ported pine, a very soft and eas­ily worked wood, which is ex­cel­lent for the pur­poses of del­i­cate fret­work, but leaves a lot to be de­sired in a trop­i­cal cli­mate in terms of longevity.

What can be said is that Freema­sons Hall does rest on low brick foot­ings and not con­crete pil­lars, a tes­ti­mony to the fact that it is not of very re­cent vin­tage.

In our sto­ries on the sub­ject, most re­cently last Thursday, we had re­ported District Grand Master Dood­nauth Per­saud as say­ing that ow­ing to the his­toric sig­nif­i­cance of the build­ing, the Na­tional Trust was re­spon­si­ble for it, but did not want to give any money to ex­e­cute the re­pairs. For his part, Mr Her­nan­dez clar­i­fied that the Trust does not own the build­ing and was as a con­se­quence not re­spon­si­ble for its main­te­nance. He con­ceded it would take mil­lions to re­pair it, given its con­di­tion, and while there were non-gazetted build­ings which the Trust had as­sisted in terms of re­pairs, this was con­tin­gent on whether money could be pro­vided. As far as this was con­cerned, he said, they had bud­geted al­ready for this year, and no funds would be avail­able be­yond that. Fur­ther­more, and most crit­i­cally, the Lodge had never ap­proached the Trust for money.

Our re­porter asked Mr Her­nan­dez what would hap­pen if an owner wanted to de­mol­ish a build­ing such as the Freema­sons Hall be­cause of a lack of money for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, and he re­sponded that the Trust would as­sist if the struc­ture were rec­og­nized as be­ing of such im­por­tance that it should not be de­stroyed. In those cir­cum­stances, he ex­plained, it could be is­sued with a preser­va­tion or­der and taken over. How­ever, he went on to ob­serve: “With Freema­sons Hall we have to ask our­selves what makes … [it] so im­por­tant that we would have to spend so much money tak­ing it over? … It is old, yes, but how im­por­tant is it? That has to be as­sessed.”

Well of course the Hall is not the most aes­thetic of ed­i­fices; what would qual­ify it for preser­va­tion would be its age, if that can be es­tab­lished, and its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance in terms of the cul­tural life of this coun­try.

But to re­turn to the ques­tion asked at the be­gin­ning: why was the build­ing al­lowed to fall into such a state of dis­re­pair in the first place? Was it be­cause the District Grand Lodge and the Union Lodge both thought the other should bear the cost?

Was it be­cause one or the other or both lacked the funds at crit­i­cal points? All that can be said where that is con­cerned, is that out­siders never got the im­pres­sion that the Masons at­tached to this Lodge were so im­pe­cu­nious they could not have tapped some source of funds for re­pairs as they went along.

The face of Ge­orge­town has changed dra­mat­i­cally over the decades since in­de­pen­dence – mostly for the worse. The beau­ti­ful build­ings, both large and small which would at­tract the tourists ev­ery­one likes to talk about, are be­ing ef­faced from the land­scape at an alarm­ing rate. More and more Ge­orge­town is be­com­ing a poor copy of a small US mid-west­ern town, and the skills and aes­thetic vi­sion which went into mak­ing it unique have dis­ap­peared too.

As it is, the District Grand Lodge web­site is ad­ver­tis­ing its “New Ma­sonic Centre for Fu­ture Gen­er­a­tions” and is ask­ing for do­na­tions. It is ac­com­pa­nied by a large pic­ture of what the ex­pen­sive-looking centre – which is be­ing built else­where ‒ will look like. The Na­tional Trust lacks suf­fi­cient per­son­nel or re­sources to stop the oblit­er­a­tion of the ma­te­rial her­itage, and has to con­fine its ef­forts to crit­i­cal build­ings such as St Ge­orge’s. If the Masons can be one of the ma­jor groups rais­ing the money to build a new centre, why can’t they se­cure do­na­tions to res­cue their own his­toric Lodge?

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