Parisians, joined by the rest of the world, watched yesterday in horror as fire raged through one of the City of Light’s most significant landmarks, the Notre Dame Cathedral. After just over an hour, the 850-year-old building’s main roof and its spire were destroyed, but thankfully the majority of the cathedral’s main structure, which survived the 1789 French Revolution and two world wars, has remained intact, and many religious artefacts preserved there were saved.
Historically, there have been many fires in Bridgetown since our capital city was established almost 400 years ago, with the most serious and tragic in recent years being the Campus Trendz blaze in 2010 when a robbery attempt claimed the lives of six young women who were trapped inside the store on Tudor Street when criminals set it alight. Prior to that, in 1990, a welding accident, similar to what is believed to caused the Notre Dame fire, wiped out seven businesses, including the popular Budg-Buy and Julie ‘N supermarkets, between St Michael’s Row and Bridge Street.
Two City fires were two-decade apart and their circumstances were different.
But both have left a persistent question: what have we done to improve the safety of older buildings not only in Bridgetown but elsewhere on the island?
There are still too many storefront operations in the City with no emergency exits. They are not mandated by law to have fire suppression systems, such as a sprinkler system, hoses and extinguishers on the property within easy reach in the event of a fire.
How often are these systems checked? Are staff members given regular fire drills or taught how to react in case of fire or other emergencies? In the case of fire drills, fire officers are sometimes called in to give advice, letting owners and property managers know where they can improve, but are their suggestions acted upon? And if not, are there any penalties associated with non-compliance? More crucially, are these penalties enforced?
We also must exercise caution with some of the older buildings in The City and the Historic Garrison Area, especially the abandoned ones which can become tinderboxes. We ask what will really become of the former National Insurance Building on Fairchild Street? Experts say that based on its location it carries a unique foundation.
Although it was opened in 1975 by the Queen, making it a relatively young building by any measure, it was declared a ‘sick building’ that had outlived its original purpose when the NIS moved to Collymore Rock in the late 1990s.
It will be a labour-intensive undertaking, but if we are talking about bringing new life to Bridgetown, it could be used to house other types of businesses, which are always looking for retail or office space. But something must be done.
The Carnegie Library on Coleridge Street holds lots of memories for older Barbadians who frequented it to borrow books or study for exams. That building also has been out of commission for many years and there has still been no word on what will be done with it.
After more than 30 years, work seems to have started on the interior of the Empire Theatre, which, if nothing else, shows just how much must be done to reclaim a building that has sat abandoned for so long.
Interestingly enough, Notre Dame, despite its historic significance, had also suffered some neglect at the national level. Writing in the Daily Mail, Robert Hardman, who was one of the first people to enter Notre Dame after yesterday’s fire, noted that “experts had warned for years that the cathedral was in poor condition, but the French state was reluctant to fund renovation work in recent decades.” Moreover, “experts said the building needed restoration which would amount to 129.5 million pounds or 150 million Euros, but the state only offered 40 million Euros to that cause. It was seeking private donors to make up the rest”.
So it is not just a local problem. All too often, Governments neglect historic buildings, leaving them to become fire and environmental hazards, or potential “money pits” for anyone willing to invest in them and repurpose them. Sometimes, they are in such bad shape the new owners have no choice but to demolish them.
French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to rebuild Notre Dame within the next five years, and some of France’s top corporate bosses have pledged over 650 million euros to the cause. The biggest donor so far is Bernard Arnault of the luxury goods company LVMH, considered France’s richest man, who has pledged 200 million euros. Francois-Henri Pinault, another corporate executive married to Mexican movie actress Salma Hayek, had earlier promised 100 million euros. The Bettencourt family, which owns the L’Oreal cosmetics firm, and the oil giant Total, owners of Rubis, have pledged 200 million and 100 million euros respectively.
As recently as the Budget Debate, Opposition Leader Bishop Joseph Atherley spoke about restoring the shell of the Farley Hill Great House. But given the fact it has been out of commission for some 50 years now and has been subjected to ‘trauma’ since then from storms – and vibrations from loud music at the myriad shows held there – restoration may not be practical.
But then there are those buildings that are not only worth saving but may yet be saved before further deterioration renders them unsalvageable.
We ask for an update on former CXC headquarters, Blocks A and B at the Garrison, that is supposed to house the National Art Gallery.
Since that project has been sitting in limbo for the past two decades without suitable levels of public funding, we suggest he Barbados Arts Council, in association with some generous donors with an interest in the visual arts, launch a fund-raising campaign, with the money carefully monitored to ensure it goes the right place, to get that restoration work going in earnest.
Surely, GoFundMe, which has become a popular fund-raising vehicle via social media in recent years, could be used raise equipment and materials for that building to function properly as a home for the national art collection.
Accidents do happen and unfortunately, it can take minutes to destroy centuries of craftsmanship. But once the willpower is there and the necessary safety measures put in place to help mitigate any threats, old buildings can live again.