Work to restore the old Empire Theatre to a state-of-the-art performance arts centre has begun.
However, while officials are tight-lipped about the development, some historians have welcomed it, but are cautioning authorities to preserve as much of the old structure as possible.
Work has already started on the building with the clearing of the shrubs and removal of other debris from the space that became a safe haven for insects and rodents as it gradually deteriorated over the years.
From as far back as 1997 there have been failed attempts to restore the historic building, which was opened in 1922 and closed in the mid 1970’s.
It was in January 2013 that then Minister of Culture Stephen Lashley announced that Cabinet had approved a $10 million proposal to refurbish the Empire into a 290-seat theatre, a craft brewery manufacturing Barbadian beer, a visitors’ centre and a small museum.
When the Cabinet approval was granted in late 2012, a conglomerate of companies had to submit proposals to the Town and Country Planning Department and the Barbados World Heritage Committee, since the Empire falls within the UNESCO World Heritage site.
In late 2016 the Town and Country Planning Department turned down Preconco Ltd’s plans for the restoration of the Probyn Street, Bridgetown building.
However, Barbados TODAY understands that some changes were made to the original plan and all was now in place for the development of the iconic building.
It is not yet clear when actual construction will begin or the proposed completion date, but an artist’s impression of the outside of the building shows a repaired brick structure with what appears to be glass panels and metal roofing.
When contacted this afternoon to shed more light on the planned development, Chief Executive Officer of Preconco Ltd. Mark Maloney declined comment.
So too, did Minister of Creative Economy, Culture and Sports John King.
However, President of the Barbados National Trust Peter Stephens told Barbados TODAY he was aware the building was cleaned up and he welcomed the restoration.
But, said Stephens, while he has not yet been given any official word on the development he was “skeptical” of its use as a theatre.
“I can’t see the supporting utilities for that – where the car park is going to be and how they would adjust the road network to suit a high pedestrian traffic?” he queried.
“Whether the Empire Theatre should be used as a theatre or whether it can be adapted into some other kind of public use, there is a myriad of things that can be done, some are more expensive than others,” he added.
However, he conceded that “there is an awful lot” that can be done to the block covering the Lower Bay Street, Probyn Street and Fairchild Street areas to encourage more people to shop and recreate in the City.
Stephens said he was not entirely in agreement with the last plan he saw for the Empire, which he said showed “a sort of modern top” that seemed “disconnected architecturally from the rest of the building”.
He said while he was not opposed to any modern additions to the building, officials should ensure they preserve as much of the original look as possible.
“I don’t mean to make it look old, but there are ways of making a modern structure more in keeping with an older structure and you still maintain the addition as modern but it looks like everything fits together,” explained Stephen.
“But the last impression I saw architecturally does not really fit together at all. I think we should raise the standard in that respect and do a much more interesting development of it that we can be proud of,” he added.
The Trust usually provides some guidance to officials carrying out development on architecture of historic importance or those that have been listed in specially-designated areas.
“We have not been asked to comment on this one yet, but we have general ideas,” said Stephens, while making it clear that it was not the duty of the Trust to tell anyone exactly how things should be.
“The Trust really acts as a guide but not dictatorial about the use of the buildings,” he said.
Meanwhile, historian Dr Karl Watson said he welcomed the restoration of the location and asked too, that the existing architecture be preserved as much as possible.
“I understand that it is going to be restored and I really hope it is because right now it is a shell in a very visible location,” he said.
Pointing to the recent demolition of the Belfield Mansion, the former home of national hero Samuel Jackman Prescod, Watson said it was important historic buildings were preserved, and said residents have a role to play.
“We win some battles and we lose some, but I think increasingly the people of Barbados are becoming aware of the importance of heritage and they are speaking out,” he said.
“I may be the lone voice crying in the wilderness but if I have 5,000 or 6,000 other voices with me then people sit up and listen,” he said. [email protected]