Castellani House

The Changing Faces of Castellani House

(by Bert Carter) 

Castellani House, as it is known today, came into existence in a rather indirect way because of a botanical and horticultural interest expressed by the British Guiana branch of the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society at a meeting held on 3rd June, 1877 in Georgetown.

The result was that the Government of the day purchased from the estate of the late Joseph Bourda 276 acres of the backlands of Pln. Vlissengen. This was an area whose frontlands were bounded on the west by what is today’s Homestretch Avenue, on the north and south by North St/Rd and South St/ Rd respectively, and to the east by present day Vlissengen Road. The Botanical Gardens, as we know it today, comprise of 185 acres of these lands.

A great deal of work had to be done before planting could commence, as the original condition of most of the land was that of the swampy pastures so dominant in that part of the coast at the time. In 1879, Mr. J. F. Waby arrived from Trinidad to lay out the gardens. This was based on a plan prepared by a Mr. Prestoe, who had come the year before for the purpose of examining the site. Mr. George Samuel Jenman arrived in 1880 having been appointed as Botanist and Superintendent.1

In 1860, a Maltese architect by the name of Cesar Castellani who was attached to the Society of Jesuits arrived in the colony as a Lay Brother. He turned out to be one of the most prolific and sought after architects of that era. He was attached to the Public Works Department and so was commissioned to design and construct a residence for Superintendent Jenman who, as it turned out, was dissatisfied with the original design and so refused to move into the residence.

He demanded that certain changes be made and only occupied the structure after the changes were completed in 1882. After he died, the building was used as the residence for future Directors of Agriculture, one of the last of whom was Gavin Kennard, who was a Minister of Agriculture.

Castellani House is a large 19th century building located in the southwestern corner of the Botanical Gardens. It can be accessed by the public from the entrance located at the corners of Home Stretch Avenue and Vlissengen Road.

Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Univ. of Guyana, Prof. Lennox Hernandez, describes the building at the time of construction as having two floors only. That is a ground and first floor only, with high gable end roofs punctuated by gable dormer windows. The main body of the house had a centrally placed entrance to the west side with galleries along the north and east sides at the first floor level and an open porch below the northern gallery.

Over the years the building has undergone some major changes.

In 1937 Gordon Groves joined the British Colonial Agricultural Service in London, England and took up an overseas appointment in 1942 in the Department of Agriculture, British Guiana. During his tenure he also served as Curator of the Botanical Gardens.

It was during this time that the design of the original building was altered with the addition of a third floor. This alteration saw the enclosure of the open porch and the raising of the roof in order to create the second floor.

The ridge line was then made higher than the tower and the dormer windows replaced with Demerara shutters. Of course, when the structure was originally erected there was no water borne sewage system in place and so it is presumed that sewage disposal was by way of a soakaway/ septic tank.

In 1928, under the supervision of the Georgetown Sewage and Water Commission, the present disposal system was installed and so it is presumed   that the building, even though located on the extreme eastern boundary of the water borne system, was hooked into the system as evidenced from the sewer pipes featuring very prominently in the top left corner.

This expansion eliminated the uppermost northern and southern windows of the tower and saw the mounting of a weather vane along with an anemometer on the walkway around the tower as the Meteorological Department was then housed on the ground floor.

In 1965, the newly elected Prime Minister, the Hon. L. F. S. Burnham commissioned the local architect, Hugh McGregor Reid, to draft plans for the further modification of the building to accommodate a residence for the PM and his family; and which should also be a centre for entertainment of both local and overseas guests as well as foreign dignitaries.

The final product, adequately maintained at the time, was indeed befitting of a national residence for the Prime Minister and so the nomenclature “The Residence” was no doubt deemed appropriate. The Burnham family was then, presumably, easily and readily accommodated in the extension which was done to the second floor. Subsequent additions to the site included a swimming pool with ceramic tiles designed and made by the English artist, Leila Locke, and an asphaltic concrete lawn tennis court. With permission, members of the public were allowed to use these facilities.

When the Prime Minister became President of the Cooperative Republic in 1980, the presidential insignia, the Cacique Crown, was mounted on the balustrades around the highest level of the tower. The shingles that adorned the roof up to the early ‘80s had to be replaced along with repairs which were executed to the northern portion of the roof as a result of a small fire set by an adopted son, Kamana, of the Burnham family who was playing with matches in the attic. Fortunately, quick action by the Household staff and the Guyana Fire Service avoided injury and a conflagration.

After his death in August, 1985 the building was left unoccupied for a while. The incoming President, the Hon. Hugh Desmond Hoyte, chose to remain and reside in his own home. The building was still being properly maintained and so were the lawns and adjacent environment.

The change in government in 1992 saw the appointment of Dr Cheddi Jagan as the new President. Dr Jagan chose to live at State House thereby allowing The Residence to be utilised for other purposes. Major internal alterations to the structure were undertaken by the government and completed between 1997 and 1999. The architectural details were entrusted to Rodrigues Architects Ltd, headed by Albert Rodrigues. The building was subsequently renamed Castellani House and was designated to be the National Art Gallery where the nation’s collection of arts and craft would be on continuous display all year round, under one roof and in one location.

“Historically, with respect to the Botanical Gardens and the Castellani House and outbuildings, this property has been regarded as a single, collective and contiguous site, the physical divisions as appear today arising out of the varying utilitarian function of the area”.

Such was an extract of the petition on the part of the National Trust to the Office of the President suggesting that the site be declared a National Monument in November 2001. The site, inclusive of the building, was subsequently declared to be a National Trust Monument with the bronze interpretive marker securing this privilege being affixed to the said building.

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