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The Red House — A Tale of Two Cities


Anna Walcott-Hardy

March 16, 2023

The Red House, the country’s cherished seat of parliament, stands proudly in the capital as a symbol of democracy, having been ground-zero to several watershed events over the years. The building has weathered riots, fire, insurrection and two restorations.

The First Peoples of Port of Spain

During the 2013 restoration of the building, the remains of 60 men, women and children, descendants of the first people to have lived on the island, were discovered.  The remains confirmed that Taino communities thrived there, over 1,000 years ago, long before the arrival of Columbus. These ancestral bones were carefully laid to rest in a reinternment ceremony in 2019 that brought hundreds together from across the diaspora. You can visit this site while touring the grounds, it’s truly a place of peace and remembrance.

Photo: Richard Lyder

Located on eight parcels of formerly private land, opposite Brunswick Square, the modern-day Woodford Square, the foundation stone for the original building was laid in 1844, by Governor Sir Henry McLeod. The southern block was completed in 1848 and contained the courts of law, while the northern was to house the colonial administration offices. But it wasn’t until 1892 that the Beaux-Arts styled building designed by Superintendent of Works, Richard Bridgens, would be finished, at a cost of £15,000. Back then the building’s north and south blocks were connected by a double archway, much like the Red House of today. The archway was a key architectural feature required by the City Council which stipulated that Prince Street should never be closed to the public and, pedestrian and wheeled traffic should pass freely. Today, the passageway between the two buildings which replaced the double archway, is no longer open to vehicular traffic.

It’s worth the five-minute walk north from Brian Lara Square, along St Vincent or Abercromby Streets. The expansive entryway, lush gardens, distinctive archways and fortifications around the roof are impressive.  There is an art gallery in the Rotunda, where you can admire the paintings, as well as inspect the high central cupola and ornate stucco ceilings.

Water Riots of 1903

The building got its popular title when it was painted red in 1897 for the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria. Then the country was part of the British Empire and wouldn’t gain independence until 1962. The years of hardship for many led in turn to the resistance to several laws and taxes by the colonial government.  On March 23rd, 1903, the ordinance regarding the distribution of and payment for water in the town, which was being debated in the Legislative Council, led to an historic meeting in Brunswick Square by the Ratepayer’s Association.  There was heightened public dissatisfaction about the proposed increase in the water rates. As the meeting came to a close, tensions increased, stones were thrown, windows smashed, including a stained-glass window in the chamber that commemorated the arrival of Christopher Columbus. But the final straw came when a woman was arrested by a policeman - more stones were thrown into the Council Chamber. Still, the Governor, Sir Cornelius Alfred Moloney, refused to withdraw the Ordinance. When it became known that the lower storey of the building was on fire, the riot act was read.  Sadly, police opened fire on the crowd, killing sixteen people and injuring forty-two; the building was burnt to the ground, leaving only a smouldering shell.

Rebuilding the Red House

The rebuilding of the great house began the following year on the very same site, with new designs by DM Hahn, Chief Draughtsman of Public Works. It was reopened on February 4th 1907 by Governor Henry Moore Jackson. Some of the distinctive features included the gesso work in the Legislative Council Chamber and the Justice Hall, which was estimated at £7,200. The Wedgwood blue ceiling with white gesso was the work of Messrs. Jackson & Sons, an English firm. The decorations were made in England in panels, and shipped to Trinidad in crates. An Italian craftsman was sent to install the ceiling.

After decades of peace and prosperity a sea-change was coming. On July 27th 1990, an insurrection by 114 members of the Jamaat-Al-Muslimeen led to the destruction of the building and historic loss. Prime Minister ANR Robinson and his colleagues were held hostage for six days and in the end, twenty-four people died. A wreath is laid annually at the eternal flame at the northern side of The Red House to pay tribute to those who lost their lives. Near to the eternal flame lies the bones of the First Peoples, both testimony to the cycle of life, loss and rebirth. Margaret Mc Dowall, then Chairman of the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago Council stated, “The Red House… has been a stage for many dramatic events in the history of this nation, it is the site upon which this democratic nation was born, and where that democracy overcame an unprecedented challenge.”