Old Home Lingers on the Market in Trinidad's Capital

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PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO -- Greta Elliott regrets having to sell Boissiere House, an architectural gem that has been in her family for several generations and that the government of Trinidad and Tobago would like preserved as part of the country's heritage.

"I can't afford to maintain the house, and furthermore, the house is too big for me to live in," Ms. Elliott said.

But selling Boissiere House is proving to be a difficult undertaking, partly because potential buyers know that renovations and maintenance will be expensive. Also, the government's interest in the house could make it difficult to get permission for commercial uses unless the buyer is willing to repair and maintain the house in its original state.

The four-bedroom house, also known as the Gingerbread House for its intricate detailing and fanciful style, was built in 1904 by the wealthy mixed-race descendants of French merchants. The residence, one of the few remaining examples of its period in the city, has been on the market for more than three years and now is listed at 20 million Trinidad dollars, or $3.15 million.

Several people have expressed interest, but a sale has not materialized, said Ann-Marie Aboud, the real estate agent representing Ms. Elliott.

The house stands on almost 20,000 square feet, or 1,858 square meters, of land in a prime part of Port of Spain, the capital, making its location ideal for commercial use.

"Some people find that it takes too long to get approvals" from the Town and Country Planning Division for such uses of historic properties, Ms. Aboud said, adding, "When a man spends 20 million Trinidad dollars for a house, he wants to get a return on it."

Richard Saunders, a developer in Trinidad, agreed, saying that high-priced vintage houses were very difficult to sell because they were considered poor investments. Prospective buyers, he added, typically require some assurance that they will be able to recoup their investment by converting the residence to commercial use, which may involve tearing down the house to make way for offices.

The challenges facing Ms. Elliott are not unusual. Ms. Aboud noted that another house in the area was listed at around the same price four years ago and, when it did not sell, was converted into rental apartments. "It was really pretty with the interior an Indian design, like a Bollywood movie," she said.

Rawle Mitchell, an architect and head of the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure's historical restoration unit, acknowledged that few people in Trinidad would pay the high price that a vintage house commands simply for the pleasure of living in it.

"One of the things that we have to do when dealing with heritage properties of significant value, we have to provide necessary incentives to encourage owners to preserve and restore these properties, because if we do not do this, very soon we would be losing significant heritage properties," he said. "If the house is on prime real estate, no one would buy it unless they can break it down."

Rudylynn De Four Roberts, an architect and conservationist, agreed: "The land itself is more valuable than the house, because no real value is put towards an old house in our culture. Therefore, having paid an exorbitant cost for the property, because the land value is high, the purchaser wants to maximize his investment by building a multistory building."

Although provisions for a historic register and penalties for altering or damaging a property on that register were included in the 1991 law that established the country's National Heritage Trust, the attorney general, Anand Ramlogan, is working on some legalities concerning the establishment of a register.

When that work is complete, said Simone Charles, manager of the national trust, properties on the register can be legally protected. "Once a site is listed it cannot be tampered with and thus its historic integrity will be maintained," she said.

While the government regularly voices support for planning and preservation efforts, in practice there rarely are any penalties when its desires are disregarded.

An old house that stood opposite the site of the former Roxy Theater in the city center is a good example of the problem, Mr. Mitchell said. Developers building One Woodbrook Place, a high-rise apartment complex, bought the house and, before the planning department learned of their intent, they demolished it so the site could be used to store building materials, he said.

Because there are no protections in force, the planning division often will approve new construction after a historic building has been demolished without approval -- if, as Ms. Roberts, who has worked with the government's Historical Restoration Unit as well as private heritage projects, said, the new construction matches the neighborhood in scale and design.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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