Urgent need to save Briarend House

GEORGE BROWN

The Birth of the Gingerbread House

Introduction

In the decade following the turn of the twentieth century, George Brown single handedly transformed the face of the city of Port of Spain. During this period, from when he arrived to Trinidad from Strathmiglo, Scotland in 1883 until he left in 1920, a great number of iconic built heritage sites were constructed.

During his stay in Trinidad, he was employed by Turnbull Stewart & Co., where he began producing prefabricated fretwork and other architectural components. He can be considered as the “masman” of architecture as he brought his style of Art Nouveau from Scotland, with great insight and panache, adapting it to the climate of Trinidad and Tobago. This was the birth of the Gingerbread house, a breath of fresh air from the Victorian and French Creole vernacular that was prevalent during this time.

The development of the balloon frame made from prefabricated timber components (2x4, 2x6, etc.), allowed for the construction of two storey homes like Briarend. Besides the development of the balloon frame, many other architectural features such as fretwork, ridge pieces, finials, etc., were prefabricated. These ornamental elements were not only there just for aesthetic reasons, but were integral to strengthening the overall structure and withstanding the harsh variations in the Caribbean climate. For example the ever common fretwork was use to help disperse the rain, filter the sunlight and prevent bats or pigeons from living under the roof.

 

Courtesy the UWI St. Augustine, | Institute for Gender and Development Studies

AUDREY LAYNE JEFFERS

Mother of Philanthropy

This truly magnificant house on 22 Sweet Briar Road was built for Henry Jeffers in 1908, who at the time was an established lawyer and three term member of the Port of Spain City Council. However it was his daughter, the Hon. Miss Audrey Layne Jeffers, O.B.E, M.B.E., born in 1898, who would become the first female member of the Port of Spain City Council in 1936. Ten years later to become the first female selected for the Legislative Council by Governor Sir Bede Clifford. This was not an easy accomplishment for a locally elected council member and far less for being a negro woman in a patriarchal crown colony. Only nine elected members were allowed in the Legislative Council of twenty-five and even then many restrictions was imposed on these elected members so that they had very minimal authority within the council.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Albert Gomes who was another elected council member during that time and noted the British antipathetic attitudes towards the West-Indian in his autobiography Through a Maze of Colour :

In 1896, Secretary of State, Joseph Chamberlain, echoing the findings of his friend James Anthony Froude, remarked that West Indian whites and ‘half-breeds’ were always incapable and frequently corrupt and that the negroes were totally unfit for representative institutions.

Again in 1940 , Lady Young the Governor’s wife wrote privately to Secretary of State, Malcolm McDonald that local white creoles have no conception of manners, loyalty or any other civilized virtue. They simply do not live in the same box as ordinary human beings, one cannot calculate what any of their reactions are; they are as strange and as remote morally as the Africans and low-caste Indians who have, as everything tend to stink — much influenced the whole trend of life in these islands.

Plaque dedicated to Briarend house, place outside the main extrance. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

 

Audrey Jeffers obtained her diploma in Social Sciences at Alexander College, North London and founded the Union of Students of African Descent, now known as the League of Coloured Students. While in London with the onset of World War One, she started the West African Soldier’s Fund, with many contributions from fellow West Indians.

Shortly after returning to Trinidad in 1920 from London, Audrey started a junior school in Briarend House. A year later with a kind and ambitious virtue to provide help for the deprived and impoverished citizens of the nation, the Coterie of Social Workers of Trinidad and Tobago was established. The organization was the first to establish breakfast sheds in different communities, focusing on giving free lunch to poor children. The organization later expanding to building homes for the blind, elderly and the homeless. It was because of this generous endeavor she received the title of Mother of Philanthropy and was posthumously awarded the Chaconia Gold Medal for Social Service in 1969, a year after her death.

Clothes pin showing the logo of the Coterie of Social Workers of Trinidad and Tobago with their motto “Let us lift as we climb.” Photo: Coterie of Social Workers of Trinidad and Tobago

 

The landmark Coterie of Social Workers building in San Fernando is torn down by workers of the San Fernando City Corporation. Photo: Tony Howell / Trinidad Guardian Newspaper

From the 1951 Franklin’s Trinidad and Tobago Year Book which stated the Coterie of Social Workers board members included President: Hon. Miss Audrey Jeffers, M.B.E ; Vice Presidents: Miss Maud A. Reeves and Mrs. B.O.V Jarrette; Chairman of Advisory Board: Mrs Cynthia Patrick; Honorable Secretary: Miss Edna James ; Branch Secretary: Miss Amelia Armstrong; Treasurer: Mrs. T. Duverney-Edwards.

It should be noted that the Coterie of Social Workers also had a branch located on the corner of Carib and Coffee Street, San Fernando until the building was demolished by the San Fernando City Corporation in March 2013. In 1951 its board members included: Mrs. Amy L. Scott, M.B.E; Vice-President : Mrs. V. Charles; Honorary Secretary: Miss Myra Holder; Advertising Secretary: Mrs. V. Callender; Treasurer: Mrs. J. Kelly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exterior shot of Briarend house at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Sweet Briar Road. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

 

 

 

South Elevation of Audrey Jeffers House (Drawing by Colin Laird)

Into the 1900s there were several prominent architects like George Brown who had the creative freedom to combine accepted architectural styles and creating a uniquely Trinbagonian vernacular model. Briarend house fits into this category as it is an amalgam of diverse characteristics which were fashionable during that period.

 

Southern and eastern facade of Briarend House in the 1980's. Photo Rudylynn Roberts

Briarend House has the qualities of a late Victorian home. It is constructed with a balloon frame and has large upper floor timber framed with jalousies and sash windows on each elevation, a gable roof with large dormers, and gable end windows. At the top of each end of the gable roof and on the dormer windows are tall finials. The exterior of the house was painted in a mixture of blue and gray with yellow and red awnings.

On the ground floor is a wraparound verandah with geometrical diamond railings and ornamental brackets, large double panel doors and windows made from polished mahogany. The double panel doors contain ruby red and amber coloured glass that brought a lot of warmth into the interior with the evening sunlight. The excellent craftsmanship and the streamlined design of the house is also characteristic of the Arts and Craft movement that rejected the manufactured and needless complexity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Elevation of Audrey Jeffers House (Drawing by Colin Laird)

 

Ground floor verandah with double panel doors and window, with architraves fretwork. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

All the doors, floors, architraves fretwork details, spindle staircase and wainscoting were all polished mahogany as well. The rooms were painted in Victorian colours like hunter green, deep rich creams and rose pink. The garden was originally planted with fruit and shade trees and an abundance of ginger lilies and other flora.

Ground floor reception room area which had burnt amber walls. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

 

Mahogany room dividers that leads to the kitchen and the staircase to the second floor. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

 

Kitchen entrance and doorway that leads to the back of the house and it had rich cream walls. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

 

In 2007 the house was renovated, which included the repainting of the exterior and the entire interior being painted in white. This had an effect of diminishing the regal presence of the house by the lack of contrast in colours to emphasize the architectural details of the house.

Detail of the hanging light fixtures and ceiling fan. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

 

Top of staircase that shows a demerara window with fretwork sides that provided ventilation when closed and sun shade when open. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

At present all of the interior has been stripped bare, except for a few surviving light fittings and the living room fan. The rest of the house seems to accommodate the homeless, and is littered with their artifacts. Looking back now, this would no doubt make Audrey Jeffers smile, opening her house to the homeless. Other than that, the house seems to be structurally sound, but in dire need of repairs and have a proper restoration to return it to its former glory.

Northern facade showing framed jalousies, sash and demerara windows. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

 

Northern facade showing framed jalousies, sash and demerara windows. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

 

Southern facade of Briarend house. Photo: Joshua Lue Chee Kong

 

My feeling is that the state of the house shows how little the nation still values its history and heroes, especially the ones that devoted their lives to making this country worth living. Audrey Jeffers fought for the rights of women and the people of African descent, and more importantly laid the groundwork for community development and the treatment of the underprivileged. The house is also the last survivor of the Coterie of Social Workers of Trinidad and Tobago’s outstanding history and it needs to become a living testament to the philanthropic vision of Audrey Jeffers. Above all else it should be listed as a heritage site by the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago, so that it can gain the recognition and protection it truly deserves.

Special thanks to Geoffrey Maclean and Rudylynn Roberts for contributing their time and immense wisdom of the built heritage of Trinidad and Tobago and guidance writing this article.