The mosaic history of this little island and its extraordinary wealth are built into its varied architecture. For the history buff, there are a great many archaeological and historical sites in Trinidad and Tobago. Many are in the process of being protected and preserved by the National Trust, several recently restored, and with much work still to be done.
You will find mansions and public buildings in the early 19th century neo-classical style popular under British colonial rule (eg St James Police Barracks, Port of Spain General Hospital). Governor Ralph Woodford also sponsored the construction of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (built 1816–1832) on Independence Square and the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral on Woodford Square (completed 1818 in the Gothic Revival style). Virtually all of the important buildings from the 19th century were either ecclesiastical or public buildings. Decades later, the buildings became more elaborate (the Red House, former Houses of Parliament, opposite Woodford Square, and Queen’s Royal College). You can learn more about all of these buildings further down in this article.
If you walk down Frederick Street, above the shiny glass windows of modern stores you will see the distinctive style of verandahs extending over the pavements that shade and shelter pedestrians. Inside large atriums with high clerestory windows used to provide ventilation and light. You will also spot Victorian elements of wooden fretwork, steep pitched gables crowned by finials and decorative cast iron columns and balustrading.
One remaining example of a great house from the days of sugar and cocoa plantations is the Boissiere Estate House in Maraval, which is now the Trinidad Country Club.
The 20th century brought various contemporary architectural styles, including art deco (Treasury Building on Independence Square and the McEnearny buildings in Port of Spain and San Fernando), and later the modernist movement (Eric Williams Financial Complex) and post-modern architecture (new offices in the St Clair suburb).
Here are some more treasured buildings and sites, with much to recommend them beyond their architecture. (For more on touring both Trinidad’s natural and built heritage, click here.)
The “Magnificent Seven” (Port of Spain)
These colonial-era homes on the northwestern edge of the Savannah are in varying degrees of repair and use, reflecting their diverse histories and ownership. Many have undergone or are currently undergoing significant restoration work. Approaching the seven from the south-western end of Maraval Road you will see them in the following order, while the beautiful Knowsley House can be seen in the southern end of the Savannah.
Queen’s Royal College (1904)
The most southerly of the Magnificent Seven is one of the most distinguished secondary schools in Trinidad, with a list of alumni including the architect of its present building (Daniel Hahn, also the designer of the Red House and the National Museum’s current home); the nation’s first Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams; and Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul. The foundation stone for its main block with its distinctive clock tower was laid in 1902. It was designed in the German Renaissance style, and has undergone significant refurbishment, with all its original elements and colours having been carefully restored.
Hayes Court (1910)
Purpose-built to serve as the residence of the Anglican Bishop of Trinidad & Tobago, Hayes Court is named after Bishop Thomas Hayes, the second man to hold the office. His successor, John Francis Welsh, was the first resident of Hayes Court, and it has remained the property of the Anglican Church since its construction. However, it has not been fit for residence for some time, and the Church has been operating a fundraising initiative for its restoration. The building was originally constructed by Taylor & Gillies. Design-wise, it is considered to be “indigenous”, using a combination of French colonial and contemporary Scottish cast iron elements, featuring traditional Demerara windows and flooring that is a combination of imported marble, ceramic, and terra cotta tiles.
Mille Fleurs (1904)
Built as the residence of the Prada family — as a gift from Mrs Prada to her Venezuelan-born husband Enrique — Mille Fleurs passed through a chain of private owners before being purchased by the government in 1979, after which it passed through several ministries. It was originally built by George Brown of the Trinidad Trading Company in a style described as French Provincial. Among its most notable architectural features are its staircase’s intricately carved balusters, marble treads and risers; and its elaborate cast iron columns and brackets. It unfortunately fell into a state of advanced disrepair. In 2013, the government announced plans for “emergency stabilisation” as part of larger plan to restore the property. In early 2020, these were nearing completion, and in July 2020 it was announced that the restored building was ready to be re-opened and would also house the headquarters of the National Trust.
Originally known as Ambard’s House and named after the cocoa merchant who commissioned it, Roomor was designed by a French architect in what is described as the French Second Empire style. The materials used to construct it were largely imported — marble from Italy, tiles from France, and cast iron elements from Scotland. However, the wood for the rafters came from the family’s estate in Erin. Notably, it has for the most part retained the integrity of its original design. Roomor is also the only one of the Magnificent Seven still functioning as a private residence, despite its fragile state. It came under the ownership of Timothy Roodal in 1940, and the name Roomor is an amalgam of the names of the Roodal and Morgan families.
Archbishop’s House (1904)
Three doors down from the Anglican Bishop’s residence is the residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port of Spain, also known as Archbishop’s Palace. It predates its Protestant cousin by about six years, having been opened in 1904. It was design by an Irish architect, with a style that was influenced by Indian Empire architecture. George Brown of the Trinidad Trading Company began construction in 1903. The building has been renovated since its original construction, making singificant changes from the original design. For example, the ground floor was significantly remodelled in the late 1960s, an apartment replaced the original summer house and stables, and the main wood doors have been replaced with aluminium sliding ones. It remains a functional property of the Roman Catholic church.
Another grand house built as a private residence, Whitehall (originally Rosenwegwas) was built in 1904 by Joseph Leon Agostini, a cocoa planter with Corsican family roots. The design was strongly influenced by Moorish Mediterranean architecture. In 1910, it was acquired by Robert Henderson, an American businessman from Venezuela, who renamed it Whitehall (or White Hall). It was transferred to government ownership in 1954 and became the Office of the Prime Minister shortly after the country achieved independence in 1962. It remained as such until 2009. In 2008, it was announced the building was to be renovated, and as of early 2020 it has received significant restoration work.
Killarney or Stollmeyer’s Castle (1904)
Commissioned by the Stollmeyer family, and designed by Scottish architect Robert Gillies of Tayor & Gillies in a Scottish Baronial style said to be based on a wing of Balmoral Castle, construction began on the building in 1902. Notably, upon completion Mrs Stollemeyer is said to have found the “castle” too ostentatious, leading her and her husband to give the property to their son Conrad. His wife gave the property the name Killarney, after the place in Ireland she had hoped to honeymoon. During World War II, US forces occupied both Killarney and Whitehall, and it was during this time Killarney began to be known colloquially as “the castle” and then “Stollmeyer’s Castle”. After the war, “the castle” continued to be owned and occupied by the Stollmeyer family until the early 1970s. It eventually found its way to government ownership in 1979. It was also declared scheduled for conversion to a Protocol House in 2008, along with its neighbour, Whitehall. It has undergone significant restoration work in recent years.
The straight line north ends up Maraval Road, lined with the Magnificent Seven, ends here. From here we spill into residential areas to the west; turn east for the Emperor Valley Zoo, the also recently refurbished President’s House, and the Botanical Gardens. If you’re staying at one of the many hotels up on this end, you might do the entire trip in reverse.
Also around the Queen’s Park Savannah…
Along the northern flank, the Botanic Gardens and the Zoo adjoin the stately and recently refurbished President’s House — fronted by its own manicured gardens. The site — with its original structure called “the Cottage” — was used as the Governor’s residence from 1867, and the current structure replaced the Cottage in 1876. After the islands became a republic in 1976, the building was designated as the President’s House, and became the official residence of the president (which it remains). Key architectural details include its blue limestone facade, Welsh Ditchess slate roof, Victorian columns and railings, and Victorian Italianate style arched portals and loggias.
Occupying the block between Chancery Lane, Dundonald Street and Albion Lane, on the southern side of the Savannah, this is another heritage building which has been beautifully restored within recent years (2011). Originally designed and built in 1904 by Taylor & Gillies for William Gordon, its structure features imported yellow bricks and hand hewn local limestone, with Italian marble on the ground floor veranda, plaster of Paris on the ground floor ceilings, and a magnificent interior staircase built from Guyanese purple heart wood. In June 1956, Kowsley was purchased by the government of Trinidad and Tobago for use as offices for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
National Museum & Art Gallery
Established as the Royal Victoria Institute, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the building is an example of the German Renaissance architectural style. The more celebrated example of this style in Trinidad – and no more than a stroll away from the museum – is Queen’s Royal College. The two buildings share a common architect: Daniel M. Hahn, an old boy of QRC, who received training in Germany. Today, the building houses both the national art collection and a history collection comprising artefacts from the country’s earliest known Amerindian settlements to (almost) the present day. Admission is free, and the museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm.
History buffs will find cannons and other relics scattered throughout the island. The gingerbread house has delicate wooden filigree, jalousie windows, peaked roofs, dormers and a gallery. George Brown, a Scottish architect who came to Trinidad in 1880, created the gingerbread style, which can be found across the island, in remnants of stately mansions once owned by planters and merchants, as well as the humble cottages of the working class. Among the most notable is the aptly named George Brown House (Victoria Avenue and Queen’s Park West), which brown himself designed in 1888 for the Seigert family. Brown’s daughter, Jessie Simpson, and her husband bought it from them in 1941.
Quite a few other gingerbread houses can be seen in Woodbrook, the western suburb of Port of Spain that is now the liming hub of the country. A living museum of architecture, this former sugar estate became a respectable suburb for a new emerging middle class in the early 1900s. Belmont, to the east of the Queen’s Park Savannah, has also held on to some of its beautiful old homes, which are in remarkably good condition.
More Port of Spain landmarks
Reopened in early 2020, and undergoing the very final stages of major restoration works, the original building was constructed between 1944 and 1948, modified in 1892, and the government offices painted red in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee — therefore earning the name by which it became known: the Red House. The original building burnt down in 1903 during the Water Riots. With Daniel Hahn as architect, the Red House was rebuilt with some alterations (including neoclassical ornamentation) using most of the external walls, and reopened in 1907. It houses the nation’s Parliament, which was temporarily relocated to the International Waterfront Centre during the renovations. A First Peoples burial ground was recently found at the site, including remains and artefacts (430–1400 AD).
Several distinct buildings overlook historic Woodford Square, which has been designated as the Woodford Square Heritage District. The Square was established in 1917 by Mayor Dr E Prada and named after Sir Ralph James Woodford, the British governor who contributed significantly to the development of Port of Spain. In the years leading up to independence in 1962, Dr Eric Williams (the islands’ first prime minister) and the People’s National Movement used Woodford Square for their public rallies, with the Square coming to be known colloquially as the “University of Woodford Square”. Restoration of the water fountain — showing Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, and her son Eros — was nearing completion in early 2020.
The buildings surrounding the Square are equally notable. Completed in 1818 in the Gothic revival style, with its hammerbeam roof made of local wood, is the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. The Hall of Justice lies to the north; the Old Fire Station and National Library (originally built in 1897, then refurbished and integrated into the new Library) to the west, across the road from the Red House (originally built in 1844, formerly the seat of Parliament, but currently being restored — work has been slowed by the discovery of First Peoples remains and artefacts dating to 430–1400 AD); and the remains of the razed Greyfriars Church to the east.
Houses of worship
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Port of Spain)
Recently refurbished and standing at the eastern end of the Brian Lara Promenade downtown, this Catholic cathedral was built between 1816 and 1832. Designated as a minor basilica, one of its most distinctive features is its stained-glass windows, which depict Trinidad’s history.
Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Port of Spain)
Completed in 1818 in the Gothic revival style, with its hammerbeam roof made of local wood, this is one of several historic buildings overlooking Woodford Square.
Hanuman Murti (statue) & Dattatreya Yoga Centre (Carapachaima)
Donated by an Indian swami, this 26m/85ft statue of Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god of strength) is reputed to be the tallest of its kind outside India. It towers above the adjoining Dattatreya Yoga Centre in Carapachaima.
Holy Rosary Church (Port of Spain)
Also undergoing restoration works, this Gothic revival church near the eastern end of Park Street dates back to 1866. Like the Cathedral downtown, its stained glass is absolutely stunning.
Mount St Benedict (Tunapuna)
This 600-acre property has a commanding view of the central plains, and from its perch at 245m/800ft one can see as far south as San Fernando. Founded in 1912, it is the oldest Benedictine monastery in the Caribbean. Early morning mass at the iconic church is still a must for Catholic devotees, as is afternoon tea on a Sunday at its cosy tea house. You can have scones and coffee while you admire the mountains from the back porch, where feeders attract hummingbirds at close range. The on-site Pax Guesthouse is a quiet retreat for birders and walkers, but be sure to go on the trails in groups or with a guide.
Our Lady of Montserrat church (Tortuga)
Known for its beautiful stained glass windows, bought in France over 100 years ago, this little wooden church is located high on a ridge of the Central Range in the village of Tortuga. It is one of the most wonderful places to watch the sunset as it faces westward towards the Gulf of Paria. This Roman Catholic church was built by its first priest and architect, Fr Marie Jules Dupoux, and blessed on 24 December, 1878. A special festival is held every year on the Sunday nearest to 8 September and is attended by hundreds from all over Trinidad. It’s also known for the wooden figure of the Black Virgin.
The Temple in the Sea at Waterloo
A monument to the indomitable human spirit, this Hindu mandir stands on the edge of the Gulf of Paria, jutting out into the sea. It was built by one man, Sewdass Sadhu. Banned from building a temple by the British colonial authorities, this hardworking sugar worker spent many years laboriously carrying bricks, cement and sand to the unused swamp land, laying the foundation for what would become a beautiful beacon for all. Born in 1901 in the city of Benares on the Ganges, Sadhu used to save his meagre wages and return to India every few years to worship at the holy shrines there. Eventually, as the cost of the pilgrimage became too much, he decided to build a temple in Trinidad instead. After he died in 1970, it was left in the hands of the sea, until 1994 when work began on restoring his temple. A year later it was finally opened, and a statue of him now stands watch over his work of heart.