Oliver Castle: Doesn’t Canada care anymore?

A heritage home faces the threat of demolition unless urgent action is taken to protect it.
Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Dhananjani Silva report, Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

Urgent moves are underway to document and gazette a colonial mansion in Cinnamon Gardens, as a “protected monument”, as speculation spread that its owner, a foreign mission, may demolish it to make way for a plush office complex.

Prof. Manawadu

The Cultural Affairs Ministry has set in motion the procedure with a view to gazetting No. 6, Gregory’s Road, Colombo 7, a high-level official confirmed to the Sunday Times, while an archaeology official said they had sought permission from the mission, through the Foreign Ministry, to enter the premises and carry out documentation.

In the eye of the storm, is ‘Oliver Castle’, now owned by the Canadian High Commission, a beautiful two-storey mansion set amidst manicured gardens believed to have been built in the 1800s, not only bringing to the fore the need to strengthen conservation efforts with regard to historic buildings but also to act quickly to retain the city’s character.

It may very well be one of the last surviving “heritage homes”, the Sunday Times understands, and is featured along with its proud owner of yore, Henry Joseph Peiris, who had “established himself as a general merchant and arrack renter, owning at that time, some of the largest arrack farms in the island” in the ‘Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon’ (See picture in montage)

The law of the land which governs such buildings is the Antiquities Ordinance, it is learnt, with some archaeology officials stating that any building which has been built 100 years before the present has to be gazetted to be considered a protected monument.

However, eminent archaeologists argue that any such 100-year-old building is deemed a “potential monument for protection” and gazetting is just a formality which can be carried out by the relevant minister in just 24 hours.

This is the loophole – non-gazetting or non-listing – through which many are attempting to wriggle through without considering the spirit of the law and the moral obligation on their part to safeguard such buildings for posterity, perturbed conservationists state.

“There need not be any controversy,” stressed another well-respected archaeologist, explaining that the Antiquities Ordinance and its subsequent amendments prescribe what exactly should be done. Any building which is over 100 years old is “a scheduled monument” for listing as “a protected monument”.

The excuse being given by some Sri Lankan officials that the property belongs to the Canadian High Commission and thus to Canada, is not valid, he said pointing out that there are many old palaces in Rome, occupied by the British and US Embassies, where there is an Italian requirement that once a year they have to make it available for the public of Rome to visit them.

The Sunday Times also understands that diplomatic missions have to comply with the laws and regulations of the host state under the Vienna Convention. Diplomatic missions, however, enjoy immunity from jurisdiction, from the enforcement of the law. But this does not detract from their obligations to comply with the laws of the host state.

Montage of the Sunday Times story August 09,1998

Another example, cited by several sources, is the Canadian Government's refusal to allow structural changes to be carried out to the Sri Lankan mission in Ottawa on the grounds that it was a heritage building.

Although there are 10 lakhs (one million) of pre-historic sites and 250,000 archaeological sites in Sri Lanka all of which are protected, there are only 2,300 gazetted protected monuments (such as the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, the Ekneligoda Walauwa in Ratnapura, and the General Post Office, Pensions Department and Chatham Street clock tower in Fort), said a high-level archaeology official.

Here is where, many point an accusing finger at the Department of Archaeology, for being more concerned about pre-historic monuments which are unlikely to be disturbed because they are mostly underground, ignoring the current exigencies where buildings such as Oliver Castle face the danger of damage by humans. “This is where not only the Archaeology Department but also the Cultural Ministry must act and act quickly,” another source stressed.

It is ironic that the heritage home that the Canadian High Commission may wish to demolish in 2010 is the very one that then High Commissioner Konrad G. Sigurdson opened out not only to the descendants of the original owner but also to the then Cultural Affairs Minister Lakshman Jayakody and then Colombo Mayor Karu Jayasuriya to show that “Canada cares for Oliver Castle” in August 1998.

Featuring the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the restoration of the name of the house to Oliver Castle, an article in the Sunday Times of August 9, 1998 by Royston Ellis states: “It was the official recognition of this noble building as an important part of the country’s heritage.”

Mentioning in intricate detail the “fretwork filigree of wood above the transome of each door” and “the painstakingly turned balusters with leaves of carved wood in between each one”, the writer states that Oliver Castle survived in part because of its sturdy construction but also through the care lavished on it after it was leased as the Canadian High Commission building in the 1950s.”

It is at the same event that Minister Jayakody had commented that Parliament (Sri Lanka’s) has passed legislation to ensure the preservation of Colombo’s “wonderful colonial houses”, acknowledging that interiors may have to be modernized but the external facades and the roof should remain intact.
Oliver Castle had been purchased by the Canadian Government in 1971.

“The land may be owned by another country but by law and possession it is the property of Sri Lanka. There is a sense of ownership,” said another archaeologist adding that the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) has been informed to look into the matter and been assured that ICOMOS would appeal to the Canadian government against the demolition of Oliver Castle.

The Canadian High Commission: The owner of Oliver Castle.

ICOMOS, a non-governmental organization formed by an eminent group of archaeologists and architects representing over 130 countries across the world has as its mandate to conserve historic buildings and structures as the heritage of mankind, going beyond the borders of individual countries.

ICOMOS, the Sunday Times learns from its local President Prof. Dr. M.S. Manawadu who is Professor of Architecture at the University of Moratuwa, is the main advisor to UNESCO, on the preservation of historic sites. He cites the example of ICOMOS intervention and cancellation of plans to build an airport close to the World Heritage Site of Sigiriya.

So far ICOMOS Sri Lanka has not got any complaints about the demolition of Oliver Castle but he has seen many e-mails where Sri Lankans living in Canada have registered their protests to the government authorities, Prof. Manawadu said.

It is also ironic that the last session of ICOMOS was held in Quebec, Canada in 2008. The first act of the ICOMOS host country, Canada, after this session seems to be a blow to Sri Lanka’s heritage by sanctioning the demolition of Oliver Castle, lamented another archaeologist.

No word yet

The anadian HC is awaiting a response from Ottawa for the queries made by the Sunday Times and at the time of going to press, the response had not been received.

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