Stor[e]y’ng Memory: William Franklin House he sajii gbaa (‘discussions about the William Franklin House’)

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By Ernest Sewordor, Taru, Yvonne Ahadjie, Farouk Kwaning

Fig.1 Panoramic View of Accra with James Town (foreground) from the apex of the James Town Fort, 1925. Courtesy: National Archives, United Kingdom.

Prelude

Standing within the blurred town quarters that define Accra: Otublohum, Sempe, and James Town, facing the iconic James Town lighthouse, in an attempt to replant myself in time: Different periods of it; multilayers of memory, genius loci.

A loud honk and abrupt halt of a van breaks my trance and brings me home. To my left, an open-air barefoot soccer game by 8 boys has been paused due to a stray off-target shot rolling into the one way John Evans Atta Mills High Street.

And to my right, seated in front of her house, an octogenarian spectator, left thigh crossed over the right, with a grey mug of a liquid oblivious to me, held with the suave of an English Butler — The scent of foreign influence is strong!

Dutch merchant ships set sail for quite an unprecedented barter trade. Trade and Missionary… well that’s for another chapter. But for now:

‘How much for one slave?’

‘Well, what do you have?’

‘A sac of brown stone nog, and brick… Best in the World!’

After a moment of silence, the merchant says… ‘I have a ship full of this high grade stone!’

After a few backs and forth the merchant leaves with a boat full of slaves: A fair deal, a good day. An effective conduit… The British Slave Merchant, William Franklin  House in Accra, Ghana.

Fig.2  William Franklin House, located within its urban contex, James Town, Accra. Courtesy: Research Team

Beginning in…

Contemporary ‘Old’ Accra, manifests the Ga way of life within its urban fabric, as it continues to host the communal family homes (Wei; singular, We) clustered around courtyards, that still function as the theatre for everyday life. James Town continues to reflect its historical underpinnings as a British colonial enclave and a place of global flux — the lighthouse, harbor, forts, warehouses, and prison are physical reminders of another era. The entire neighbourhood is a palimpsest of built and unbuilt spaces of cultural memory — new layers of history overlaying the ‘Old’ but retaining echoes of a past that remains significant in Ghanaian history.

As I walked through the neighborhood with a local host, I was struck by the unique fabric of urban settlement. It was intriguing to see how power and class manifested in the built environment — be it the size of the land plot, the number of storey’s, the level craftsmanship or the material used to build the houses. Also, it was clear that even though the Ga community adopted the chieftaincy system later in their history, chiefly hierarchy continues to influence socio-political life in the area. How does this hierarchy affect the community’s well-being? How does it feed into the democratic processes and power structures in contemporary Ghana? Who then controls resources, and what is the nature of resistance and grassroots pushback?

Pre-colonial Accra, for me, has a striking aura surrounding the storeys’ dotting the town, and stimulated my imaginations of what ‘trapped’ stories have over time navigated the nooks of the town in formal and informal conversations. ‘At what point do these stories meet?’ I mused sporadically. Yet, storage of such conversations as heritage and historical memory fascinates me, above all. As a physical site of memory, Franklin’s House represents a unique landmark that when linked with other buildings in Accra, turns mastic that bind renditions.   

Fig.3 ‘Jacobu’s House’ from a distance, Accra. Courtesy: Research Team

Accra’s High Street, penetrates the old town on a west-east orientation, leaving the various quarters carefully arranged on its south and north axis. Off the High Street, down Brazil Lane, one ends up in a fascinating place, the Franklin House.

Franklin’s Lodge, according to architect and urban theorist Joe Osae-Addo, was built by a Dutch slaver named Vanderpuije, circa eighteenth century. Allotey Bruce-Konuah, a professional graphic designer and local James Town historian voiced differently, ‘this [i.e., Franklin House] is supposed to have been built somewhere [in the] sixteenth and seventeenth century and by Portuguese originally; that’s what the history is telling us.’ Regardless of the seeming contradiction of facts on which European country originally erected the structure and so on, key questions suggest themselves: What labour was used to put up this architecturally gestalt monument? If the Portuguese indeed built Franklin House, what attraction led to the construction of the building and what original purposes were it meant to serve and how have these changed? What historical memory does Franklin House hold today and how sensitive are Accra urban folks to it? What does Franklin House mean for retelling the story of Accra’s historical, architectural, and urban past?

The William Franklin House and ‘Old’ Accra

It is very common to think of fishing, the famous ‘Chale Wote’ street arts festival or James Fort, upon mentioning James Town. Many who visit James Town are not quite informed about or perhaps interested in the architecture of the town though it is a major character of the town.

Fig.4  A section of Accra High Street towards James Town. Courtesy: Research Team

Architecture in Ghana seem to be peculiar to certain communities in a sense that when you first enter these places, you see that most of the buildings speak a common language. For instance, in East Legon, many houses seem to translate into opulence for its inhabitants. Similarly, if I am found to live at Trassaco, there is the likelihood that a pedestrian may retort as such; ‘Eiish! Your father has money oo!’ In Nima, on the other hand, close to Kanda where lived, I always felt a sense of disorder and chaos. Same way, when you mention any of these towns; Chorkor, Nima, or Madina and are giddy, they may say; ‘Aaa, that’s why! No wonder you are stubborn.’

Sounds of strong waves by the ocean and the smell of water and fresh fish was very dominant on the Brasil lane: the street where the Franklin House is located.

The Franklin House historically is suggested to have held slaves in dungeons underneath the building. Today, these dungeons are masked by coarse materials like stones. This ownership of Franklin House later passed on from the British colonial administration to William Franklin, and then its most popular name ‘the Franklin House,’ was born.

My first impression upon seeing the building was that the building fits into its contextual plane. The building didn’t seem too foreign which is where development in Ghana is leading, where buildings that are springing up do not fit into the urban setting.

Fig.5  The front view of Franklin House (as of July 2018). Courtesy: Research Team

The Franklin House, set on a rock 40 meters above sea level boasts of some incredible views of the old fishing harbour in the foreground, the Gulf of Guinea where the Franklin family watched the sunrise from the east and the beautiful beachfront development of Accra to its north. Whereas to the west, the building engages the public and the people — indigenous locals and foreigners alike. Upon entry through a rectilinear puncture, the staircase and courtyard are presented interestingly. The former invites a more private audience unto the second level terrace while the later indicates a more public discourse. This initial experience maybe coincidentally similar to the social and cultural behaviour of the indigenous Ga people.

Materials of bricks which are bind with clay speaks of a building that was designed to be sustainable especially at a time where air conditions and fans weren’t that common. The building cools itself well and views from the upper floors which face the sea cannot be described in words but can only be lived.

Setting Franklin House in the space of contemporary urban Accra

As Accra continues to grow, areas like James Town are ripe for redevelopment. Such an urban growth strategy would lead to the displacement of the current residents to the urban fringe, and the erasure of the built fabric that is essential to the oral histories of the area. Many of these stories are still whispered — even as the shadow of slave trade underlines these histories. Were there actual tunnels built in certain houses to smuggle people? How did this mark the community and how does this emerge in the oral histories of the area? What parts of the history have percolated intergenerationally — what is remembered today and what has been lost due to selective telling intergenerationally? What is likely to be erased if James Town is?

The buildings sit well into its urban context and still has the ability to stand out from the lot. Architectural history is a very important aspect of preserving history. Most ancient buildings tell stories that is not being distorted by oral history. These historical buildings and the history behind should be documented for all so that future generations can benefit from it.

The need for a discussion on conservation and memory gained new urgency in my mind, as our team entered the precincts of the Franklin House. The building stands on a rock overlooking the harbor, its graceful arches and beaten down walls testimonies to a bygone era. The large internal courtyard heralds images of affluence and family. The sea breeze flows through the series of arches, the fall in temperature, and airflow lending an instant relief from the humidity. The prominent steps in the courtyard are crumbling on both ends — the floor missing at its top, leading to a gaping hole. It forms an interesting vantage point for the building. The ceiling is mostly gone — the heady smell of the sea percolates itself across space. It is a remnant and a reminder of the cycle of decay — a structure that can conjure images and dislocate to some other time. It feeds imagination — or perhaps forms a time capsule. Someone has tried to fix the walls — using concrete instead of the original rammed earth. The rocks in the restored sections are placed closer, forming a distinct pattern within the other pattern of the older masonry. Or is it the other way round — with some old peeking through?

Heritage and presentation: restoration, contamination, or re-adaptation to what end?

Fig.6 A wooden shack built within the remnants of Franklin House. Courtesy: Research Team

Though the Franklin House is in a state of evident decay, its ceilings gone and it’s masonry crumbling – the local community have occupied and sought to reuse parts of it. Certain parts of the building hosts a school — one that has both religious classes (Bible studies), and also normal lessons for pre-primary children. Other parts have been occupied by wooden shacks, where the residents have created low-cost housing options for themselves. Some of the parts host local businesses, like that of a tailor — who is also the person in-charge of day-to-day access in the building.

Fig.7  A section of Franklin House locally adapted for tutorials

Engaging Allotey Bruce-Konuah on the idea of preservation or adaptive reuse was a stimulating  experience. The interaction revealed the need for nuanced conversations amongst academics, advocates, community, and policy makers on what this building signifies to contemporary Accra, and what is the best way to reuse it. The idea of structural and historically accurate preservation was shot down by the local experts — indicating that no one wanted to spend millions of dollars on this building, which might inadvertently become another museum only to ‘glorify its connections with slavery.’ The structure, even as it stands now, reflects the decay of the colonial past and the triumph of the local ingenuity over it. Any reuse, whether it involves adaptive reconstruction or not, should reflect this ethos. It might seek to put the building on the map for the collective memory of the residents of Accra or the world — but that should not take away the utility the building is currently providing the local community.

Some local advocates, led by Osae-Addo and Bruce-Konuah, held a musical concert in the courtyard of Franklin House to generate interest in the building. There is a discussion on how this could be a site for re-use and re-engaging historical memory — show films perhaps? Have a design competition to seek ideas — where to seek funds for such work… Does it herald the need for a larger conversation on what colonial history means to Accra — what needs to be remembered? Is remembrance worth the economic cost?

Experiencing Accra, I could not help but flinch at the sight of a faux-Dubai like concrete structure across the calming James Town Café. The drums of globalization and aspirational architecture are at the gates then. Can you hear them?

Fig.8  A multi-storey building opposite James Town Café, High Street. Courtesy: Research Team

The discussion about what needs to happen with Franklin House sits within a larger discussion on what is the significance of James Town and ‘Old’ Accra for the contemporary and future generations of its residents. What will happen to the communal structures once the area starts to gentrify? What protections do current residents have, if they don’t own the house or the land they are currently living on? What policies and protections does the area need to protect its historicity and remain the physical manifestation of a collective memory and repository of oral history?  In what ways can these oral histories be spoken about and remembered in a public platform – in a way they are respectful and be passed down intergenerationally?

Closure…

The story of Franklin House is invariably linked to the story of Accra – in its temporal layers of architecture and how the city merges its colonial past to its contemporary aspirations. The city has to decide how the palimpsest of old narratives gets told, and how they get passed down in living memory. This story is not about a historic building alone, also about setting a precedent in conservation and the imminent choices that Accra has to make about its identity and its futurity.

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