Cafe owner goes to war over plans for gunner’s quarters
A dispute over the rebuilding of a colonial-era room on the periphery of Upper Barrakka Gardens has turned ugly, as NGOs and a cafe owner grapple for the site.
Conservationist NGO Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna is seeking to rebuild what used to be the Master Gunner’s quarters, a little room that used to sit just outside the entrance to the gardens’ saluting battery.
But Martin Baron, whose small cafe is set to be demolished, insists the project is both unjust and unjustified.
The Master Gunner’s quarters were originally built by the British in 1870, eventually caving in to wartime bombing in the 1940s. It housed the expert warrant officer and his family.
FWA has now been given the green light to rebuild the room, as the final piece in a multi-million restoration puzzle that has seen Lascaris War Rooms and Upper Barrakka’s saluting battery receive extensive facelifts.
“The plan to rebuild the gunner’s quarters was first raised in 1997, but sourcing funds proved difficult.
“Mr Baron knew of the plans when he was given a permit to open a cafe there,” said FWA chairman Mario Farrugia.
“All the various areas will be linked together, creating a multi-period heritage park spanning 400 years of history, which visitors can experience with one single ticket.”
The rebuilt room will house a small exhibition of artillery and uniforms, a cannon maintenance workshop, a small administration office and showers for officers who are performing the daily noon cannon salute.
But Mr Baron, whose Cafe Deux Baronnes faces destruction, remains unconvinced.
“They’re using this room as an excuse to kick me out and make truckloads of money,” he said.
He believes the room will be used to host weddings and other receptions – which the saluting battery already does, in collaboration with Island Caterers, for €3,500 per wedding.
Mr Farrugia categorically denied Mr Baron’s insinuation, saying the building would only be used for museum and site management purposes.
The whole point of creating a paid attraction, he said, was for FWA to develop new revenue streams and not remain dependent on hosting such events.
But the plans have also come up against the staunch opposition of environmental NGO Flimkien Għal Ambjent Ahjar, which has said the bastion’s Grade 1 scheduling means no such construction can take place.
Their argument was buttressed by the planning authority’s heritage advisory committee, which has recommended prohibiting the reconstruction.
Mr Baron and the FAA also believe rebuilding the gunner’s quarters would harm the Grand Harbour’s visual integrity, and have objected to FWA’s plans to close off the area as part of a paid heritage attraction.
“The currently unhindered view of the Grand Harbour will be blocked by the built structure, just as public access to the area will be blocked,” an FAA spokesman said.
Mr Baron said: “They basically want to close off public access and deny everyone except paying visitors the spectacular view.
“Our national heritage must remain truly national. It cannot just be a buzzword.”
Mr Farrugia rejected the arguments: “All our restoration works adhere to the Venice Charter.
“When one restores a monument, they must do so in its entirety.
“The belief that anything built atop the original bastion is not worth restoring holds no water – historical restoration must be layered.”
Furthermore, there was evidence of a similar military post built in the same location that pre-dated the 1870 master gunner’s quarters, Mr Farrugia said.
He also made short shrift of the complaints about impact on public access, arguing that access to the site was already restricted by Mr Baron’s cafe and that the proposed building would have a smaller footprint than the cafe and its tables and chairs.
Mr Baron, meanwhile, said he had no intention of throwing in the towel.
“I’ve now written to UNESCO and will be contesting this every step of the way.
“I’m not giving in.”