Our own White House ‘blackened’


“You don’t stumble upon your heritage. It’s there, just waiting to be explored and shared.”

– Robbie Robertson

A country’s cultural heritage is always a risk during times of conflict and war. There are so many examples from around the world to prove this. Sri Lanka, a country that experienced a 30-year internal conflict and two major people’s riots in 71 and 88/89, need no new introduction to the harms the heritage sector suffer during times of armed conflicts. The vast number of Buddhist temples in the North and East were destroyed and a number of churches were abandoned and some were damaged in the North during the internal conflict.

Culturally and religiously significant places, such as the sacred Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, were bombed in 1998 by the LTTE. The Kataragama Esala perahera was bombed in 1989 by the JVP and again during 88/89 Walawwas and manors of the elite were looted and damaged. These acts of vandalism or expressing hatred towards significant or venerated historical sites and monuments are in most cases inevitable. This does not mean that we justify them by any means. We intend to say that cultural heritage is definitely under threat during times of unrest and therefore, we need to have precautions. We cannot take action during times of unrest or once an armed conflict is happening. In such chaotic times, priorities are different. Hence, what we need to do is, make preparations during times of peace. We experienced the mess we were in when the President’s House in Colombo was under attack. Although the Department of Archaeology (DoA) managed to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, the damage was already done.

Before talking about the damage, it is also important to understand that the ‘damage’ is not merely the physical damage. Why do people attack culturally significant places? If the intention is to cause severe financial damage or to harm human lives, they could attack places such as shopping malls, theatres, and hospitals. Hence it is clear that the objective is to attack or hurt the intangible values these places possess. Thus, even though the President’s House was taken under the care of the DoA, the harm was already done. It symbolised the country’s sovereignty. It was the official residence of the President of Sri Lanka and also bears a legacy of more than 200 years. The beautiful structure held the memories of Colonial Sri Lanka and its British rule. Before 1972 it was known as the King’s House or the Queen’s House. Locally, it is known as the Raja Gedara. The attack was not merely on the physical structure, but also on the country’s Head of State and the governing body.

Similarly, almost all attacks, vandalising, and bombing of heritage sites and monuments are attacks on the ideologies, cultures, and values that are attributed to those places.

The DoA must take this as a lesson and take precautions to protect Sri Lanka’s precious historical places by law, stronger policies, and also be prepared with strategic plans and mechanisms including financial funds, human resources, and so on.

From Portuguese and the Dutch to the British

The President’s House or the Raja Gedara is a beautiful handsome structure, surrounded by a beautiful garden. The place’s history dates back to the 18th century. It is said that the Dutch Governor Johan van Angelbeek who was the last Dutch Governor, built the first building at this place. It was a two-storied house and it is said that there had been a Portuguese church at the premises which was demolished to make way for the Governor’s House.

However, prominent archaeologist and scholar Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya who is the Former Director of Conservation at the DoA, Special Advisor to the Director-General of ICCROM, Rome, Italy, Special Advisor to the Director of WHITRAP Shanghai, China, and Former President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Sri Lanka, writes that, “According to a Dutch monogram reproduced from an engraving the original Dutch building dated at least from 1770. It is not known whether there was an earlier Dutch or even a Portuguese building at the site.”

In Dr. Wijesuriya’s 1978 article, ‘Architectural Monuments Related to Republic Story’, he says that in the late 18th century it was known as ‘Government House’ and was the residence of the chief administrator of the Dutch colonial occupation of the maritime province in Sri Lanka.

Officially becoming the Governor’s House

In 1804 the house was sold to the British colonial administration by Angelbeek’s niece. Since then it became the official residence of the Governor of Ceylon.

As Dr. Wijesuriya would explain, architecturally this Dutch building was probably the first of the type we may call a mansion, almost entirely derived from the 17th and 18th-century architecture of Europe.

“With this structure, dawned a new style of colonial domestic architecture in Sri Lanka which replaced the predominant style of street architecture then prevailing in Colombo. Such mansions became widespread in Sri Lanka in the late 19th and early 20th century.”

In 1831 the President’s House underwent renovations with a few additions by Sir Robert Norton. In the 1838 renovations, it was sited away from the original site. The existing building was built by assistant engineer Durand Kershaw in 1852 in the proximity of the historical Gorden Garden which holds a place of prominence from the period of Portuguese.

In 1930 it was renovated substantially with few additions without making any changes to the main structure by the then Governor architect T.N.Wyne Jones.

This oldest handsome mansion acquired the name of ‘King’s House’ after the first British Governor, Fedrick North took possession of it in 1804 from the Dutch and after Queen Victoria took the throne, this building was known as the Queen’s House.

Alterations and additions were made in the years 1831 and 1838.

Dr. Wijesuriya reports that the President’s House was practically rebuilt in 1852.

From Queen’s to President’s…

After Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972 the building became the Janadhipathi Mandiraya (President’s Palace).

The first Ceylonese Governor General to occupy this house was Sir Oliver Gunatileke. The first President to live in the house after Ceylon became a republic was William Gopallawa.

J.R. Jayawardene was the first executive president of Sri Lanka to have occupied the house. Although Jayawardene continued to live in his private residence Braemar, the poor condition of this beautiful historic mansion caught his attention. Thus, the mansion was refurbished and then again in the 1990s. These refurbishments were done under the direction of Geoffrey Bawa, probably Sri Lanka’s best architect.

R. Premadasa in 1989 made this mansion his official residence, followed by D.B. Wijetunga in 1993. Chandrika Bandaranaike’s official residence was Temple Trees until 1999 and after that President’s House became her official residence.

The next president Mahinda Rajapaksa did not use this as his official residence. After becoming the President he continued living in the Temple Trees which was his official residence when he was the Prime Minister. However, the President’s House underwent a refurbishment in 2000, tightening its security. Maithripala Sirisena also did not use this as his official residence and the following president Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose his private residence over the President’s House.

When protesters stormed in

Ninth July 2022 marks another historic yet tragic day for this beautiful mansion. Thousands of protesters entered the house, along with other places including the Temple Trees, and the Presidential Secretariat which are also important landmark administrative buildings of Sri Lanka.

After entering, many protesters spent the night at the premises. As eyewitnesses, as well as recorded witnesses reveal, great damages were caused to the place by those who entered the place. Until 14 July the damage continued.

On 10 July, the grand colonial mansion which was home to governors, and presidents were opened to the public of the country, and amid fuel crisis and high flying cost of living, thousands of people flocked to see the place.

Silent cries for mercy

While all this chaos was happening, concerned citizens and the media reported the damage. Among the protesters, a few who were concerned about the value of the place, made tiring efforts to educate their fellow protesters as well as the public about the place and requested not to harm the place. This attempt of these youths should be highly appreciated.

The DoA and becoming a tourists place

Meanwhile, the DoA, in its usually lethargic way, was finding a way how to intervene and protect the place, once again giving in to the public pressure. Although the Director-General of Archaeology and the Act have all authority to intervene with the intention of protecting a historical monument and site, things were slow-moving. After holding cowardly discussions with the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) the DoA was able to take measures to enter the place, take an inventory and do the needful, even though by then, it was a little too late.

These buildings are a part of our heritage. They represent a period of our past which is also a part of our present identity. This incident taught us many lessons. As we have said in the beginning, we must expect attacks on such culturally significant monuments and take precautions. This incident also can be analysed from a cultural anthropological perspective as it reveals many interesting things about our society and the social, and cultural crisis.

“Monuments are for the living; not for the dead.”

– Frank Wedekind

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy