Marsa: An industrial town?

This blog will be looking at Marsa, a built-up area located at the inner part of the Grand Harbour. Most people relate Marsa with industrial buildings and port related activities and hardly consider the existence of any architectural heritage. Is it the case?

The fact that Marsa forms part of the Grand Harbour area, an area which has been very active for hundreds of years, leads to a basic assumption that throughout the ages a certain amount of activity could have existed in our visiting town. This activity is proved through the number of archaeological sites found within the area. However the area was urbanised in the mid-19th Century when the British colonisers started building naval stores and the workmen town of Albertown, the place at which we will finish our tour today. But let us go to its start first!

Spencer Hill derived its name from the obelisk found at Blata l-Bajda, at the top of this hill. The first large building we will be looking at today is the GO offices (ex-Telemalta building) built in an almost Fascist style of architecture in the mid-20th Century. Further down one finds a residential block also built in the same architectural idiom, with a central tower-like structure. Built in a very different architectural style and at a much earlier period, probably at the beginning of the 20th Century, is a corner block at the foot of Spencer Hill. Although the building comprises a series of stores in a row, these were elegantly designed in a very rhythmical architectural composition.

Flagstone Wharf is characterised by a mid-20th Century building which is both interesting for its architectural design and the construction methodology used due to its proximity to the water. The building built by the British Navy housed the NAAFI (a supermarket serving the seamen in the British Navy) which used to serve as the administration offices of the SeaMalta.  Unfortunately parts of this building were demolished recently.

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Few metres away one enters in Timber Wharf along which one finds another architecturally interesting row made up of a series of stores and industrial garages on the ground floor and port-workers housing units at the first floor. Flanking this wharf there is Barges Wharf which is known for the series of huts found along it. Most interesting of these are the row found at its inner part, just before entering Marsa Power Station, characterised by the series of arches and their pitched steel roof.  These are commonly known as the potato huts.

From here we will walk back into Triq is-Sajjieda and start entering the residential area and leaving behind us the once hectic port activities and their memories left through the neglected structures which we just saw. On one side of this street architectural rhythm is quite noticeable in the row of arched, open wrought iron balconies. On our way out from Triq is-Sajjied on can get a glance of the Marsa valley foot bridge parallel with Triq Patri Felicjan Bilocca.

A building which strikes the eyes is a beautiful double fronted town house, still retaining its original wrought iron gate in front of the main door and all the other original architectural elements including the closed timber balcony resting on three richly ornate stone carved corbels. Few metres away but on the other side of the road one can notice this elegant doorway.

Just in front of the Marsa parish church along Triq is-Salib tal-Marsa, a row of stepped town houses built along a gently sloping road can be considered as one of the most elegant streetscapes in this small town. The central town house is the only one to have a symmetrical facade and has the most richly decorated architectural elements in the streetscape. On each of the houses at the furthest ends of the row there is a stone decorated street shrine (16). At the top of this sloping road a large villa, guards the area.

One of the parish churches of Marsa is dedicated to the Holy Trinity and was built, together with the adjoining Capuchin Friary just before 1913 by the beneficiaries of Lorenzo Balbi and his wife. The architecture of this church possesses a number of neo-classical architectural elements, although cannot be classified as a neo-classical building. The geometrical composition of the bell towers is most worth noting.

Further down Triq is-Salib Tal-Marsa, once starts getting back into the industrial activities related with this port town. The five storey mill cannot be passed by unnoticeable.

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Church Wharf is named after the first church built to serve the first community within the area. A row of ground floor stores with overlying small residential units, very similar to the ones we saw along Timber Wharf, dominates the largest part of this front. At the foot of this row there is a statue of Saint George, a strong link of this area with the nearby town of Qormi. The most graceful building along this tour is the small church dedicated to Graceful Mary, called Ta Cejlu. Built in Baroque style on land donated by Lawyer Joseph Zammit in the late 19th Century, it served the spiritual needs of the first community in Marsa following the development of Porto Nuovo by Governor Le Merchant in 1860.

Xatt il-Mollijiet crosses over the Marsa canal coming from Ta’ Ceppuna, a canal which is considered as one of the best engineering works on the island during the reign of Queen Victoria following the Victoria lines. The building which flanks the canal just at its end was built as the workshop in which trams used to be repaired. In front of this building, surrounded by scrap material but still surviving, one finds a water trough from where horses used to drink. Few metres away another row of warehouses forming part of this town’s industrial heritage.

The impressive gateway of the abattoir along Triq il-Biccerija sums it all. Its massive appearance achieved through the coining of pilasters and the heads of animals carved in stone on each of the two panels found on the side flat arched doors are architectural elements worth mentioning. The concrete water tower, resting on ten concrete columns is considered as one of the oldest concrete structures found on the island and also one of the best designed water towers of the period.

What we saw through this tour can help you answer the question we made at the beginning of this contribution. We should learn for not letting our first impressions misguiding us!

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