The HeyDay: A Look into Liberia’s History of Privilege, Luxury, and Exuberance

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By: Francois Beaurain 

The Heyday Playlist features classic Liberian music from the 60’s/70’s. Press PLAY to be transported back to Liberia’s prime years, while enjoying the creative photo presentation courtesy of Francois Beaurain.

Liberia is now one of the poorest countries in the world (ranking 183 out 186 per GDP per capita according to the World Bank), but not without reason. It has been through one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century and more recently hit by the Ebola epidemic. The history of Liberia, the country of freed black slaves and  native Africans is quite unique. Despite the times, one may easily forget that this country was the first African republic and for a long time, the most stable and one of the richest in Africa.

In its heyday in the 60s and 70s, the Liberian capital was a place of “extreme privilege” – a playground for the local elite and foreign expats. At that time, Monrovia looked more like a small American city than an African capital. The plan of the city had been drawn according to a ‘perfect’ grid and some of the streets bore the names of American presidents.

The city had several cinemas, conference centers, luxury hotels and countless clubs where some well-known international stars performed. Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone even lived there for some time. One evening in a Monrovian club, giddy on champagne, the Feeling Good songstress took off her dress and began to sing and dance naked all night long. According to the legend, President Tolbert heard about the performance and went to the club the next day hoping to catch a repeat of Ms Simone.

This anecdote, that was told me by Katherina Thomas who is currently working on a novel about it, is perhaps the most emblematic of this prosperous period. It has inspired this series of photographs shot in the vestiges of buildings such as the luxury hotel Ducor, the Roye Memorial Building, and the Sheila cinema – all of them emblematic buildings of that time.

I’ve known and photographed these places for years, I even shot some gifs of my “Monrovia Animated” series in 2014 in some of these buildings. My fascination with these silent giants of Monrovia encouraged my aim to revive them and show the exuberance of the pre-war period. The contrast between the naked model and the remnants of these buildings create a distinctive atmosphere.


I found five cinemas in Monrovia (Sheila, Gabriel, Crown, Rivoli and Logan Town). Rivoli is the only one that operates as cinema and is currently closed for renovation. Crown and Logan Town are still open but only screen football games. Gabriel is now occupied by a number of families. According to the guard at the Sheila cinema (where this picture was shot), the spaces haven’t been functioning for roughly 20 years.

Sheila was far from the smallest of the five cinemas found in Monrovia – the other four are much bigger and have several hundred seatings. The front part of the building is currently rented as an office space. Sheila does not seem to have been seriously looted, all furniture are still intact, but the roof is in pretty bad shape and lets sun rays and rains come inside the building. The guard shared that a few years ago, some people came to Sheila and took the projector and the rest of the cinemas equipment.

The E.J. Roye served as the headquarters of the True Whig Party (TWP), one of Africa’s oldest political parties. The building is nestled in one of the most historic quarters of the capital. It towers over the Mesurado River and Providence Island, where the first black American settlers landed in 1822. The Roye Memorial building functioned mostly as an office building and entertainment center. It was also the largest auditorium in the nation and artists like James Brown, Mahalia Jackson, and Mariam Makeba performed there.

The main entrance of Roye Memorial features a massive abstract stained glass window. It also has decorative concrete slabs showcasing political motifs that combine settler and indigenous designs. The work constitutes a lasting tribute to Vahnjah Richards – Liberia’s most famous and talented sculptor who was killed during the war. The building has been fenced and is supposed to be close to public, but like any other big buildings of the city it is used as a storage place for banana sellers who take advantage of the relative freshness of the place.

Ducor Hotel is the most emblematic building of Monrovia. Ideally located on top of Snapper Hill, above the city and the Atlantic Ocean, it was built and operated by Intercontinental Group and was among the most famous luxury hotels in Africa.

Ducor Hotel is the symbol of the rise-and-fall of Liberia. Closed in 1989, Ducor has been turned into barracks for Nigerian soldiers and a refugee camp for Liberians who were trying to escape the war.

In 2007 the government evicted the squatters and a year later it leased the hotel to the government of Libya with plans to renovate and reopen Ducor Hotel. However in 2011, with the Arab spring, these plans were abandoned and Ducor Hotel remains deserted.

According to journalist and novelist Katherina Thomas, currently working on a story about the three years Nina Simone spent in Liberia, the name of the club where Ms Simone performed naked was called “The Maze”. It took me some time to locate it, but I finally found two. The first Maze, on Mechlin Street – the one where Nina performed naked – is now a shop. Apparently, the club moved to Center Street in the 80’s before its closure. At the location of this second Maze, there is now this colorful restaurant. 

Liberia in its 170 years of independence has seen different turning points in the society. It has experienced absolute wealth, and abject poverty, and everything in-between. While the nation tries to get itself back to the heyday, it is important to recognize what has once existed. It is not an impossible task to bring back Liberia from its current slump to its modern glory days, but the nation must first be willing to accept what was, what is, and what can be.

 

4 Responses
  • Ernie Bruce
    October 4, 2018

    I find your post very interesting, and am quite impressed by the balance that you express about our beloved Liberia and its extraordinary history. I’m a Liberian artist/performer based in Monrovia who grew up during its heyday, and am involved in a number of initiatives to create an enabling environment for the artistic community; this includes the rehabilitation of an iconic cinema that will serve as a platform to showcase artists and their creations/performances…there’s a lot of unrefined talent here waiting to be developed. Many thanks for portraying Liberia in a positive way.

  • panoseuraa
    April 3, 2019

    Great task with this short article. You constantly share fantastic info.

  • Gia
    April 4, 2019

    Hey there, just desired to inform you how much I enjoyed your post.

    Maintain the excellent work!

  • Freda
    November 24, 2019

    Interesting post!

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