Before It’s All Gone: Preserving Jamaica’s Architectural Heritage

Here are excerpts from an article by Veerle Poupeye on Jamaica’s architectural heritage. For full article, go to Perspectives. [The author points out that the post was first published as a two-part article in the Jamaica Monitor, on May 2 and May 9, 2021.]

Part 1

A few weeks ago, the Burnett Webster house on Seaview Avenue was demolished to make way for a new commercial complex, developed by First Rock Capital Holdings. A photograph of the demolition generated much outrage on social media. Many felt that the building should have been preserved, given its historical and architectural value, and its potential as a museum and community space like Devon House – the sort of cultural and recreational, green space of which Kingston needs many more.

The house had been built in the 1920s by Burnett Webster, Jamaica’s foremost Art Deco designer and a pioneering figure in modern furniture and interior design in Jamaica. Art Deco, which is characterized by clean, elegant, geometrically controlled lines, was the first major modernist design style and it was popular throughout the Caribbean. One major example, Kingston’s Carib Theatre, has thankfully been preserved and continues to function as a cinema. It was constructed in 1938 and designed by the American architect and artist John Pike.

Burnett Webster’s elegant and innovative furniture designs, for which the sculptural work was often executed by Alvin Marriott (who later became a well-known Jamaican sculptor), were the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 1999. Built in the then fashionable “hacienda style”, Webster’s house had exquisite custom woodwork, designed by Webster, and the stairwell, with its sinuous wooden staircase, was a work of art in itself.

The property was bought by the art collector Wallace Campbell after Webster died. Campbell housed his collection and ran the Seaview Fine Art gallery there. Campbell’s collection comprised major examples of Jamaican, Cuban and Haitian art, including some of the best paintings and sculptures by Jamaica’s John Dunkley. There were plans for a museum. Towards the end of his life Campbell however decided to sell the house and the collection. The house is gone now and much of the collection has left the island, some of it attracting auction prices at Christie’s that are well above the estimates. Both are irretrievable losses to Jamaica’s cultural heritage. [. . .]

What is sorely lacking in Jamaica is an urban development vision, informed by a healthy dose of imagination, about how the old and the new can coexist productively and innovatively, in ways that turn the current real estate development boom into sustainable and inclusively beneficial progress. [. . .]

Part 2

Kingston has the potential to be a beautiful city. Its geographic setting on the Liguanea Plains, between a large natural harbour, the iconic Long Mountain, the Blue Mountain foothills, the Red Hills massif, and the plains of St Catherine, is stunning and majestic. One of the most undervalued parts of the city’s potential is, however, its architectural heritage, which is in jeopardy, because of neglect and ill-conceived development. It would be unfortunate if a city with so much history and distinctiveness would become a generic amalgamation of soulless apartment buildings and malls, and the already ubiquitous second-hand car lots.

A friend, Paul Hamilton, recently alerted me that a historic cast-iron building on the upper section of Orange Street, built around 1900 and once a cigar store and factory, is to be demolished to make way for a parking facility. Cast iron buildings are among the most iconic in the Caribbean and are, because of their openness and resilience against natural disasters, well-adapted to the local environment. The Marché en Fer in Port-au-Prince, the Stabroek Market in Georgetown, Guyana, and the Schoelcher library in Fort-de-France, Martinique, are great examples. The Orange Street building may not look like much now but it could be restored to its former glory or, for that matter, relocated, as such structures are designed to be movable. Its destruction would be an unnecessary loss. [. . .]

Read full article at https://veerlepoupeye.com/2021/06/20/before-its-all-gone-preserving-jamaicas-architectural-heritage/

[Shown above, photo by Paul Hamilton: Cast iron building on Orange Street.]

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