About That Devon House Courtyard Debacle

The renovated courtyard at Devon House, as photographed by the author on December 29, 2022

This post was originally published in the Monitor Tribune on January 1 and 8, 2023. It is reproduced here with a few minor changes.

There has been intense outrage on social media recently since the Devon House courtyard reopened, after being closed for several months for renovations. It turned out that most of the lush greenery had been removed and that the courtyard had become almost completely paved. Many people hated the barren new look but, in what has now become the default official response to such concerns, these criticisms were arrogantly dismissed. Officials claimed that the renovations were necessary, and as yet incomplete, and that the area will soon look greener again.

The public concerns focused on two major issues: whether the renovation was appropriate to Devon House as a supposedly protected heritage site, and the environmental implications. Much of the public ire seemed related to broader concerns about the recent, out of control “construction boom” in the city of Kingston, and the sense that the city is becoming increasingly unliveable, unsustainable and de-historicized, as it is being turned into a concrete-covered heat sink with aspirational but utterly bland and generic luxury condos, business and retail complexes and, of course, second hand car lots that fail to address the actual housing, infrastructure, heritage, and lifestyle needs. This poorly planned, helter-skelter urban “development” makes it all the more important to protect and preserve green spaces, and to ensure that the public has access.

Like many people, I really liked and enjoyed the Devon House courtyard as it was before the most recent renovations. I loved the lush greenery, the beautiful large trees (which are becoming increasingly rare in Kingston), and the welcoming, small-scale intimacy, although it is in fact a fairly large space. I can see that a few tweaks had become necessary, to provide more seating and easier access, but there was absolutely no need to raze this lovely inner garden, turning it into a paved open expanse. Some subtle but judicious interventions would have done the job. The courtyard now has all the shallow, sanitized “staged authenticity” of an all-inclusive hotel or shopping mall, which is not appropriate for a heritage site. And, to put it frankly, it is quite ugly and soulless, with little hope for substantial improvements once the project is completed (and it is indeed not complete, with dangling electrical wires, orange traffic cones, plastic coverings, and caution tape all over the place). Even when the newly planted vegetation grows in, it will never again be the green space it was before.

Work in progress, Devon House courtyard, as photographed by the author on December 29, 2022

This is not about being a purist or resistant to change, as the appearance of the courtyard had already changed a number of times. Most of the buildings around the courtyard are not, in fact, part of the original structure but were added when major renovations were done, with the most significant modifications in the late 1960s and 80s, but those changes were generally consistent with the spirit and aesthetic of the place. It is however not the first time that renovations and additions at Devon House have been controversial. For instance, the rather bizarre metal and brick pavilions that were added to the front lawns in the 1980s generated public criticism and were quietly removed after a while. But at least then mistakes were recognized and corrected.

Part of the problem with the current courtyard renovation is also that there are far more urgent issues to deal with at Devon House. This includes the negative impact on traffic congestion on Waterloo Road and, particularly, Kingsway; the unsightly, walled and ludicrously expensive Kid Zone playground; the increasingly unkempt and crowded back lawns; and the endless, poorly managed lines at the Devon House I-Scream place (the ice cream is wonderful, but do we really have to prove ourselves worthy before we get a cone?). It may well be that Devon House is already operating above its capacity, which is a serious management problem that needs to be addressed to safeguard its sustainability as a heritage site. The minor technical difficulties with the courtyard were the least of Devon House’s problems.

The relevant authorities – crucially including the boards and management of the Devon House Company, the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF), and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) – should be held to account over the courtyard debacle and also over the tone-deaf, dismissive statements that have been made in defence of the project. Such responses have become a distressingly predictable part of an increasingly undemocratic, but often ill-considered “Papa knows best” political culture. The Devon House courtyard debacle is ultimately a question of leadership, governance and sound stewardship of Jamaica’s heritage and environmental resources.

The present controversy about the Devon House courtyard cannot be allowed to be another nine-day wonder, as bigger issues are at stake. Part of the problem is that decisions about Devon House, which falls under the Ministry of Tourism, are now almost entirely made in terms of its role as an attraction and its money-making potential, as a place for events and retail and gastronomical activities, rather than as a heritage site and a socially inclusive public space.

Devon House seen from the front lawns, as photographed by the author in 2010

This evolution is not limited to the courtyard. The gorgeous front and east lawns have not been freely accessible to the public for quite some time and are now reserved for paid events and functions. Gone are the days when ordinary Jamaicans had unrestricted access for picnics, wedding pictures, a date over ice cream, study groups, or a simple stroll in the park. Free and inclusive access is now limited to the back lawns, the courtyard, and, at least for now, the parking area. As a result, Devon House is now in effect a socially segregated space and the symbolic implications of who gets access to the front versus the back of the house are deeply troubling, given Jamaica’s colonial history and lingering social divisions. The situation brings to mind, and is in fact related to, the increasingly vexed issue of beach access in Jamaica. Both should be vigorously challenged.

Most Jamaicans are familiar with the history of Devon House, which was built in 1881 for Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel and part of its popular appeal stems from its symbolic association with the social changes of that time. The related story about the construction of Lady Musgrave Road, as a way for the colonial governor’s wife to avoid the socially provocative sight of Devon House, may be historically inaccurate but its continued hold on the public imagination stems from how it invokes those momentous challenges to the colonial status quo. This history makes the present social re-segregation at Devon House all the more disturbing, as the house is arguably part of Jamaica’s historical birthright.

Devon House was in the mid-1960s – a time which also saw a construction boom – slated for demolition. It was an inspired intervention by Edward Seaga to initiate the acquisition and restoration the property as a heritage and recreation site for the use of the people of Jamaica; as a site to promote Jamaican craft, through Things Jamaican; and as a tourist attraction.  The idea was always that there would be commercial activities that would help to finance the operations, and there is nothing wrong with that per se, but not, I imagine, that these would take the upper hand over its other, more important cultural and public recreational functions. Devon House is not a private business, which needs to generate profits at all costs, but a publicly accessible heritage site, and it needs to be managed accordingly.

Devon House holds a foundational place in the history of art in Jamaica as it was the first home of the National Gallery of Jamaica, which opened there on November 14, 1974 (and not in 1972, as the tour guides at Devon House routinely state). Housing the new National Gallery at Devon House was for various reasons a fortuitous move, as the attractiveness and central location and historical significance of the property positioned the new art museum well for high local and tourist foot traffic. There were however also technical limitations, such as the small size of the main house and its individual rooms, at least for an art museum; the lack of climate control and the building’s openness to the elements; and the building’s susceptibility to natural disasters, fire and termites, because of the high ratio of wood in the structure. But these could have been remedied and there were in fact plans in the late 1970s for a modern building to be added on what is currently the site of the extended parking lot – far enough from the main house not to interfere with its historical and aesthetic integrity. I have seen the concept drawings and it seemed like a feasible and sustainable way to combine the historic and the modern, which would have made it possible for the National Gallery to stay and thrive at the site.

In 1982, however, the National Gallery was abruptly removed to its current premises in the Roy West Building on the Kingston Waterfront, on what was initially a five-year lease with UDC and until a permanent, state-of-the-art building was constructed, although the latter has failed to materialize. Some observers felt that the relocation was a politically partisan move in the wake of the 1980 general elections, as the National Gallery was regarded as a “Manley project” and Devon House, a “Seaga project,” which thus had to be reclaimed.

For the National Gallery the relocation was a mixed blessing. The additional space and modern, climate-conditioned facilities allowed for an expansion of the temporary and permanent exhibitions, and the scope and ambition of the National Gallery’s programmes grew accordingly. The National Gallery however also lost the income from the retail and restaurant spaces at Devon House and foot traffic dropped significantly, as the symbolic social boundaries for visitors, ironically, increased. The bunker-like “white cube” space of its new Waterfront location was far less inviting of inclusion than Devon House.

The Victoria Craft Market on the Kingston Waterfront, c1905

The Kingston Waterfront redevelopment in the 1960s had, in fact, been another problematic episode in Jamaica’s urban development which had arguably ripped the heart out of what was once a very lively harbour and market district, replacing it with a rather soulless modernist business district. The demolition of the historic Victoria Craft Market, which had interesting architectural features, and the nearby Myrtle Bank hotel were critical mistakes from which the area has never fully recovered. It will be interesting to see whether the current redevelopment initiatives in Downtown Kingston can undo some of that damage.

The National Gallery never fully severed its ties with Devon House and a number of works of art from its collection are on permanent loan to the house and on display there. In 2014, when I was the Executive Director of the National Gallery, we received permission to use Devon House as one of the venues for the rebranded 2014 Jamaica Biennial. It was an appropriate “homecoming” during the National Gallery’s fortieth anniversary, which was supported by the efforts of Devon House’s board and management at that time to feature more art at the site. We selected works and installation proposals that would intervene in various ways with the history, significance and ambiance of the house. Devon House also served as a satellite site for the 2017 Jamaica Biennial site, using a similar curatorial approach. The two biennial exhibitions at Devon House were among the most exciting and successful curatorial projects I have worked on, and they were very well received as such by the public. It is a pity that this mutually beneficial collaboration with Devon House has been scrapped in the scaled-down successor of the Jamaica Biennial, the Kingston Biennial.

There obviously needs to be a bigger conversation about what Devon House represents and how the site (and other heritage sites in Jamaica) can be more appropriately managed and used. If anything, and providing the authorities become less defensive, I hope that the present controversy will open the door for those conversations. Until then, I cannot help but muse about what could have been if the National Gallery had been able to stay at Devon House and develop there. Perhaps it would have been a better use of the site than its current “venue-ization”, to borrow Diana Macauley’s term.

The production team at work on Ebony G. Patterson’s installation in the Devon House Ballroom, 2014 Jamaica Biennial

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