Saturday, April 5, 2014

Holness Fortress!

By Torsdag ©
 © inmyownwords

A friend recently sent me pictures of Andrew Holness’ house being built in Beverly Hills. Looking at the pictures brought several things to mind; some good, some indifferent, some bad. What it did remind me of, from an architectural standpoint, is an article I read that addresses the trickle-down theory of architecture written by Professor Witold Rybcyzynski. My thoughts prompted me to muse upon this said trickle-down theory of architecture as it pertains to the Jamaican house and what passes nowadays for Jamaican architecture.

The fascination with the architecture of wealth and privilege still reigns supreme in our psyche. Though this is nothing new or specific to Jamaica, the way in which we classify and embody this notion, is. It is developed mainly through voyeurism: what we see on TV, the internet, social media, word of mouth and of course, what we – see. The big house on the hill was always, at least in my brief lifetime, something to aspire to. But what was the first ‘big house on the hill’ that captivated the attention of Jamaicans? Particularly ordinary Jamaicans? That’s an easy one: the plantation house.
Rose Hall Great House c1820-21
From "A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica" - Plate 20
by  English Architect James Hakewill
Great houses were situated on the highest elevation on the plantation. This was done for many reasons, including: It could be seen by all, especially from afar; Backra Massa could observe his holdings from a privileged vantage point. It was also cooler at higher elevations (in the days of no a/c this was a must for physical comfort), and breeze also deterred pests such as mosquitoes, etc. Journeying from the lower levels up to the house itself presented a ‘build up’ of expectations for a visitor that he/she was approaching something grand. The approach had to be commensurate with the grandness of the destination.

This was something to aspire to! This is how the wealthy lived, so if you wanted to portray wealth via an abode, it had to look something like this. If you couldn’t afford the whole hog, then bits and pieces would have to suffice. These bits and pieces were/are reiterated so much over time that, divorced from their original intent, most have lost meaning and are totally disassociated with their original intended purpose.

But that’s OK, it seems, as it is enough to appear rich. This is increasingly so in modern day Jamaica.

“Me have dat too!”

The homes of the wealthy have always influenced ‘ordinary people’ because of what the house and holding represents.

Getting back to Backra Massa’s lines of sight from his Great House portico, at some point in time, the gate and the party walls took precedence as property boundaries. Gates were originally intended to keep grazing animals in, or out. We still see this legacy in Jamaica: cattle grids across gate thresholds are common enough. But fences got higher and higher. Retaining walls also doubled as fences. Necessary to keep earth in its place, particularly when building on a hillside or some such incline, these retaining walls got more and more solid and took on more and more aesthetic qualities. Jamaican cut-stone masonry is a functional work of art.
© inmyownwords

The cut-stone wall surrounding the Holness residence could hold back half of Beverly Hills itself should it decide to give way to landslide. It is fundamentally and purposely well overstructured to the point of being foreboding, which I believe is its intent. In and of itself, it is a beautiful specimen of the workmens’ craft. As a whole, it clearly says KEEP OUT!! Further, it blocks all lines of sight from the human at street level. The well-incorporated guard gate further underscores that KEEP OUT!! sentiment. Rest assured that this fortress-like boundary wall is twinned with a whiz-bang, SOTA burglar/security system. The funny thing, is, it is my opinion that the powerful in Jamaica have no need for such type security system as ‘duppy know who fe friten’.  No one troubles the Big Man’s house/possessions for fear of serious backlash. Big Man in Jamaica have no need for not one linear foot of security wiring.

This massive cut-stone wall also screams: 'Look how much money I have!' Again, another intended purpose.

Cut-stone is tremendously labourious work! The work is done by skilled artisans whose split hands look more like tyre treads than human hands – an occupational hazard. [The same labourers who will be disadvantaged by the flexi-workweek bill now tabled in Parliament…but that’s a different discussion for a different time.] Only in Jamaica is such skilled labour to be got so cheaply. Stone masons don’t rank high on the professions ladder. This type workmanship in the “1st world” costs a king’s ransom.

On the house itself. The little of what peaks over the cut-stone rampart (def: part of a defensive wall; a fortification) shows a mishmash of architectural typology. Double arches in a tower (??) juxtaposed with a trabeated portico with triangular pediment below. I just mashed Roman (arches), Venetian Revival (double arches), Grecian (trabeation and portico), and Renaissance (portico usage in a domestic circumstance) architectural typologies in one sentence. I see all that; a good 1500 years on the architectural timeline, mashed into perhaps 5% of one building peeking over the rampart, from the roadside. Bits and pieces of samples from great architectural eras incongruously mashed together, all contriving to convey the image of a good life. I’m sure the inside is no different. Oh for a walk-through to see the layout. I would love to see the location and size of the servant’s(s') quarters. This too is a holdover from colonial days as a symbol of wealth and privilege. No doubt some servant(s) will be pleased to work in Big Man’s house and will pridefully take affront at any ‘ordinary’ person who dares approach the house begging something.

So let’s get back to what comprises the architecture of privilege in Jamaica:

MASS – It has to be big! Big means more money was spent on it. So what if you only can afford to burn one light and live in one room? Passersby won’t know that. All they see is how you house big... so, you must ‘have it’!

ELEVATION – Particularly if it’s on a hill. Perfect vantage point for everyone to see!

APPROACH – The journey to the house must be spectacular and impressive. Imagine the view of Kingston and Kingston Harbour once you alight from your car and begin your ascent at the base of the Holness portico!
© inmyownwords

FRONT ENTRANCE – I’m assuming a grand, mahogany front door is installed underneath the above mentioned typological mash-up. Who will be privileged to cross the threshold of this door?

SERVANTS QUARTERS – Would be interesting to know if the shower stall(s) are actually tiled vs just left as raw concrete, which is the current standard. Or if there’s even a bathtub.

MONUMENTAL STAIRCASES – That lead to the private area of the house.

ELABORATE KITCHENS AND BATHS – This, incidentally, is no hold over from our colonial past. It’s a US import. Great houses housed kitchens and bathrooms outside. They were considered utilitarian spaces and therefore dirty. When these rooms eventually moved inside, they were annexed as close to outside as possible. Now that America is live-streamed into our living rooms and consciousness, we all want stainless steel appliances, the ubiquitous phalanx of kitchen cabinetry ringing the kitchen’s perimeter and of course granite countertops. Can anyone see Mavis brucking coconut pon the granite countertop for ‘Sar and Miss’ Sunday dinner? How about her scaling fish and letting the scales fly all over the granite and the cherry wood cabinetry and the ceiling? Chopping up oxtail with the cleaver again on said countertop, blood and bits flying everywhere? Cooking is a messy business. Jamaicans still live like this because we have servants to do it for us. Americans don’t. They do well with such showpiece items. Further, granite is mined in the US; it isn’t in Jamaica – all the more reason why it becomes a status symbol here. Expensive and imported.

We all know the master bathroom will have a jetted tub, steam shower and a bidet! Oh yes, and granite countertops as house the washbowl sinks.

MEDIA ROOM – That too is catching on big time as part of the architecture of privilege in Jamaica.

CROWN MOULDING – An architectural feature in older houses, this element is more popular today not because of its relation to our architectural past as crown moulding is a common feature of Georgian and Victorian architecture; but because it’s seen as a must have on American homes. The thing is, Jamaicans (a) do not know the original purpose of moulding (they are elements that are designed to 'hide' points of transition such as where the wall plane meets the ceiling plane) and (b) seem not to know that moulding is comprised of components that make up a whole, so floor moulding when placed at the ceiling does not constitute crown moulding (as seen in the Pineapple Lounge at NMIA, for example). It’s still floor moulding; just that now it’s nailed at the ceiling juncture instead of down by the floor where it belongs. Additionally, there’s actually a right and wrong way to install moulding. There’s a grand looking house in Millsborough for sale for $1.7m USD with all visible crown moulding shown in the pictures installed upside down.

I’m keeping my ear to the ground for all the special media features on this house once it’s completed. You know there will be many.

NAME – Lest we forget. All the grand houses have names. No doubt that huge, darker, bordered area of cut-stone is the backdrop for this dwelling’s name. Large enough for all and sundry to see. What will it be christened?

© inmyownwords

Norman Manley’s home was named Regardless and is also more popularly known/referred to as Drumblair. A metonym derived for the neighbourhood it’s in, Drumblair now embodies not only the house but the era and the policies associate with the man. A modest yet respectable house for the position the (then) Honourable (to be styled Rt Excellent once becoming national hero) and his family held in society.

Alexander Bustamante’s home was named Bellencita. A low slung, mid-century modern home in the hills of Irish Town. A single storey house (perhaps because of Bustamante's knee problems?), it is barely visible from the street. This then Most Honourable (Rt Excellent) also reared small animals and grew fruit trees on his property. It is currently for sale for $1m USD.

Vale Royal. The official home of the Minister of Finance. Associated in recent memory with Edward Seaga, who was the Minister of Finance when he became Most Honourable. He raised his children in this Jamaican Victorian home in the area that is now known as the Golden Triangle. Seaga now lives on Paddington Terrace. Vale Royal was also home to Most Honourable Sir Donald Sangster, who, like Seaga, was also Minister of Finance as well as Prime Minister.  Vale Royal is now only used to host State affairs.

 Most Honourable Portia Simpson Miller resides, I hear, in her home in Jack's Hill.

Percival James Patterson’s home on Shortwood Road in Norbrook is called [it’s an African word…I can’t remember]. This Most Honourable has lived in this house for many years.

I have no information on the abodes of Most Honourables Hugh Shearer, Michael Manley and Bruce Golding, but I’m willing to bet they follow the above in similar vein.

We scarce know where our past Most Honourables live, despite Jamaica being a land of everybody minding everybody's business; so HOWCOME and WHY the overly blatant, crass, boorish show of wealth and status in the design and build of this tremendously brief Most Honourable?? He is behaving like a never-see-come-see.  Art imitates life. If architecture is reflective of life in Jamaica today, then sadly, this monstrous chimera of a house is alas, apropos. A new term has emerged that embodies this house: "Buttu Baroque". Coined (so I hear) by the proprietor of Hotel Mockignbird Hill, it says it all. It’s the ‘Matalon Mansion’ of Braeton, etc brought uptown. A precise embodiment of the notion that ‘downtown’ has taken over ‘uptown’ in setting the ethos of modern day Jamaica. Everything is being reduced to the lowest common denominator. Once upon a time it was downtown who followed uptown. Now we see the reverse.  I suppose if  'downtown' can afford Dolce & Gabbana (as evident in pictures of the many street dances), then so too should 'uptown'.  We don't even speak English anymore, because 'downtown' doesn't.  More unfortunate is the fact that in one bold move, we see that the vestiges of our past continue to haunt us; in so many ways. Big Man and small man alike. What is misconstrued as freedom and independence is actually just a new psychological bondage. Pursue money at all costs and flaunt it in as many different ways as you can. If you still don’t have it, the appearance of it will do just as well.

In addition to all of the above, Holness' big house on the hill underscores a missed opportunity to move our architecture in a different, more progressive direction. There is precedence for this as evident in our vernacular styles of Jamaican Georgian (see Devon House) and Jamaican Victorian (see Vale Royal).  Some very impressive modernist architecture came out of the 1960s and early-mid 1970s (see Goblin Hill Villas).  Our architecture needs to yet again evolve into something that embodies a new way of thinking about how we live and continue to positively develop in this new century and not reiterate old servant/master stereotypes and histories; about charting a new course instead of ignorant follow-fashion; about leadership and vision instead of servitude and myopia.

New Backra Massa, new whip hand. Same old whip.


  1. Portia lives up Jacks Hill. Can't help but know this, as the queen buzzes down the hill in the mid morning, gleefullly waving to her loyal subjects

  2. I don’t think you get it, Portia lives up Jacks Hill? I thought the PM resides at Vale Royal but in any case how is that relevant, did she build a $300 Million Butu mansion with a $70 million stone cut wall? This is not about living up Jacks Hill or Beverly Hills...

    This is not about where you live, our elected official are paid handsomely and as such are expected to live comfortable within reason, as Mike henry said during the $50 Million upgrade of the minister's state-owned house scandal “he was not accustomed to living in squalor…” and no one expects them to live in squalor…. I do not expect the leader of the opposition to live in squalor nor do I expect the Prime Minister to live that way but what Holness did, what he built, was way over the top and totally without class… I would not go so far as to call him “Papa-Doc” but his actions are very “Papa-Docish” ….

    1. The Hon Hugh Shearer lived at Jamaica House, but had a home in Hope Pastures, near Hope Gardens. His family continued to resided at Chisholm Avenue.

  3. Was just giving a statement of fact re Portia and living at Vale Royal.

    And I get what you are saying. It does reek of bhuttoism. I still don't get the big Port Cochere in the prime prime spot on the property, you would think you would want a nice verandah, leading out to your pool and ting where you benefit from the views. This was a nice site, where he could have done something truly spectacular. But taste is subjective, and people are building big and ugly houses all across St. Andrew.

    Would it be ok if Holness had built a tasteful, but exquisitely (read expensive) mansion? No. At least not to me. My perceptions and suspicions would be no different. We know what they earn, so it's not hard to extrapolate and figure out the mortgages that they are most likely able to afford. Many of our other politicians, live in "tasteful" but still extremely expensive houses, and live lifestyles that in a normal world, their pockets cant afford.

    We really don't look into how our politicians accumulate wealth in Jamaica. The things we hear and find out (nothing stays secret in Jamaica for too long) often times does not match what if officially declared.

    1. Interesting commentary and much appreciated. But just a point of information.

      Vale Royal is the official residence of the Prime Minister. It was refurbished in the late 1950s when Norman Manley was Premier, with a view that it would act as the home of the Head of the Government. Unfortunately, Bustamante thought otherwise and had Jamaica House built with the intent of it being the residence for the Head of Government. It later evolved into the OPM. The Rt. Hon. Edward Seaga was the only PM to use Vale Royal for the intended purpose for a substantial period of time.

      Before the advent of the role of Head of Government, Vale Royal was the Residence of the Colonial Secretary. In the late 1700s, Vale Royal (which I think was then called Prospect Pen) was the home of Sir Simon Taylor, once described as one of the richest men in the British Empire.

      As for the home of Norman Manley, 'Regardless' was built on a section of the Drumblair property, prior to the demolition of the house known as Drumblair.

  4. I believe PJ's is "Xanadu". Holness' should be "Andrew's Folly".

  5. We know the declared salary amount, as reported by the media and disclosed in public papers, we do not know however the undeclared amount. I am sure being in such a position of power brings with it loads of financial perks.

    As per the 2012 report in the Gleaner ("Pricey Cabinet - Close To $200m Per Annum in Salaries Allowances." --Salaries only):

    Portia's 2012 Cabinet (20)
    Prime Minister: $7,271,283
    Minister of Finance: $5,891,212
    Other Cabinet Ministers (18): $98,186,886
    Cabinet total: $111,349,381

    Bruce's 2007 Cabinet (19)
    Prime Minister $4,706,344
    Deputy PM $4,118,493
    Minister of Finance $3,813,092
    Cabinet Ministers (16) $56,490,256
    Cabinet total $69,128,185

    Portia's 2006 Cabinet (14)
    Prime Minister $4,706,344
    Minister of Finance $3,813,092
    Other Cabinet Ministers (12) $42,367,692
    Cabinet total $50,887,128

    PJ's 2002 Cabinet (17)
    Prime Minister $4,706,344
    Finance Minister $3,813,092
    Ministers (15) $52,959,615
    Cabinet total $61,479,051

  6. It is said that if you repeat something often enough, people will believe it. No good quantity surveyor would ever value that wall to have cost $70 million. Worse yet; the unfinished house expected to cost $300 million. Baseless. But, that's classic Jamaican political bias at work.

    One suggestion though to the false prophets: You've all been banding about the figure of $300 million for some time now. Isn't it time you adjust it to take into account the effects of inflation and a sliding dollar?

    That's what quantity surveyors would do.

  7. Hush... I know it does not look too good for the young leader, a mean after only 2 months as PM and he does not have a history of wealth passing down from generation to generation, it raises a lot of questions…
    First you must take that figure up with Party supporters like Clovis and the dude from warren’s blog who claim he works for or worked for the JLP, it seems when they thought the disgusting Butu-Mansion in question belonged to the opposing party they reported its value also at $300 million … Also the media, tackle them also, they reported it over and over in gossip pages and last but not least the word on the street…. “If a nuh so it goh… then something go so”…. I will continue to use the said figures until I see otherwise…..

  8. Can someone visit the Titles Office, do a search for the deed (only the address is needed) and see 1) reported sale price 2) if any mortgages are entered on the title...that is a factual start point for more info

  9. I thought PJ's residence was called Uhuru.

    1. Uruhu: Swahili for "freedom" is indeed mounted on PJ's wall.

  10. All of this noise and nobody stopped to check a few things...1. PJ's home is called "Uhuru" 2. Andrew Holness' wife is a housing developer for high end properties 3. A lot of this criticism is grounded in jealousy. If the said house were to be offered to anyone speaking here, no one would say no. 4. Its a free country, his taste is his taste. He owes no one any explanation for living comfortably, as long as it is not being done with a. corrupt money & b. with taxpayers' money.

    1. Really? Jealousy? Absolutely ridiculous. The article makes valid points, for a poor nation a certain degree of 'carrot dangling' is completely unnecessary and does speak to what we inherited from our colonial masters. I've been to countries with much stronger financial health overall and they see no need for these particular types of wealth display. We need to be honest with our selves.

  11. Due to the large volume of comments for this post, I am forced to disable the comment section, there is not enough time in the day for me to monitor each post and approve it much less respond. Not to mention the amount of pissed of comments from Diehard Party supporters of the Opposition and Diehard gloating party supporters of the Government… If you would like to continue the discussion/cussing then try using the facebook page:, or use gleaner or observer or ognr

  12. Decided to reopen the comment section … only respectful comments will be posted and untoward ones will not be published … I understand that not every blog post published people will agree with, everybody have different take on different topics, I will also try to approve comments on a timely manner…

  13. 300 Mil is a big figure but one any pnp contractor would use. Ive seen them build a 15x15 post office across from Cornwal Regional Hospital which cost $24 mil and that was from as far back as 10 years ago.

  14. Which simply mean the Post Office cost about 5 Million and the Political class pockets the rest… hahahaha

  15. Compare the residential retirement package for the former president of Kenya, and current official residence of the president of The Republic of South Africa, for a lesson in extraordinary extravagance and misplaced priorities in countries of mainly dirt- poor people.

  16. I am confused as many bloggers have missed the boat on this article, by personalizing and trying to decipher politicians' income and spending habits. #1. The article pinpointed the many flaws in our current value system, namely materialism and the means of which many Jamaicans will never attain, yet strive to replicate material wealth through clothing, homes, etc. #2. The internalization of the "Massa's values and external show of wealth" and how we continue to inadvertently express these values and lifestyle so that we can feel better about ourselves, instead on focusing on what Massa attempted to deny us, our freedom. education and ability to think for ourselves. Mr. Holt's and others need to build ostentatious homes speaks to what we value today in Jamaican society. Those who are opposed to such values, must then spend more time focusing on educating the next generation what should be important in Jamaica's social and economic development for a better future for all Jamaicans.

  17. your article is well articulated and obviously you are an individual with some level of tertiary education, while i must say it was somewhat of an interesting read, at the end of the article all i could really get was: BAD MIND.

    There is nothing boorish about one aspiring and realizing one's dream, be it a nice car, a nice home or even a nice career. If you where able to show that this gentleman as use less than acceptable means to acquire the wealth necessary to build such a abode then your article would convey a message worth the read.

    1. Bad mind? Ask yourself if the truth (as best as u can gauge it) is being reflected here. Holness' house is beside Asafa (so I was told) another who thrives on excess and doesn't have the goods to back it up. Whether or not these big homes are sustainable by who maintains them is not our business, but eyesore when all the trees in Long Mountain are removed to put up concrete structures and the place gets hotter.

    2. I fail to see where bad mind is reflected in the article. You need to look at this from a social perspective. Firstly Holness was Prime Minister and he could very well assume that post again. There is a price to pay when you put yourself up for public office. Jamaica has been in economic decline for decades and is the most indebted country in the Caribbean. The majority of Jamaicans are finding it difficult to make ends meet. For a public officer who wishes to be Prime Minister, the message he is sending with his over the top opulence while in public office is not a good example to be set. This is fairly similar to Portia lavishing her Ministers with brand new SUVs which by all accounts was not necessary. Public officers who seek to attain the highest office in the land must show leadership by exercising control, empathy, and be seen as being of the people. After he leaves office he could build himself a Taj Mahal if he so wishes but for now he should have exercised restraint and not give in to over indulgence. Such a display from a sitting public officer denotes a flaw in leadership skills.
      I guess we all would like a "big house" but what Jamaica needs NOW is leadership in the true sense of the word. Leaders like Castro, Putin, Mandela, Lee Kwan Yew, Jose Mujica.

  18. What is wrong with the house he is living in now? is it too ordinary for him now because he has arrived?

  19. Totally absurd and a perfect example of misplaced priorities. Mr. Holness could have garnered much needed credibility and admiration had he built a factory and hired his fellow Jamaicans to manufacture some useful commodity that could be exported in order to earn some much needed foreign exchange.

  20. inmyownwords:

    Are the figures quoted in Jamaican or US dollars? If in the former currency, the numbers for ministers' salaries aren't all that excessive.

  21. Mr Patterson's home is called "Uhuru" (Swahili for freedom)