Devon House The history behind it

Devon House

SET BACK from the main road and nestled behind majestic trees is eye-catching, regal splendour of the Devon House mansion. An outstanding tribute to Jamaican craftsmanship, Devon House stands a proud symbol of Jamaica’s past and its history is compelling. In the late 19th century the corner of Trafalgar and Hope Roads was known as Millionaire’s Corner. There, three of the island’s richest men had built mansions ­The Verley Family’s Abbey Court, Daniel Finzi’s Reka Dom and George Steibel’s Devon House.

In the early 1960s Abbey Court was bought and demolished to make way for Abbey Court apartments and Reka Dom now houses the YMCA. Steibel’s Devon House almost suffered the same fate as Abbey Court in the 1960s but it was saved and preserved for posterity as a historical landmark and heritage site. Upon hearing of developer’s plans to turn the grand old house into condominiums the then Minister of Development and Welfare, Edward Seaga, issued an interim preservation notice under the National Trust Act to prevent Devon House from falling to the developer’s axe. Devon House was later purchased by the government and, under Seaga, the concept of creating a centre for craft work, food and drink around the historical monument began to take shape. Its environs were transformed into the historic house museum, park, refreshment and shopping complex it is today ­ all of which were aimed at helping render the restoration and preservation enterprise self-sustainable.

 

A portrait of George Steibel

GEORGE STEIBEL

Many say that Steibel’s life resembles a fairy tale. Born the son of a Jamaican housekeeper and a German Jew in the 1820s, young George was subjected to harsh treatment due to his mixed parentage. At 14, he left school and went to work as a carpenter’s apprentice, and at 19, was involved with the reconstruction of the famous Ferry Inn, between Kingston and Spanish Town. In the 1840s George’s father gave him funds to buy a ship and the entrepreneurial young man began transporting cargo between North and South America. Soon he had three ships and started trading with the other West Indian islands. When George realized that there was a market for guns among rebel slaves in Cuba, he evenbecame involved in gun running ­ a lucrative endeavour that came to an abrupt end when he was briefly thrown into a Cuban jail.

In his twenties, George met and fell in love with Jamaican Magdalen Baker, the daughter of a Moravian missionary. Aware that his escapades in Cuba and his mixed parentage made him a less than attractive prospect for a son-in-law, the young couple waited until after Magdalen’s parents died to be married. Within a few years they had a son, Sigismund, after George’s father, and a daughter, Theresa. When Sigismund was 4 years old, one of George’s ships sank off the coast of Venezuela. George was aboard. He survived only to discover that he had lost everything, except the money belt he had had the foresight to tie around his waist before abandoning ship. Never one to give up, George became a peddler in Venezuela and saved until he could buy a mule to expand his business. George soon began to amass a fortune by buying gold and successfully transporting it to Caracas. He invested in a gold mine with friends and soon became the majority shareholder. George remained in Venezuela for 15 years until the mine was producing at a profit. He refused to return to Jamaica until he was truly a man of great wealth.

George achieved that goal in 1873 but it was tainted by the knowledge of his teenage son Sigismund’s death of an unknown illness while George was in Venezuela. George was now in his early 50s. George began to invest in Jamaica, buying two sugar estates, a wharf at Church Street, Great Salt Pond among others. All were bad choices except for Great Salt Pond, but his Venezuelan gold mine had made him more money than he could ever have imagined. In time, George came to sit on many boards such as that of the Kingston and St. Andrew Poorhouse, the Jamaica Co-operative Fruit Insurance Company and the Board of Education. He was well-respected and much admired.

George’s daughter Theresa married a prominent young Jamaican solicitor named Richard Hill Jackson and soon after their much-celebrated nuptials, George purchased Devon Penn and began to build his dream house, to be called Devon House, for his wife, daughter and son-in-law. The builder was the half-Lebanese, half-Haitian, Charles P. Lazarus. The land included wells, a fountain, a racetrack, tennis courts, and a 10 ft by 10 ft concrete swimming pool. Bricks and a cast iron gate were brought in from Scotland.

The house included a library, a gaming room, ballroom, sitting rooms, a sewing room, dining room, bedrooms, a balcony that looked across to Trafalgar Penn and verandahs on different floors. The kitchen was located in the back (where the Brick Oven now is) because it was thought dangerous to put a kitchen near to the wooden main house. The Steibels did a great deal of entertaining especially after George became Custos of St. Andrew in the mid-1880s. They therefore employed a large staff including four gardeners, two house maids, a butler, cook, laundress, grooms and a coachman. Servants’ quarters were located in the space now occupied by shops adjacent to the present day Brick Oven. Although much of the furniture and carpets today are not part of Steibel’s original décor (having been sold at public auction following the death of Theresa Steibel Jackson) the original chandelier, like the cherub and floral ceiling decorations, remain.

For ten years, George and his beloved wife were content, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. In 1892, Magdalen died and in 1895 his grandson Douglas died of typhoid. A week later, his son-in-law, Richard Hill Jackson (who had become Mayor of Kingston) passed away of what some reports say was a heart attack ­ others indicate pneumonia.

Heartbroken, George survived only one more year, dying in 1896 in his seventies. George set up generous trust funds for his family. Yet, poor management on the part of his executors meant the demise of his fortune. After Theresa Steibel Jackson’s death in 1922, Reginald Melhado, a successful Jewish Jamaican entrepreneur and his partner Harold Davies bought Devon House for £5,000. Eleven of the original 51 acres were kept and the remaining 40 some were subdivided. Devon Road, Waterloo Ave. and other such roads began to appear on maps detailing the parish of St. Andrew.

THE MELHADOS AND THE LINDOS ­
THE LAST PRIVATE OWNERS OF DEVON HOUSE

The original chandelier and decorative ceiling mouldings, installed in the ballroom when Devon House was built, are still present.

The Melhados gladly moved their collection of antique furniture into the mansion, but it is said that Reginald’s wife, Irene, never liked Devon House, finding it altogether too big. They entertained on rare occasions, preferring to live quietly with their family. Their daughter Isis started the Child Welfare Centre and the practice of having fundraising parties for poor children. It was not too long before Isis died of mastoides, an infection behind the ear. The Melhados had already lost three of their sons to World War I. Soon after, the Melhados moved out of Devon House and rented it to Alfredo and Marjorie Grinnan. Not long after the Grinnans took up residence in the mansion, their daughter, Mercedes, died of carbon monoxide poisoning while away studying in New York.

In 1928, another Jamaican of Jewish descent, Cecil Lindo, bought Devon House from the Melhados and lived there with his second wife Agnes until his death of a heart attack in 1960 at the age of 89. Cecil’s money came from wise initial investments in banana in Costa Rica and then investments in Jamaica, which included the purchase of the liquor firm of J. Wray and Nephew and Moneymusk Estates along with his brothers. Cecil was also a railway magnate and the owner of Appleton Estate and the wine and spirit business of Daniel Finzi and Co. Ltd. among other holdings. Like Steibel, Cecil Lindo was a generous benefactor of many Jamaican charities and he and his wife enjoyed entertaining and often gave fancy dinner parties. He left Devon House to his wife, who, in turn, went to live in New York following her husband’s passing. It was she who was approached by developers to sell Devon House in 1965.

DEVON HOUSE TODAY
The Devon House Development Company, which became operational in February 2002, is now responsible for the Devon House re-development project. Intended to further highlight the historical relevance of the House and continue its preservation and renovation, the re-development project includes landscaping, historical restoration and the establishment of new business ventures intended to help increase the property’s self-sustainability. The Waterloo Road entrance and the East and West Lawns (which will be marketed for special cultural events), are slated for major landscaping work. A private garden is also to be developed on the East Lawn as a new location for weddings. Additional plans include further developing and marketing the House itself as a museum, the establishment of a plant nursery and museum shop, the construction of rest rooms and an in-bond store, and the restoration of the shops recently burnt down by fire. Tours of Devon House are currently available 9:30 to 4:00, Monday to Saturday: $100 children and $200 for adults. $20 per student for school groups and $50 per teacher. For more information call the Devon House Development Company 926-0815, 926-0822.

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