Patricia Green | Devon House ‘disneyification’ jeopardizes heritage | On point

The year 2023 marks the 40th anniversary of Jamaica’s signing of the 1972 UNESCO “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, commonly referred to as the “World Heritage Convention”. There are 194 nations that are signatories in 2020. Attached to the Convention are a set of regularly updated “operational guidelines” with specific criteria for its implementation.

UNESCO has stated that the 1972 Convention “brings together in a single document the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural property”. She recognizes the way people interact with nature and “the fundamental need to preserve the balance between the two”. On June 14, 1983, Jamaica signed this convention, and then came the 1985 Act for the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT). Jamaica is internationally committed to conserving its 2015 Blue and John Crow Mountains World Heritage Site, as well as protecting other national heritage, including Devon House.

This convention defines “cultural heritage” as material and immovable heritage in three categories: monuments, groups of buildings, sites. Devon House would be categorized as a cultural heritage ‘group of buildings’. Jamaica has a duty to ensure the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of its cultural and natural heritage, and to establish personnel and services at these sites, to undertake scientific and technical research on conservation. Was there ongoing archaeological monitoring at Devon House during this recent development activity? What artifacts were found? Has anyone located the historic well traditionally located in the backyard between all the mansions and their kitchens? Will these artifacts, including his well, be interpreted and displayed to the public, accessible to all visitors to Devon House, including Jamaicans?


Gain a better understanding of the historical significance in the international context surrounding the 1967 declaration of Devon House as a National Monument of Jamaica. The first International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments was held in Athens, Greece in 1931. This generated the “Athens Charter for the Restoration of Historic Monuments”, focusing on ancient buildings. When UNESCO was born in 1945, it adopted this charter.

Chronologically, Jamaica was ahead in restoration activities. His colonial government created a unit within the Ministry of Communications and Works to repair a number of monuments, then enacted Act No. 72 of 1958 allowing the Jamaica National Trust Commission to become a statutory body in 1959 , which in 1985 became JNHT. In 1964, a second congress of architects and technicians was held in Venice, Italy. They have drawn up the “Venice International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites” which covers all types of heritage. So when the Jamaican government bought Devon House for the people of Jamaica in 1967 and began its restoration, it happened in accordance with the “Venice Charter”, which reads in part as amplified:

• Article 1: “The notion of historical monument embraces not only the singular architectural work, but also the urban or rural setting. – The Devon House mansion, together with its front and rear buildings, and all associated landscape, including its backyard, has been listed as a monument and restored to its urban setting at its ‘Millionaire’s Corner’ of Hope Road, and with its history Lady Musgrave Road.

• Article 6: “Wherever the traditional framework exists, it must be preserved. No new construction, demolition or modification that would alter mass and color ratios shall be permitted. The restoration of Devon House in 1967 replicated the existing outbuildings with rebuilding on existing foundations, collapsed structures that had surrounded his mansion’s backyard complex.

• Article 7: “A monument is inseparable from the history to which it bears witness and from the setting in which it is set. Devon House circa 1881, designed and built by the African-Jamaican George Stiebel, whose mother was a housekeeper, has domestic buildings in the high style architecture which still exists today with its backyard, reflecting the extravagance and elegance of his two-storey mansion. It is a radical architectural act of decolonization by Stiebel to revalorize this social space, no doubt with respect for his mother. This backyard included a kitchen, pit latrines, servants’ quarters, laundry room, stable, shed and vegetable gardens.

Why does the Devon House development exclude its outstanding and significant backyard with high-end domestic architecture which is integral to the value and authenticity of its overall heritage setting? What justifies the promotion of Devon House as a grand mansion? Is the legacy of traditional backyard spaces of Afro-Jamaicans important?


Anthropologist, Sidney W. Mintz, in Caribbean Transformations, observed that among the Caribbean poor, the yard is an extension of the house, just as the house is the living nucleus of the yard. In my 2022 article published in NACLA Report on the Americas, “From Jamaica, a Decolonization Cry for Housing Justice and Architecture Conservation”, I identified the importance and development of the court/’yaad’ during slavery before 1834 and after, in rural and urban settings .

The Central Housing Authority (CHA), established in the 1930s to provide low-income/affordable solutions in West Kingston and other urban centres, replicated the traditional Jamaican ‘yaad’. Devon House would have served as a model. The CHA built housing in Trench Town, now dubbed “yaad government”, inspired by Bob Marley and the Wailers. No woman No Cry, which was published in 1974. The JNHT in 2018, declared “Trench Town Culture Yard” protected national heritage. Trench Town is a popular Airbnb destination in Jamaica. So why destroy this Jamaican cultural garden space at Devon House?

The “1999 International Cultural Tourism Charter on the Management of Tourism in Places of Heritage Significance” states in part and highlights:

• 1.1: “…The natural and cultural heritage is a material and spiritual resource, providing a narrative of historical development…” -Reinstate the rear courtyard and garden areas of Devon House.

• 2.4: “Preserving the authenticity of heritage sites and collections is important. It is an essential part of their cultural significance. Reinstate Devon House rear yard and garden spaces.

• 6.2: “Places and collections of heritage significance should be promoted and managed in a way that protects their authenticity and enhances the visitor experience. » Turn over the courtyard and garden areas of Devon House.

• 6.3: “Tourism promotion programs should enable a wider distribution of benefits and alleviate pressures on the most popular places. -Stop overloading the backyard of Devon House with intense high-traffic activities to prevent the rapid deterioration of the entire building complex, including the mansion which is currently under threat.

If the current “disneyfication” of Devon House’s backyard is retained, should Devon House be removed from the historic list? Who will take responsibility for protecting the authenticity and integrity of this exceptional ensemble of buildings and setting of Jamaican Creole architecture? Devon House is Jamaica’s palace. In keeping with Jamaican Cultural Spaces, let’s consider renaming the ‘courtyard’ to ‘Devon House back yaad’.

– Patricia Green, PhD, is UNESCO’s international expert consultant on cultural heritage and a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in its International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes and co-animator of its working group on historic urban landscapes. Send your comments to [email protected]

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