Ranked as National Geographic’s fourth best place in the world to eat ice cream in 2011, Devon House is already a favourite for residents and visitors alike. However, Devon House is so much more than stellar sweets. Sitting on 11 lush acres in Saint Andrew, the Devon House mansion was the home of Jamaica’s first coloured millionaire George Stiebel. Born to a Black Jamaican mother who was a housekeeper and a German Jewish father, Stiebel had a relatively privileged upbringing and was able to earn his fortune from investments in Venezuelan gold mines. He returned to Jamaica and purchased what was originally a 51-acre property to construct his Georgian-style mansion in 1881. Years after his passing in 1896, the house changed hands through two families then became property of the Jamaican government. Today, Devon House is a well-preserved national heritage site open to tours and its former stables, kitchen and other buildings now host some of Jamaica’s finest restaurants, confectionaries and souvenir shops.
Start of the Tour
The tour begins in the foyer on the ground floor. Like nearly all greathouses except perhaps Seville Greathouse, the Devon House Mansion has two floors. The ground floor has 5 rooms open to the public, namely the foyer, coatroom and stairwell, a games room, sitting room and dining room. The games room still contains authentic British board games, namely draughts, cribbage and backgammon as well as a precursor to the modern pool table. The sitting room has curious mementos collected by the Stiebel family and peculiar chairs designed to suit the obsolete needs of its user during that era e.g. chairs designed to allow soldiers to comfortably sit with their swords strapped at the waist. Umbrella and coat racks in the stairwell were customary. The only foyer tradition persisting to this day is the presence of an attractive mirror for guests to check themselves as needed.
The stately dining room is set with porcelain cup and saucers for a dinner party of 12. It felt as if the guests were about to walk in any minute! This room features artwork that was expensive even for its era, a striking grandfather clock and wine cooler. Also, that guy in the gigantic painting has the uncanny effect of his eyes & feet following you around the room thanks to good old-fashioned Renaissance painting style.
The Second Floor
This floor is even more impressive than the first with 10 rooms on display. These include a master bedroom & bath, daughter’s bedroom & bath, ballroom, painting room, writing room, tearoom, another sitting room and vestibule. Throughout the various rooms are authentic pieces which reveal the daily lives of the rich at the turn of the 18th century. Baby bottles before silicone nipples were invented, a coal bed warmer, manually emptied toilets and bidets before the invention of indoor plumbing, expensive porcelain, paintings, portraits, inkwells and letterboxes are just some of the items which caught my interest. The tearoom contains a table with lid to conceal canisters of tea leaves. Tea was too expensive; you wouldn’t want your leaves on display to invite theft. Of note in the sitting room is a tiny mobile staircase which leads to the attic, an early man-cave. The men would hide here to gamble and pull up the staircase so they couldn’t be reached by their wives.
The ballroom deserves its own spotlight. This elegant space was tastefully decorated with ceiling murals and panelling, well-equipped for its era with a phonograph and grand piano. When guests grew tired of dancing, they could sit and be waited on by butlers serving wine and other treats from portable trolleys. Such a quiet space today but one can imagine the sights and sounds of couples dancing the night away– perhaps not so gaily in the fashionably tight corsets of that era.
Of all the intriguing antiquities I saw throughout the former Stiebel home, the chandeliers were my favourites. Charming chandeliers are found in nearly every room and serve the dual function of lighting and style. Enjoy the few below which I remembered to photograph.
I am deeply grateful to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) for preserving the Devon House Mansion and about 20% of its surrounding acres. The rest of Devon Estate, along with neighbouring estates belonging to other rich families, was sold for the construction of apartments and businesses. Thus, the Devon Estate is the last remaining block of the 18th century’s wealthy street, appropriately nicknamed Millionaire’s Corner. In fact, the preposterous thought of a Black man owning property so close to the governor’s residence of King’s House angered Lady Musgrave, wife of then governor Sir Anthony Musgrave so much that she ordered an entirely new road built. This allowed her to bypass the Devon Estate despite how cumbersome and unnecessary the lengthier route was. She simply couldn’t fathom the thought of driving past a Black-owned property and to this day, Lady Musgrave Road remains.
Like most Kingstonians, I visit Devon House several times a year for ice cream and the occasional lyme with friends yet this was my first time entering the mansion. Little did I know the mansion would conceal such beautifully preserved treasures! The rooms were spotless, the mahogany furniture gleaming and virtually no signs of wear were visible on the authentic displays. The tour plus ice cream afterwards are deserving of 5 stars, ☆☆☆☆☆. I’ve driven past the mansion daily for over 2 decades but finally, I can proudly say I made the stop inside.
P.S. Special shout-out to my very knowledgeable and friendly guide (can’t remember her name unfortunately, but bless her soul).
‘Til next time. ✌
This post is pinnable too!