DaCosta House (June 21st, 2015)

Charlotte Maus, National Museum Jamaica

 Altamont DaCosta

 The Altamont DaCosta Institute here at 1 Central Avenue, Kingston Gardens (Kingston 4), is the former residence of the Honourable Altamont Ernest DaCosta (1868-1935).  Mr. DaCosta was a prominent Kingston merchant and public servant of Jewish faith who rose to become mayor of the capital city for a two-year period during the 1920s, from 1925-1927.  In 1909, he established the landmark gents’ outfitting store “The Sports” located at 27 King Street, which he ran up until his death.   A successful businessman, he was at various times co-director of the Gleaner Company, the Jamaica Telephone Company, the Victoria Mutual Building Society and the Palace Amusement Company.  “Mass Alty”, as he was affectionately known, was a popular man of high esteem.  Of Sephardic Jewish descent, he was active in his religion and served as Consul for Portugal in Jamaica as well.  He was a member of the Freemasonry and also a supporter of Garvey’s UNIA.

The Honourable Altamont Ernest DaCosta

 

                        

27 King Street, Downtown Kingston, Then & Now

 

He was first elected to the Kingston City Council in 1909 and was subsequently elected its Vice Chairman.  He served on this council, as well as the Legislative Council for Kingston, intermittently until 1934.  His time as mayor from 1925-1927saw the amalgamation of the municipality of Kingston and the parish of St. Andrew into the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (K.S.A.C.) in 1923, but DaCosta was decidedly a Kingston man.  Historian Thomas Graham, in his retrospect of the first one hundred years of the capital city in 1972, said of him, “While the Kingston business community was becoming increasingly resident in St. Andrew, and imbued with St. Andrew suburbanism, DaCosta remained obstinately Kingstonian: he was the last Custos of Kingston to live in his parish.”[1]In 1928, he succeeded Colonel C.J. Wardas Custos of Kingston and Chief Magistrate, after a period of vacancy of the post, and in 1932 he was awarded Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his service.  Mr DaCosta died in 1935.

 The Home and Neighbourhood

 His personal home located here at number 1 Central Avenue, Kingston Gardens, was constructed around 1920.  This was the period of reconstruction following the devastation of the 1907 earthquake, which affected most of Kingston, a period of relative prosperity and decadence in the building industry with improved building materials and regulations.  During this period, new settlement patterns were emerging in Kingston with the rise of a new merchant class.  The wealthier, educated middle class migrated eastward in the parish of Kingston and into neighbouring south eastern St. Andrew.  After Emancipation, and reflecting an improvement in their social status, there was also a movement of the Jamaican Jewish population, which was concentrated in the capital city, from West to East Kingston and around the Kingston Gardens area.  Of the Jewish population, geographer Colin Clarke says they “penetrated the older, white elite area and, after 1900, the growing settlement in central St. Andrew.”[2]The Shaare Shalom Synagogue, rebuilt in 1912, is located at the nearby corner of Duke and Charles Streets.  It is where DaCosta’s funeral was held in 1935.  Personal residences such as this one, constructed during the period, highlight this evolution and urban development of the capital city.

 

 

(Photos courtesy of Richard Belto, Institute of Jamaica)

 

The area known as Kingston Gardens developed during the second half of the nineteenth century and was one of the most elite residential Kingston suburbs at the time.  It is adjacent to North Street, the northern boundary of the original city, south of Allman Town.  North eastern Kingston and its suburbs, including Kingston Gardens, was the more affluent part of the city at the time and the Kingston Gardens neighbourhood, along with Manchester Square, were some of the most attractive areas for housing development. With the opening of the tramline from Harbour Street to the Race Course, Kingston Gardens was a convenient area for people who wanted easy communications with Kingston, without the noise of the city.

 

The DaCosta home is located about half a kilometre southeast of National Heroes Circle and down the road is the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Cathedral.  The Banana Board building is just north of here, in an area that was the central park in Kingston Gardens during the nineteenth century, the square around which the residences were built on large lots.  The DaCosta home reflects the former affluence of the area, with a service entrance to the rear, as well as separate pedestrian and vehicle entrances in the front.  With the migration of wealthier residents to more affluent suburbs further north of the city, the now more fashionable suburbs of St. Andrew, the Kingston Gardens neighbourhood has declined, with low-income, multi-family occupancy and squatting in the residences of the area.

 

The Banana Board building (Photo courtesy of Donnette Zacca)

 

This 2,370 square foot single-storey, timber-framed main building, consisting of five spacious rooms and a vestibule, has brick walls finished with the popular “pebbledash” or “roughcast” lime-cement rendering on the exterior, where small pebbles are added to give a grainy texture, and has a smooth render on the inside. The original colour of the walls was“butter” yellow.  Georgian decorative motifs can be seen in the home, with the distinctive white entrance portico and pediment and the stylised, fluted Doric columns on the veranda, as well as trendy artefacts of the Industrial Revolution, namely the pressed tin ceiling.  Vernacular architectural elements can also be seen in the fretwork bargeboard over the carport and louvered windows to allow for air circulation. An article from the Daily Gleaner from 1951 states that Kingston Gardens “still boasts a number of large house in the Jamaican Victorian style.  One of them, on Central Avenue, was the home of the late Altamont DaCosta… it was one of the outstanding houses in the garden.” [3] The classification of the home as Jamaican Victorian seems to be a mischaracterisation, but Georgian elements can be seen despite the building having been built around 1920.  Two outbuildings are also found on the lot, a 270 square foot brick caretaker’s quarters and a 1,400 square foot timber canteen.  The entire lot is 11,750 square feet.  Other remarkable features of the home include the porch tiles, iron grillwork giving onto Central Avenue and the high-ceilinged rooms.  In the past zoysia grass, bougainvillea, Italian cypress saplings, marigold flowers and palms have been planted on the property.

 

(Left, photo courtesy of Richard Belto, Institute of Jamaica; Right, photo courtesy of Donnette Zacca)

 

 

(Photos courtesy of Richard Belto, Institute of Jamaica)

 At his death in 1935, Mr DaCosta bequeathed his home, along with the sum of two thousand pounds in trust, to the Colonial Secretary of Jamaica in his will for the establishment of an institute, museum and/or library for the benefit of the Parish of Kingston and the cultural advancement of the people of Jamaica.  This along with its furnishings, notably two bookcases and their contents, two china cabinets and their contents, a mahogany dining table and chairs, a piano, and all the pictures and paintings.  The “Altamont DaCosta Institute” was established, owned and administered by the Institute of Jamaica.

 Disrepair, Renovations and Uses

 The home has suffered fire and water damage in the past, notably damage from hurricane Gilbert in 1988, as well as rodent and termite infestations.  The home was most recently renovated from late 1999 to early 2000 at a cost of J$4.6 million, and in the 2000s the now vacant, adjacent properties of 3 Central Avenue to the North (known as Hurst Green, 12,500 square feet) and 1 ½ North Street to the South (at the intersection of North Street and Central Avenue, 19,750 square feet) were purchased by the Institute of Jamaica to expand the land space.  It was considered as a possible relocation site for the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank (ACIJ/JMB) at the time, but they ended up staying at their Ocean Boulevard location.  At the time, termite treatments were carried out, the roof was sealed, gutters replaced and windows repaired.

 For the first 15 years after DaCosta’s death, the site remained locked up, but in 1950 the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts, now known as the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts, opened its doors at the Altamont DaCosta Institute.  An article from the Sunday Gleaner in September 1952 described this new school at the DaCosta Institute at the time saying:

The door always stands invitingly open, almost begging you to enter the cool interior and take a look around.  You might stop (as you should) and pause for a moment on the threshold of a large room, ingeniously divided in two.  You can feel the cool breeze, and your eye is caught by a bright blue-and-white curtain, stirring in the wind, whose pattern reminds you of something intrinsically Jamaican.  On the walls local landscapes catch your eye and the crafts of Jamaica, the ceramics and the woodwork, gleam at you from their polished shelves.  You know, instinctively, that you are in a shrine that houses the hopes and dreams of Jamaica’s art.  The Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts, which is about to start out on its third year of existence.[4]

Later in the 1950s, much of the Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts’ teaching was conducted at the school’s extension at 11 North Street, but the Altamont DaCosta Institute remained the headquarters and display room for the new art school. The school offered formal training in fine and commercial arts, with an emphasis on income-generating applied arts and craft skills.  There was instruction in drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery making, textile design, graphics, industrial art and basic architecture.  By 1956, a Daily Gleaner article entitled “DaCosta Institute: Haven of Amateur Artists” said, “The DaCosta Institute has long since established itself as a place where the art of the good citizen finds encouragement and intelligent guidance.”[5]Early tutors at the Altamont DaCosta Institute’s school of arts and crafts were outstanding artists in their particular fields; they included none other than Edna Manley, Cecil A. Baugh, Albert Huie and Linden Leslie, among other well-known Jamaican artists.  Edna Manley taught modelling, Cecil Baugh pottery, Jeremy Isaacs woodwork design, Albert Huie drawing and painting with lino-cut, Linden Leslie commercial art with silk screen and Angus Grant textile design and drawing.  In the 1950s as well, a sales room opened at the school where you could purchase the students’ work as well as the works of Baugh, Huie and Manley.  In an article in the Daily Gleaner from January 1951, these teachers were proclaiming that, “in a very few years the influence of the DaCosta Institute will be marked in all the arts and crafts produced in Jamaica.”[6]  In a Sunday Gleaner article from 1952, Manger of the school Mrs Vera Moody said, “I think Mr. DaCosta [sic] would be happy to see the good use to which his home has been put.  A school like this was a long-felt want, and I can think of no other place where it could be housed.  Our fees are so low, it is accessible to everyone interested in art in Kingston and St. Andrew.”[7]

 The school continued to grown throughout the 1960s and by the mid-1960s the school had a couple hundred students.  One of the school’s directors in the 1960s was renowned artist Barrington Watson.  The school was renamed the Jamaica School of Art in 1967 and up until 1976, when it was moved to its current location on Arthur Wint Drive to become the Edna Manley School of Visual and Performing Arts, a section of the renamed Jamaica School of Art was still housed at the DaCosta Institute, under the administration of the Institute of Jamaica.

 The DaCosta Institute has been used intermittently throughout the period from the 1980s-2000sas artists’ studios for the Jamaica School of Art, as well as for art classes and craft workshops modestly funded by private contributors and sanctioned by the Institute of Jamaica.  In the late 1980s, the Institute of Jamaica’s Junior Centre established a Craft Training Centre outreach programme at the DaCosta Institute, where the area’s youth could learn and upgrade commercial craft skills, from embroidery, crochet, macramé, basketry, quilting, lace work, batik fabric work, weaving, machine sewing, etc. This programme operated into the 1990s.  Since 2001, the Multicare Foundation has been operating children’s art classes here and in 2015 the Jamaican Institute of Architects won a bid to use the premises as their headquarters and possible exhibition space.

 References

 

Clarke, Colin G.  “Social and Economic Change, 1820-1938.”  In Kingston Jamaica:

Urban Development and Social Change 1692-2002.  Kingston: Ian Randle

Publishers, 2006.

Graham, Thomas.  Kingston 100: 1872-1972 (Kingston: A Hundred Years a Capital).

Kingston: Thomas Graham Publications, 1972.

Hill, Robert A. and Marcus Garvey.  The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro

Improvement Association Papers: 1826 – August 1919.  Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1983.

Howard, David.  Kingston: A Cultural and Literary History.  Kingston: Ian Randle

Publishers,  2004.

 

Institute of Jamaica.  “DaCosta Institute.”  Registry Files 12/6 (3 files).

 

Institute of Jamaica.  “Historic Structures: The Altamont DaCosta Institute.”

Jamaica Journal 27, no. 1 (July 2000): Back Cover.

 

National Land Agency Land Valuation Division.  “Report and Valuation on 1 ½ North

Street, 1 and 3 Central Avenue, Kingston Gardens, Kingston.”  (May 21, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1]Thomas Graham, Kingston 100: 1872-1972 (Kingston: Thomas Graham Publications, 1972), 16.

[2] Colin G. Clarke, “Social and Economic Change, 1820-1938,” in Kingston Jamaica: Urban Development and Social Change 1692-2002 (Kingston: Ian RandlePublishers, 2006), 75.

[3]The Daily Gleaner, “DaCosta Institute Finds Much Artistic Talent” (Thursday, January 4, 1951).

[4]Sunday Gleaner, “The Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts” (September 26, 1952).

[5]The Daily Gleaner, “DaCosta Institute: Haven of Amateur Artists” (Tuesday, July 17, 1956).

[6]The Daily Gleaner, “DaCosta Institute Finds Much Artistic Talent” (Thursday, January 4, 1951).

[7]Sunday Gleaner, “The Jamaica School of Arts and Crafts” (September 26, 1952).

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