St. Bess Heritage: Wattle and Red Earth


It all started with a house.

Kingston-based architect Ann Hodges designed a house for Dr Courtney Coke, a Chicago-based member of the Jamaican diaspora, in Potsdam, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. Potsdam District is in the cool, breezy Santa Cruz Mountains, overlooking the sunburned limestone plains and beyond, the blue haze of the Caribbean Sea.

A Spanish Wall house in St. Elizabeth. (Photo: WARE website)

Dr Coke explored the area. He noticed small homes – “beautiful and dilapidated” – built in a unique style, of red earth and limestone, framed in wood. Around Thanksgiving 2017, he called Ann Hodges and talked to her about it. The houses are at least 100 years old. What could be done to preserve them? Both agreed that they were certainly worthy of conservation. But who knew how to build them? What did the surrounding community think of them? Many Jamaicans are much more interested in large concrete structures, these days – and these are springing up across the parish.

Only about 40 to 50 of these remarkable structures remain.

After further discussions, the non-profit organization WARE Collective came into being, meeting for the first time on Boxing Day, 2017 to plan. WARE stands for “Wattle and Red Earth.” This style of architecture is often called “Spanish Wall.” At least, that is what the British called it when they arrived to take over as colonizers from the Spanish. This traditional building technique may well have much older origins. What is certain is that it is a dying art. For much more information on this, including lots of photographs of these houses, please take a look at this 1987 article in Jamaica Journal, authored by Ann Hodges.

A lot of new homes are going up in south St. Elizabeth. This photo I took several years ago is looking towards the Santa Cruz Mountains from the sea.

Enter Mr Guy Parchment, whom Courtney Coke calls the “absolute star” of the project. He is a great communicator and incredibly knowledgeable – and he knew exactly how to create the material to build these houses. For a week or two, he collected specific types of wood to help build the lime kiln. Within a very short time – just three months after the Collective’s first meeting – the burning of the kiln took place. On March 2, 2018, the kiln was built throughout the day. It was lit, and it burned through the night.

Limestone is a remarkable soft rock. About two-thirds of Jamaica is made up of it. Limestone transforms to become white and frail, creating sinkholes, caves and all kinds of formations. White lime, water and earth combine to form a mortar, which then rehardens to become almost rock hard and durable.

So now, a film was produced. The building and the burning of the kiln were recorded, along with interviews with Mr Parchment and community members. The documentary film, Rockstone and Fire: Celebrating Jamaica’s Traditional Built Environment, will be aired in Kingston and St. Elizabeth next month. The link to the film trailer is here.

Now, the work of the WARE Collective is not an intellectual exercise of interest only to architects, history students and lovers of Jamaican heritage. Its vision for the rich, tangible heritage of St. Elizabeth is both broader and more specific. Advocacy, education, stewardship of this heritage, and sustainability are key elements of this vision. Firstly, it is critical to spark the interest of the local community, who may not have recognized this aspect of their heritage, slowly crumbling into the flat, grassy fields. Heritage in Jamaica is not just an urban issue. Rural heritage is equally important, and it is hoped that this project will lead to a new sense of ownership of these remarkable structures – and to develop a new strand of heritage tourism, from which the community can also benefit.

Secondly, the goal is to create a cultural centre and open-air museum in southern St. Elizabeth. Some of the homes would be restored, and the techniques demonstrated to visitors. And ultimately, the skills would be passed on from Mr Parchment, the master builder, to younger generations. So, it is not only the conservation of old buildings – but the understanding of how to build them with indigenous materials (originally, the houses would have had thatch roofs).

This is certainly about the value of our rural heritage. To me, it is also an example of sustainable tourism at its best, and it ticks several boxes. There are always going to be those tourists who want to do nothing more than lie in the sun reading paperback novels, or sit at the swim-up bar at an all-exclusive – because they’re exhausted and burned out. There are others who actually regard holidays as a fuller experience  – learning about a new culture, a little slice of history they were not aware of before. This kind of heritage tourism also ties in with eco-tourism – and what some tourism officials still seem not to understand is that many of these more enquiring and curious visitors have more money in their pockets. What is more, as with birding tours and the like, this variety of tourism leaves a much smaller carbon footprint; and it also benefits small local businesses, entrepreneurs, restaurants etc. So, what’s not to love? Please think about this, Minister Bartlett et al!

OK…perhaps the Tourism Product Development Company understands this. A project such as the WARE Collective, highlighting a distinctive feature of our rich heritage, could be reproduced right across the island – and not just for overseas visitors. School visits, family outings, research projects, internships, university lectures and spin-off creative products would benefit Jamaicans, in addition to the community’s involvement. St. Bess would not be “reviving” a traditional skill exactly but introducing it to many Jamaicans, especially young people, who know nothing of it.

And yes, of course, WARE Collective welcomes funding support and is seeking more partners, so that it can breathe its vision into being. WARE would like to do islandwide educational screenings of the film (it’s very important to get students involved and interested) and summer programmes to teach these traditional building skills.

The WARE Collective is partnering with the University of Technology (home to the Caribbean School of Architecture) and the Institute of Jamaica to air the film on Friday, March 15 at the School of Architecture’s Lecture Theatre 4 at 5:30 p.m. The following day, Saturday, March 16 it will be shown at St. Mark’s Anglican Church Hall in Mayfield, St. Elizabeth at 4:00 p.m. There is a lot to say – and a lot to learn – about the socio-cultural importance of heritage tourism, its benefits and opportunities – and about sustainable building practices, too. So there will be plenty of time for discussions with the WARE Collective afterwards.

Come and learn more. And explore the warm, fiery, earthy website here.

Contact the WARE Collective at thewarecollective@gmail.com or via the website.


2 thoughts on “St. Bess Heritage: Wattle and Red Earth

  1. Emma, fascinating! Thank you. I am way behind on my Petchary. Hope you are healing well. Greetings from somewhere above Bahamian waters. Will be in Kingston thru Saturday. Hope to see you.

    Rachel Frankel, A.I.A. via iPhone

    >

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    1. Rachel! It’s so wonderful to hear from you! You will be in Kingston, please we must meet up! My number is 876 894-3772 (you have to dial the 876 in front!) Where are you staying? Our son and his girlfriend will be arriving tomorrow (Wednesday February 27) from London and the next day is his 32nd birthday. Let’s all meet up for a coffee or lunch?

      Like

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