You walk past things without seeing them all the time. Vendors, shop windows, signs for business places. If you are busy and focussed on getting to an appointment, if you are on your phone, your field of vision shrinks to fit your field of attention. You can’t miss the imposing white and pink building at 79 – 83 Barry Street in downtown Kingston, right across the road from the multi-storey car park beside the Supreme Court. Yet I never really looked at it until last year, although I have walked or driven past the solid edifice repeatedly over many years. Perhaps because when I am downtown, in the vicinity of the Supreme Court, I am hurrying to find a courtroom before a case is called up, or I am hurrying to do business at the Accountant General’s office. I am not there for a leisurely stroll and sightseeing.
Perhaps, too, there are so many derelict or burnt out buildings in parts of downtown that they don’t individually stand out. Now that I have looked at it more carefully, however, it does seem strange how little I knew about this building before.
This is what it looks like on Google maps……and when you look up Barry Street……and when you are on Barry Street facing it. It’s clear that no-one has entered it in a long time, certainly not through what used to be its main entrance…
…nor by its side entrance on Church Street.Many of the windows are boarded up, or closed, with broken glass.
The ones on the upper floor are open to the elements. And there is no roof.
The Building’s History
In his book “Time Tells Our Story: The History of The Jamaica Mutual Life Assurance Society, 1844 – 1994”, Donald Lindo gives an account of the decision of the Society to construct a new building after its offices on Port Royal Street had been severely damaged in the 1907 earthquake.
“The office at No. 10 Port Royal Street, was a brick building, and although it had been repaired, the directors made an almost immediate decision to rebuild and at the same time expand the size of the office. A committee was set up and builders were consulted but the directors were undecided as to whether they would build on the same location or elsewhere and some eighteen months elapsed without a decision being made. Eventually, during 1909, they purchased 79, 81 and 83 Barry Street, with a frontage covering the entire block from Church Street to Temple Lane and facing the old cenotaph war memorial. Tenders were invited and Mr. S. S. Wortley was selected to build the new office, under the supervision of the new contractors Messrs. Mais and Sant. The building was completed in 1911 at a total cost of £7,776, including the land, and was constructed of reinforced concrete which was now being used by many builders instead of brick. Research into the Society’s records do not indicate the exact origin of the logo adopted in later years – a sturdy Viking warrior, battle-axe in his right hand, a stout key in his left, his shield fastened to his arm and guarding the heavy closed door to the new building and the inscription written around it is ‘SECURITY, SOLIDITY’. Beneath this model of the warrior was the date 1911.” (pp. 151-2)
“It was not until March of the following year that the Society moved to its new address and held its first half yearly general meeting there on 17 April 1912. The new building consisted of two floors, a ground and upper floor with a large double staircase on either side of a spacious hallway as one entered from Barry Street. With the exception of an archival vault and a parking area for cars. the Society occupied only the upper floor for its offices. Two sections of the lower floor opening on Barry Street were for many years rented to Mr. J. H. Gaskin Mapp (originally from Barbados) and the Bonitto Bros., both commission agents. The building was an architectural landmark of its day.” (p. 152)
In the top right hand corner of this 1922 photo of the War Memorial, you can see the top of the Jamaica Mutual Life building, just below the electric wires. (National Archives UK)
“When the office at 79 – 83 Barry Street had been remodelled in 1965 the original intention was to construct a new one on the same site in about fifteen years. Nearly ten years had elapsed and although there had been a number of new developments in the Kingston waterfront area, the heart of Kingston was no longer as popular and the trend was for business places to move up-town to the New Kingston area.” (p. 208)
In 1973, the board of the Society made a decision to move uptown and purchased property to facilitate that move. They also decided:
“…that they should try to find a purchaser for the head office at Barry Street. To their surprise, there was an immediate buyer, the government, who wished to expand the courts offices then located in the government buildings just across the road from The Jamaica Mutual Life. The price was agreed but the government wanted almost immediate occupancy, so without knowing where the staff could be temporarily relocated the directors agreed to give occupancy in November 1973….The annual general meeting of 3 July 1973, was therefore a very historic one as it was the last to be held at 79 – 83 Barry Street after more than sixty years.” (pp. 208 – 211)
The Attorney General’s Chambers were located in the Barry Street building from 1976 – 2001, when they moved to the then Mutual Life Building on Oxford Road.I am not yet clear on what led to the building falling into its current derelict state and will try to find out. In her 2016 Sectoral Debate presentation, Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte told Parliament of plans to move the AG’s Chambers back to Barry Street eventually.
I made a trip to the National Land Agency to get a copy of the land title and noted a transfer registered on January 31, 2017 to the Commissioner of Lands, “Consideration money Seven Hundred and Fifty Thousand Dollars”.
I wonder what the years of exposure to the elements will have done to the soundness of the structure and how much will have to be spent to restore it to a useable condition. Many in the legal profession and in the business sector must have memories of this building in its better days. Hopefully, the future will see it being restored and functional again.
Postscript: I would like to thank historian Dr Joy Lumsden for her help in guiding me to historical information about the building. And since she is my mother, I would also like to wish her Happy Mother’s Day!