Correction: Thanks to my readers for pointing out an error in my article about the first motor car in Jamaica. According to an article in The Gleaner from 1-29-06: "The first motor car that reached our shores was owned by L.D. Baker of Port Antonio." That would be Lorenzo Dow Baker, the "Banana King". Thanks Howard & Violet!
Legend or truth? The mysteries of Portland’s Mitchell Great House!
Mysterious… eerie… gothic… ghostly… an extravagant folly… a tribute to love? This crumbling wreckage of the past in Port Antonio may be all of those things. I finally managed to find the place last month and then set out to sift the facts from the fiction. There's a lot of info here, so I hope you love history and legend as much as I do!
First, Jamaicans love a good legend. If you ask about the history of a place, you will usually hear an imaginative folk story that has been passed down through the years by grannies and other old relatives. These legends are always more romantic and interesting than reality. Told and re-told countless times, they live on through the generations until they become accepted as “history”. Well, I always enjoy a good story, and those surrounding the Mitchell Great House (a.k.a. Folly Mansion) in Port Antonio are fascinating!! But let’s begin with some facts.
Captain Alfred Mitchell was an American businessman from Connecticut who had dabbled in the whaling industry in Hawaii and the ship chandlery business in New York. He also was a founder of the Hawaiian Steam Navigation Company which provided steam-powered freight and passenger service between the Hawaiian Islands. But he didn’t find his wealth until he married heiress Annie Olivia Tiffany Mitchell, the daughter of Charles A. Tiffany (founder of the famous New York jewelry store) and the sister of Louis Comfort Tiffany (the famed American stained glass window & lamp artist and designer). The Mitchells were well-travelled, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and found themselves in Port Antonio at a time when the town was flourishing as a result of fortunes made from the banana trade. The Mitchells stayed at the luxurious Titchfield Hotel and subsequently fell in love with the area.
The Mitchells already had a summer home which was a showplace in the Pequot Colony of New London, Connecticut, where the wealthy in the late 1800s went to escape the city heat. (The home still exists as Mitchell Hall, the administration building at New London’s Mitchell College.) So Alfred decided to build a winter home for the family in Port Antonio. In 1901 he purchased a 90-acre estate on Folly Point across the bay from Port Antonio.
In the winter of 1904-1905, Mitchell began construction of his Roman-style villa. The construction cost a fortune. Constructing buildings in the tropics is complicated by humidity, heavy plant growth and destructive insects. Good quality lumber and bricks were very expensive (if they could even be found). So Mitchell and his architect decided this house would be built entirely of concrete.
Legend #1: The most well-known of the many legends about the house is that the contractor made a mistake by mixing cement with seawater, compromising its strength and causing the house to eventually crumble.
Legend #2: Because of this blunder, or “folly”, the structure earned its name of “Folly Great House” or “Folly Mansion”.
Legend #3: It is said that Mitchell built the mansion as a wedding gift for his “child” bride. When the bride came to inspect the property, it had already begun to crumble and she exclaimed "What a folly" and flew back to America in tears, never to return. Brokenhearted, Alfred Mitchell left the symbol of their love – the mansion - to crumble.
Legend #4: As the story goes, the palatial mansion was painted white, white flowers filled the gardens, white birds flitted about the grounds, white horses filled the stables, and white monkeys played on an islet at the shore.
Legend #1 was always dismissed as being false; after all, a reputable contractor would never have done such a foolish thing. Well, imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a reprint of an article titled “Modern concrete construction: an American's home in Jamaica” (pp. 106-) from the October 1905 issue of The Craftsman, with details about the construction. It states “The concrete was mixed in the proportion of one cement, three sand and six stone... The consistency of the concrete was made quite wet, and owing to the scarcity of fresh water the contractors were obliged to use sea water.” So, it appears that Legend #1 is at least partially true, although we can’t say for sure that the seawater mix is what caused the structure’s deterioration.
We can definitely debunk Legend #2 however! The name “Folly” existed long before Alfred Mitchell ever began his Jamaican home. The Folly Point Lighthouse had already been built on Folly Point in 1888. You can also find old news reports of the British steamer, Zulu, which was wrecked on Folly Point, Jamaica, on May 28, 1861. And even earlier, in 1793, slave listings for the Prospect Sugar Estate in Port Antonio list “two slaves, Sawney and Elick, at the Folly Point”. Clearly, the name “Folly” predated the Mitchells and their mansion!
We can also debunk Legend #3 - we know for sure that both of the Mitchells lived here at Folly in grand style. The Errol Flynn Blog offers us a few great old photos of the Mitchells in residence. Photo 1, Photo 2. The one below was taken in 1909 on Alfred Mitchell's 77th birthday on the Folly verandah (Hiram Bingham III stands in back next to his wife, Alfreda). And Annie O. Tiffany was certainly no “child” bride! On their wedding day in 1871, Annie was 27 and her groom was 39. Alfred Mitchell died at Folly in 1911 at age 79. He was buried here in an elegant mausoleum, but his remains were later removed to New York by his widow.
Annie stayed in the mansion until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. She sold the estate to one of Lorenzo Dow Baker’s (the “Banana King”) sons who kept it for several years before abandoning the property. Soon thereafter it was vandalized and the second floor columns that supported the roof were ripped out, causing it to collapse in 1936. The Jamaican government took over the place eventually and it fell into ruin. Errol Flynn was also fascinated by the mansion and planned to refurbish it and turn it into a resort. He and Mrs. Flynn tried to buy the property but were only able to lease it from the government, and Errol died before he could carry out his plans.
The mansion itself was huge – it had 60 rooms. It was about 246 feet (75 meters) overall, with a single row of rooms in the middle and broad verandahs on each side. Every room was open to the air and sun. The walls, floors, roofs, stairways, partitions and columns were all constructed of concrete reinforced with twisted steel rods, and the only features built of wood were the door frames, doors, windows, sashes and jalousies. The exterior columns were cast on site. The interior columns were cast in Boston using coral rock sent from Jamaica and apparently resembled Sienna marble. The house had a steam-powered electric generator in the basement and electric lights (very modern; remember, this is 1905!). The mansion had running water and an indoor swimming pool on the lower level that measured 8 feet by 10 feet and 5 feet deep and was filled with sea water pumped in from a windmill-type of contraption located on the estate directly in front of the mansion.
Mr. Mitchell had the first automobile in Jamaica, brought over by ship (a huge Rolls-Royce touring car). The Mitchells also had many exotic pets including peacocks and monkeys, the latter being brought to Jamaica by their son-in-law, Hiram Bingham III, an explorer who was married to their daughter, Alfreda. (He is credited with rediscovering the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru in 1911.) The animals were allowed to roam free on tiny Woods Island offshore, which was later renamed Monkey Island (and is also known as Pelew Island). Apparently the water in between is very shallow and there was once a stone causeway joining the island to the mainland.
As for Legend #4, the mansion looks white in the old period photo, but I don’t see white flowers or white birds. White horses - who knows? And the white monkeys? Hiram Bingham III spent a lot of time exploring in South America so maybe he brought his in-laws some white-headed Capuchins for their menagerie? This legend seems a bit dramatic to me, but I imagine we’ll never know for sure!
Also on the property, Mitchell built a 1-story, 10-room house for the coachman and other white employees on the estate, a horse stable with a courtyard in the center, two pavilions, a power plant, a water reservoir, a 30-foot bridge, and a gate lodge at the entrance to the estate. All of these structures were concrete. I captured some of the ruins in the overgrown bush.
On a southeastern hill beyond Folly is the Overseer's Cottage. It was the first house built on the property and was occupied by Mitchell while the mansion was under construction. It’s a modest wooden home, constructed from pitch pine and Douglas fir imported from the U.S., and painted in the style of the early 1900s. It was owned and occupied for many years by the late Ronald Williams, a horticulturist who planted lovely gardens around the home and was an authority on the parish of Portland. Ironically, the Overseer's Cottage remains one of the oldest wooden structures in Jamaica and has outlived the extravagant mansion.
TO SUM THINGS UP: As you can see, one of the most remarkable buildings in the entire Caribbean, and a Jamaican treasure, now sits roofless and deteriorating. Maybe it was the sea water cement mixture; maybe the steel reinforcing rods rusted; maybe it was the position of the house facing some brutal Caribbean storms; maybe it’s simply because it’s old. But what a pity! This is a must-see when visiting the area, even if it is currently fenced off for safety. The location is spectacular, the history and legends surrounding it are fascinating, and most people, visitors and locals alike, know absolutely nothing about the mansion or its owners and the great tales to be told. The Mitchell Great House would be a wonderful attraction to draw in tourists visiting Port Antonio. It certainly fits the "Jewel of the Caribbean" theme. Hopefully one day the right people will discover “Folly” and grasp its potential!
TO FIND IT: Drive east from Port Antonio & turn left onto Alan Avenue, just as you come upon Folly Oval (the cricket pitch). Turn right after the cricket pitch and follow along until you reach the mansion. It’s free and is always accessible unless it’s been rented for a show or music video. It’s pretty desolate though, so don’t go alone.
On the waterfront in front of the mansion is tiny Folly Beach which faces Monkey Island, where the Mitchells kept those exotic animals. Be careful if you swim here; the sea floor is uneven, parts of it are covered by sharp reef, there are sea urchins (the local term is “sea eggs”) and the undercurrent can be dangerously strong.
Nearby the mansion stands the Folly Point Lighthouse. To get to the lighthouse, retrace your steps along the dirt road. At the fork, continue north to the point or you can cut across the fields to the northwest of the mansion.