Porters Great House, St. James, Barbados
The history of Porters Great House, Barbados
Centuries ago, Porters was the centre of a vast sugar estate,and still retains some 23 acres of ground. The central block of the house likely dates back to around 1660, when the estate was owned by William Porter, a member of the Barbados House of Assembly.
By the late 18th century, Porters was the property of the illustrious Alleyne family, in whose hands it stayed for generations. Along with some ghost stories involving this house.
In 1949, Porters was bought by the Honourable Murtogh D. Guinness, who died in 2002. Mr. Guinnes was born in London in 1913 into a prominent Anglo Irish brewing family. His father, Walter Edward Guinnes, the 1st Baron Moyne (1880-1944), was assassinated in Cairo. Therein lies a tale, but we have no room to tell it properly here.
As a child, Murtogh Guinness became enchanted by a pop up, mechanical singing bird. This was the start of a life long passion for mechanical musical instruments and automata, which he collected throughout his life. He gathered so much that he acquired twin townhouses in New York City to accommodate them. Visitors to his home recall a virtual wonderland of what one guest described as "conjurors, illusionists, acrobats...a fantastic collection of mechanical pieces." The now-famous collection is currently in a New Jersey museum.
The driveway curves through a magnificent mahogany forest and brings you to a stately home. Two major additions in the 18th century and major renovations in the 20th brought it to this point.
As you enter the portico with its fine coral stone arches, glance at the clay tiles on the floor. These are probably original, and almost certainly arrived as ship's ballast. Inside, you find yourself in a two-story entrance hall that extends the width of the house. The interior and the garden beyond combine to form a stunning perspective, with the lawns sweeping eastwards up the hill to a neoclassical folly.
An impressive chandelier hangs above you; underfoot are the original pine floors; and before you is a circular "rent table," designed to hold tenants' payments in its drawers. The walls are adorned with gilt sconces, an ornate mirror, and a Castellanet portrait that brings a human presence to the space. Here, and virtually all through the house, the thick walls accommodate window seats, each with a lovely view. The thick walls also would have protected the house in hurricanes, during which candles would have been lit in the large shades on display nearby.
To the right, go either directly upstairs or into the spacious kitchen. The kitchen was remodeled in 2005 with a central island, polished stone countertops, and a breakfast spot at the end. Bright, fruity plates decorate the wall.
Upstairs, off the first landing, is a cozy bedroom, with uncharacteristically low ceilings and a view of the rear gardens. Up a bit farther and to the left is another, with a little reading alcove, and a marble tile bathroom. To the right is another corner room with a high tray ceiling and more of the horse portraits that you would have seen in the hall.
These prints of pencil drawings convey the beauty and spirit of these equine athletes, as well as the interest of Porters' current owners. They own races horses. One of those depicted is the remarkable Acatenango (1982-2005,) a German thoroughbred stallion whose 13-race winning streak in 1985 made him that country's horse of the year, a title he retained for three years running.
Next on your right is the master bedroom, which enjoys both grandeur and privacy. A sort of foyer is formed by walk-in closets on either side and the upholstered back of an expansive headboard in front of you. If you're interested in fabrics, this is just the beginning of a treat. Though the room itself is lovely and spacious, it is the view that makes it even it more so. An ample patio looks up to the folly and over to the pool dining area. Botanical prints and real vegetation can be equally appreciated here.
The bedroom at the end is also large, with a high tray ceiling and more botanical prints. Two sets of double doors lead out onto the room's own patio.
Back downstairs, the splendid dining room awaits you.. Here a mahogany table can easily seat twelve. High windows admit lots of light in the day, and at night gilt scones give a glow to the room. Unfortunately, we haven't yet identified the dinstinctive furnishings dining chairs with carved splats, a pair of inlaid, bombe front console tables, and a barrel front chest. This sumptuous room has details to admire everywhere; a coffered door; impressive architraves; waterfront prints whose originals are in the Duke of Devonshire's collection; crystal items; and an enigmatic portrait of a young boy with a macaw on his head. Family pictures are also displayed here.
Straight ahead, three steps lead you to a broad corridor whose simplicity lets its proportions and finishes do the talking. This may once have led to a kitchen; they were often placed outside the main block of the house. Now it leads to a study/games room.
Near the circular stairway you can see the original coral stone used to construct the house. On your way up, you can see evidence of an affliction called "rising damp Dane," wherein the walls draw up moisture and sweat it out destroying the finish. It is very difficult to control.
At the top is an entertainment room whose comfy couch's, warm colours, bar. tall speakers and big flat screen all invite relaxing with a good movie. The side and central tables are simple forms covered in something that looks like ostrich hide.
There are two areas that can't be seen by the public. The attic, with its wood vaulted ceilings, was once used for drying tobacco, which was Barbados' major export crop between 1627 and the 1640's' before sugar cane began to dominate the landscape and the economy. And the cellar which is dark and cool, a perfect place for keeping yams and other roots crops which is divided into cells. Bars were put up to prevent tuber theft, or, as speculation has it to imprison slaves?
An afternoon can easily be spent exploring the grounds. There is a fernery to the north, and beyond it, the decaying shell of Porters' old sugar factory. Beside it is a small mill wall, of the type that would have been run by a fan mill to grind corn. Down a branch of the driveway is an outbuilding that was probably the old carriage house. Its roof has unusual tiles, and curved end details that suggest Dutch influence. At times you can spot birds of paradise in bloom. There is a "secret garden" feeling to this whole area, and you might find a hidden pathway leading behind the pool, past the old sugar works.
The pool beyond is set in a striking neo-classical pavilion. As early as the 18th century there was a bathing pool in this spot, and in it another Dudley Woodbridge drowned in 1735. The plaque commemorating the tragedy has been moved to the private chapel to the east. The chapel, which has a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in a niche on the wall, is a cool and serene place to collect one's thoughts. Gazebos, one for the pool and the other for dining, offer spots for outdoor socializing.
The lawn offers space for strolling, and the tropical vegetation holds its own fascinations. The south is a gully partly flanked with bamboo, which makes an intriguing sound when it sways. The blooming tree is bauhinia or "poor man's orchid." The ones with long, flat brown pods are variously known as flame trees, flamboyant, or shakshaks. They bear bright Vermillion blooms in the summer.
The folly was added in the 1950's by Mr. Guinness who held cocktail parties there. Floodlit by night, it is spectacular. If the weather is dry you may wish to walk up the steps for another view of the grounds