Falmouth Field Guide

Tharpe House

In April 1778, John Tharpe (d. 1824) purchased a plot of land along the harbor in Falmouth from Edward Barrett.1 He was a merchant and planter who specialized in sugar production, and developed the shore-side parcel into a wharf – Tharpe Wharf – which served as the shipping arm of his plantation at Good Hope (approximately 8 miles inland along the Martha Brae River). With thousands of acres of land, he oversaw one of the largest sugar operations in northern Jamaica and owned approximately 2500 slaves, making him the largest individual slave owner in Jamaica in the early nineteenth-century.2 In the early 1790’s, Tharpe began constructing a house on the wharf property to serve as both a residence and office for his sugar industry; likely, the house was built at the same time as the great house at Good Hope. The Tharpe House was the urban face of John Tharpe and his business.

The Tharpe House is a single-story, five-bay house with a masonry foundation and brick-nogged and rendered first floor walls. Bearing a close resemblance to eighteenth-century plantation houses in Jamaica, it has one principle floor with rooms dispersed beneath a series of hipped roofs. It follows the principles of Georgian architecture with a symmetrical façade of evenly dispersed fenestration, a system of organizing bays, a central door, a classical cornice along the roofline, and a symmetrical interior plan. The house is distinguished from contemporary plantation houses, however, in that it does not utilize the traditional Jamaican and Caribbean louvered windows but common sash windows. The house includes a cellar; however, it is built at-grade rather than below ground. Tharpe’s town house ignored the form of the typical merchant house/store type in Falmouth with a masonry ground level and a wood frame upper story overhanging a covered walkway. Tharpe also avoided building a high-style urban townhouse. It appears that Tharpe intended his town residence to bear resemblance to his buildings at Good Hope, a case of architectural branding for the Tharpe name.

The stairs on the front façade form an “L” and are original to the house. The steps have torus-edged platforms and unmolded steps constructed of high-quality limestone; iron cramps are not used. The concrete balustrades date to 1988 and replaced an early wrought-iron railing. The protruding aedicule porch is an addition, but boasts a classical cornice and solid turned wooden columns eleven inches in diameter. The central door provides access into a main entrance hall, and the short windows on either side of the door provide light in the room. The hall once led to a short front-to-rear passage, giving access to two rooms on the back end of the house. Two of the four hipped roofs covered these spaces – those with their broad sides facing the harbor – one covering the entrance hall, and the other covering the two rooms in the back.

The two outer bays on the front façade feature slightly taller windows that light narrow but deep side reception rooms. Each of these rooms has a single window on the front wall and two windows on the side wall. Evidence shows the scar of a doorway originally on the exterior wall of the front right reception room, which would have opened to an exterior staircase down to the water. An early doorway exists in the corresponding position in the front left room, which perhaps gave access to a work yard or lane beside the house. This was the route for food to enter the dining room from the service wing at the rear. The two reception rooms open up to respective rear chambers on each side; each pair of front and rear rooms is covered by a longitudinal hipped roof running perpendicular to the roofs covering the central bays of the house (they run front to back with gables facing the harbor).

The cellar below the principle story is an open space and runs beneath the entire house. The walls on the left, facing the side lane, are of smooth ashlar and include full-size windows with proper keystones, lintels, and stone sills. Two doors into the cellar flanked the L-shaped stairway and another door was centered on the left end wall. On the front right, however, the stones are roughly squared – perhaps due to the construction of a warehouse in front – and the cellar wall on the right, which abutted the shoreline, is of stone rubble. A carefully carved stone cavetto molding runs along the exterior and corresponds with the top of the cellar ceiling; it is the only carved classical masonry at the house.

Until a fire in 2005, a wing extended from the right rear of the house. Sitting five-feet atop a mixed material foundation of masonry to the left and earthfast wood posts to the right, the building was a framed structure of mortise-and-tenon pegged studs with six-over-six double sash windows for lighting. There is no evidence of doorways on the lane/work yard-facing wall; a door must have opened onto the yard at the rear of the house, suggesting – along with the absence of chimneys – that this was a servants’ hall or slave quarter. The wing was divided into two rooms, the first 23’ x 12’5”, and the second 23’8” x 12’5”.

Southwest of the wing in the corner of the lot is a 34 foot x 33 foot masonry shell that may have been an auxiliary house and a warehouse. The ground floor walls are masonry, accessed through a round-vaulted entry, while the upper story walls were brick, laid in Flemish bond. Research into the building fabric in 2004 indicated that the upper story has been altered significantly during the twentieth century, but that the original layout had a room running the length of the southern front with five windows and a fancy tray ceiling. Two smaller chambers, bisected by a short hallway opening into all three rooms, occupied the northern half, facing the Tharpe House.

After the death of John Tharpe, the Tharpe House stayed in the family as they continued to occupy Good Hope until it was converted into wharf offices in the 1860s. It has since served as a tax collector’s office, and will be restored with the new wharf development project. The Tharpe House is an example of Caribbean Georgian architecture and an important monument to the sugar industry along the northern coast of Jamaica. In particular, it represents the wealth of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Falmouth and the Tharpe family, and the slave labor that brought the family – and industry – such success.

1 Edward Barrett to John Tharpe, 7 April 1778, Deeds, Island Record Office volume 291 folio 102

2 John Tharpe Inventory, 23 December 1824, Inventories, Jamaica Archives volume 148 folio 151-169. For more information, see entry on Good Hope Plantation