Preserving Preeminence Amidst Revitilization: The Role of the Tharp House in the Restoration of Falmouth, Jamaica

Matthew Pelz, Clemson University


In November of 2008, after years of negotiation, the Port Authority of Jamaica reached an agreement with Royal Caribbean to authorize the construction of a pier in the harbor of Falmouth, Jamaica. Respected for its collection of colonial architecture, Falmouth became slated as a “heritage destination” offering an alternative to the well-known Caribbean cruise experiences. However, the project is not a mere pilot program. The $224 million cost represented an incredible investment by the Jamaican government and Royal Caribbean has promised 400,000 visitors annually, a figure that would rank the town among the most frequented Caribbean cruise destinations.

After early economic success at the height of the sugar era in Jamaica, Falmouth has been mired in a depression. Its impressive collection of remaining historic architecture is no coincidence; it is the result of minimal investment throughout most of the past century. Now the town faces the challenge of nurturing a successful redevelopment without sacrificing the architecture that comprises much of its treasured heritage.

The area at greatest risk is the wharf district, where the terminal is planned. Most of the buildings there are long-vacant industrial structures from the early twentieth century, well after the historic district’s eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century period of significance. One building, however, dates to the height of the period and is named for one of its leading figures.

The Tharp House (figure 1) is vacant and marked by signs of misuse and neglect. Built in the late eighteenth century by John Tharp, one of the richest planters and traders of the period in Jamaica, it served as headquarters of his wharf operations.2 After the decline of the plantation system, it passed through various owners until government occupation for most of the twentieth century. Now owned by the Port Authority of Jamaica, its restoration has been continually postponed. With the signing of the Royal Caribbean agreement, it is once again at the center, both literally and figuratively, of revitalization efforts. As town leaders and developers work together to find a suitable reconciliation of the commonly conflicting interests of the town’s heritage and the project’s economic viability, the Tharp House has become a focus of interest.

The purpose of this project is to apply the concepts of sustainable, heritage-based tourism to the situation of the Tharp House in Falmouth. Above all, these tenets require an understanding of the many contexts—historical, architectural, economic, and cultural—that converge to form a specific setting. For this reason, the town’s origins and evolution are given due attention insofar as the recent development is inextricably linked, perhaps even more so than usual, to its history.

With a proper understanding of the context of the Tharp House, an appropriate plan of restoration can be implemented. This study intends to establish that understanding and make proper use of it in proposing a plan that meets the needs of residents and visitors alike. If the study is found exceptionally effective, the reader will identify similar cases and recognize that places with abundant cultural resources have the capacity to benefit all parties.