Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Age of Elegance: An Italianate Sobrado on the Gold Coast

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Age of Elegance: An Italianate Sobrado on the Gold Coast

Article excerpt


While Londoners were enjoying their fine Italianate homes of the Belle Epoque (1885-1914), elite members of the Gold Coast colony, known today as Ghana, were constructing their own elegant mansions utilizing an Italianate style that not only embraced the modernity and prosperity of the period but also rejected the British administration whose rules constrained them. (1) The ruins of the Russell House, once one of the most elegant of these homes, express this lively and tense period of change in Ghanaian history (Figure 1). Upon close examination, the structure manifests a deliberate hybrid style combining a British Italianate exterior, an Afro-Portuguese sobrado plan, and local ideas of space and organization. Russell House exemplifies how coastal elites appropriated and transformed styles and plans to communicate their status and connection to modernity. The lead patron, the Reverend John Oboboam Hammond, a well-respected Methodist minister who directed several building projects for the church, chose for his Anomabo family residence to reject the Methodist colonial vision of promoting loyalty to British rule. Although he embraced British and Methodist ideals of modern education and industry, he identified with the local elite and their right to be directly involved in coastal affairs without regard to British hegemony.


Russell House is located on the corner of Market Street and Aggrey Road in the center of Anomabo, a historically significant port city. The land was purchased on December 13, 1895. (2) A sketch of the plot is included with the land indenture (Figure 2). The siblings purchased the property from "William Topp Nelson Yankah of Anamaboe and other the senior members of his family." The land measures sixty-one feet wide and seventy-five and a half feet deep. No home on the property is indicated. Surrounding it are houses owned by Iaan, Ama Moo, Ekua Kotwiawa, Yankah, Ekua Nyami, and Kofi Intsifl. On November 1, 1897, the siblings were granted a building permit or "Towns Ordinance" to "build a house at Anamaboe ... on condition that the proposed work is completed within six months." The current structure was built between the indicated date and April 1, 1898. (3) Except for the Russell House and part of the Ama Moo family residence, none of the other homes on the plans survive today.

Family history for the Russell House dictates that while the upstairs served as a residence for family members, the lower floor was rented to merchants. This was a common arrangement used on the coast by Europeans and Africans alike. Russell House is named for an early-twentieth-century tenant, the English company H. B. W. Russell & Co., Ltd., whose store occupied the ground floor sometime after early 1915, when a representative wrote to inquire about the space. According to the family, the company agent rented the lower level for the store and used part of the upper floor for his residence. It was during this time that the premises became known around town as the Russell House, for the store name not the property owner. The descendants and current owners however call their ancestral family home abCdan, or stone house.

The land tenure and building permit proves this residence was built for three African siblings--the Rev. Hammond (February 2, 1860-December 28, 1918); Francis M'danyamiasi Hammond (d. September 3, 1920); and Mrs. Charlotte Oyemame Acquaah (1858--July 31, 1908). (4) This contradicts the attribution made by architect A. D. C. Hyland that this house was a "late 18th-century British colonial house." (5) This is an honest mistake, considering the strong likeness of the fagade to homes in Britain.

Rev. Hammond was born in Anomabo and served in the ministry of the Wesleyan Methodist Church for thirty-two years. He was educated at the Wesleyan Schools in Anomabo and became a teacher. He entered the ministry in 1886, and was described as a "Native Assistant Missionary" in a newspaper listing from 1890. …

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