The Story of State House, Nairobi, is very much intertwined with that of the family of Arthur James Scott Hutton.
Hutton, a Scottish national fondly referred to by his initials AJS, was the resident architect who oversaw and supervised the construction of State House as we know it today. The famous address, which is the President’s official residence, remains structurally unchanged since it was built as Government House with construction completed in 1934.
Hutton’s daughter Barbara Margaret Dods spoke to Lifestyle in Nairobi this week, recalling the fascinating story of Kenya’s seat of power, that is currently firmly in the news.
Kenya was but a small part of the British Empire, when London conceived the idea of putting up Government Houses. These were to be the seats of power for the then Colonial Governors over the various Colonies.
Hutton was an architect working for the Imperial War Graves Commission, designing memorials and cemeteries. This was in honour of those who had fallen in defence of the empire in the First World War (1914-1918).
Hutton’s handiwork is visible in France, Germany and the Far East, where many British soldiers and others from the colonies died.
When this assignment was complete, he took up a position on the “loan staff” of the Public Works Department for the British Colony of Kenya, arriving in 1926.
He was armed with drawings for several public projects. Among them was the Indian school, the European school, the Prince of Wales school and, most prominently, the Nairobi Law Courts and Government House.
“Loan staff” refers to the fact that all his work was tied to the loans the British Empire Government gave the colony for the public projects. The value of projects under Hutton was 700,000 Sterling Pounds at the time.
Barbara takes up the story from here: “We lived first on Ngong Road, which was murram then, opposite the present-day Royal Nairobi Golf Club. Horse-drawn rickshaw was a common form of transport, though a few families had box body cars.”
She adds: “Nairobi was very sparsely populated and it was not uncommon to find plains game such as zebra and antelope in the garden, when we woke up.”
On the construction of State House, her memory remains very clear: “Together with my two sisters, we would occasionally walk to the construction site, as we now lived in a double storey stone house, on present-day Dennis Pritt Road.”
Together with her sisters Joan and Marigold, their father made them clean some coins that they placed in the foundation of Government House — what is now State House — as a time capsule.
Back to Hutton. The Scotsman was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 10, 1891.
He certainly lived a full and varied life, before his passing on January 20, 1982, at the age of 91. His wife Margaret Hopper died earlier in June 1980.
During the First World War, he served in the Royal Engineers in the trenches in France and attained the rank of Captain. In the Second World War, he was again commissioned as a Lieutenant-Colonel, serving with special forces behind Japanese lines in Malaya (Malaysia) — immediately before Japan surrendered — whereupon he re-entered Singapore to assist in re-starting the civil government structures.
Hutton trained as an architect in Edinburgh and was admitted as an associate of the British Institute of British Architects on August 18, 1918 and as a fellow in 1935 — the year after he completed the State House and law courts projects in Nairobi.
Renowned British architect of the time, Sir Herbert Baker, proposed Hutton to be admitted as a fellow. In his recommendation, Baker confirmed that the two iconic projects in Nairobi were his (Baker’s) own designs, but he had no doubts as to Hutton’s ability to build them.
“My relationship with Hutton began in 1920, when I acted as consulting architect for the many cemeteries which he designed on the battlefields and when he superintended some, which I designed myself. I formed the highest opinion there of his many valuable qualities as a man and as an architect,” he said at the time.
Continued Baker on Hutton: “It was on the basis of my experience of him in France that I recommended him to the post which he now holds in Kenya. The works he enumerates are those which I either designed myself, or for which I have acted as consulting architect.”
Upon completion, the first occupant as governor of the colony was Sir Joseph Aloysius Byrne, with Malcolm MacDonald handing over the Kenyan flag on December 12, 1963 to the first African occupant as Head of State, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
Barbara again picks up the story: “With the loans exhausted, dad could not stay on in Kenya and thus took up a position in London, with the City Council. The family joined him, with me and my two sisters joining Guildford High School. Shortly thereafter, he got a better paying job as assistant government architect in Singapore.”
RETURN TO KENYA
The family initially stayed on in London and then the Second World War broke out in 1939.
“We eventually joined him in Singapore, just before Christmas of 1940. We were briefly in Singapore, before going to safer Australia. My two sisters were sent to high school in Perth, while I applied to join the University of Western Australia, also in Perth”.
Japan attacked Singapore in December 1941 and this had a profound effect on the course of Hutton and his family. He had to return to defend Singapore as a member of the Royal Home Guard. Wives and children were not allowed to join the soldiers. Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 and, for several long months, there was no word from Hutton.
With her father’s whereabouts unknown, Barbara declined to join university and instead followed his footsteps, by enlisting in the military at the age of 19! She joined the Australian Air Force, where she was trained in telecommunications. Barbara worked first as a wireless operator and later as a radar operator.
Hutton eventually communicated from Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where he had escaped to, after the fall of Singapore.
Hutton returned to Kenya and the family followed suit from Australia.
In Nairobi, he went about designing many of the earliest City Council housing estates that still stand to date.
Barbara, meanwhile, continued with life in the military, even while in Kenya. She undertook further training and then joined the Royal Air Force, working in the headquarters in Nairobi. Coincidentally, the mess for the female soldiers was on the Government House grounds — the structure that her father had built!
At the end of the war, and rather than return to the UK, she elected to be demobilised in Kenya where she has since lived. Barbara is possibly the oldest former female soldier in Kenya at the moment.
Hutton returned to the UK where he lived out the rest of his life, together with his wife and two other daughters.
Meanwhile, Barbara’s association with things military did not quite end with the war. Born in Longuenesse, France, on April 28, 1923, she got married in April 1948 at St Andrew’s Church, Nairobi. Her spouse was Douglas McDonald, a former Royal Air Force jet fighter pilot.
McDonald joined an air charter company – Noon and Pearce – as a director and, together with Barbara, they set about building their future home on a 20-acre plot of land in Karen. Barbara herself worked at the East African Women’s League, putting her administrative skills to work courtesy of a Pitman’s College qualification, obtained in Singapore.
She had her first child, Deborah, in March 1950 and her second child, Andrew, in August 1958.
FRONT SEAT TO HISTORY
As we began to wind down the interview, Lifestyle asked her why she opted to live in Kenya while the rest of the family returned to the UK.
“Memories of my very happy childhood in Kenya meant it was always going to be my home. Growing up, we had a variety of pets. A dog named Jumbo, a cat, guinea pigs and rabbits. Together with my sisters, we attended the Hill Preparatory School on what was then Crawford Road. This was further up the road from the then 6th Avenue (later Delamere Avenue and present-day Kenyatta Avenue.”
Continued Barbara: “Among the pets, I particularly recall a monkey we had for a short while. It once climbed onto the roof of the neighbouring house and electrocuted itself!”
Back to the present. Like his mother, Andrew also served in the British military and currently lives in Nepal while his sister settled in Australia. Andrew is a regular visitor to Kenya.
Tragedy struck Barbara when her husband died in a plane crash in Amboseli in October 1951. She then got remarried to Bob Duncan in 1954 and they enjoyed a blissful 18 years together, before he passed on in 1972. Two years later, in February 1974, she remarried the man whose name she bears till date — John Dods, a widower with three grown-up children. He passed on in April 2011.
She has five step-children – Dee Huth, Alistair Dods, Meriel Brooke, David Duncan and Hamish Duncan. She also has two grand and two great-grand children. Her step grandchildren are 10.
Having lived in Nairobi, pretty much uninterrupted for close to a century, she can certainly be said to have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the city’s evolution.
Reluctant to be drawn into a detailed comparison, she said: “The road network has of course become far better from the murram roads that I traversed when growing up in Nairobi. The vehicular traffic is very high, even though I no longer drive myself.”
Barbara states that her father’s handiwork in Kenya, particularly the Nairobi Law Courts and State House, among others, make her proud.
As Kenya gears up for the August 8 General Election that some refer to as the “race to State House” not many can claim to have lived in Nairobi at a time the residence occupied by the most powerful person in Kenya was being built. Fewer still can proclaim, like Barbara, that “my father built State House.”