It’s probably one of Kuwait’s most enigmatic of historical buildings linked, as it is, to the days of the British protectorate. It was home to two of Kuwait’s best-known expatriates – Colonel Harold and Dame Violet Dickson. Now open as the Dickson House Cultural Center, the building was one of the first to be renovated by the engineering department of the National Council of Culture, Arts and Letters. The house tells its own story of Kuwait gone by.
The house itself features a colonial balcony, a common architectural style which spread throughout the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Caribbean and across Latin America at the beginning of the 18th century. In later years this style began appearing in the East. The style is characterized with a high balcony above the house level. The purpose of this covered yet open-at-the-sides balcony is to leave it open to receive the cooling sea-breeze to temper the fierce heat of the hot summers.
During the 19th century political agents and European businessmen in the Gulf adopted this colonial style of architecture. Dickson House differs in one respect that the original house was in fact one of traditional Arab design, it was only later remodeled to reflect the desired colonial style.
There were some significant modifications made to the house. In 1904 the first British Political Agent, Colonel Knox, took the house. Prior to this it had belonged to a trading family. It consisted of a ground floor with a backyard and a façade of tapered arches overlooking the sea. Behind the house were the stores, and perhaps reception and living rooms. Above the house, as in other neighboring house, there are multipurpose rooms built at the edge of the roof so as to receive the cool breeze from the sea. These were separated by an open space used for sleeping during summer nights.
Knox was followed as British Political Agent by Colonel Shakespeare between 1909 and 1915. The modifications made during this period altered the style, and expanded the size. One of Shakespeare’s most important modifications on the Dickson House was the raised high terrace that gave the house its colonial and now familiar style. This covered terrace with meshed wooden screens was built at the front of the house to overlook the sea. An outdoor stone bench leads to two identical curved stairs descending to the street. Sometime later, this terrace was enlarged, and more balconies were added to the house. A new suite for guests was built and connected to the main house by a wooden transom from the balcony. Other modifications included the closure of front covered arches on the ground floor, creating another and more spacious study room.
When, in 1929, Colonel Harold and Violet Dickson took over as Political Agents, they received the house in a state apparently somewhat worse for wear. The previous agent, Colonel More, acknowledged that he had not undertaken any remodeling or repairs simply because he did not feel disposed to do so. Instead Colonel More let the house become ramshackle.
During their time here, and in particular following Kuwait’s independence, the Dickson’s grew in the hearts of the Kuwaiti people.
Their history, and love for Kuwait, is told through the bricks and mortar of the Dickson House Cultural Center.
First published in Men's Passion issue #32 June-July-August 2011