Special Features
February 14, 2014
Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – Milton Mayers

By Luke Browne Fri, Feb 14, 2014

Milton Mayers used to describe himself as the Sir Christopher Wren of St Vincent and the Grenadines. This comparison is in fact quite appropriate since both of the gentlemen in question left their architectural stamp on the landscape of their respective countries. Sir Christopher is a celebrated British architect who transformed the face of London in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries after the Great Fire of 1666. The St. Paul’s Cathedral was his masterpiece. Almost two hundred years after Wren’s 1723 death, Milton Theophilus Mayers came along. He was born right here in St Vincent and the Grenadines on July 8, 1920 and his work is all around us – from the Cable and Wireless Building in Kingstown to the Technical College in Arnos Vale; and from the E. T. Joshua Airport terminal building to the Methodist Manse in Dorsetshire Hill and the Calliaqua Methodist Church.{{more}}

The renowned local architect constructed a breathtaking array of iconic and impressive buildings across the length and breadth of SVG, and also made his mark in other Eastern Caribbean countries, especially in St. Lucia and Antigua and Barbuda. M. T. Mayers introduced a different type of design, ushered in a new age of architecture, and built structures that withstood the force of hurricane winds. He also developed roads and installed other forms of public infrastructure in Morgan Woods (above Chateaubelair), Congo Valley and elsewhere.

Milton grew up with his parents (James “Cook” Mayers and Ethel Mayers) in a poverty stricken household in Choppins that derived an intermittent trickle of an income from subsistence agriculture for trafficking to Trinidad. He was the only boy in the crowd and he had five sisters: Ruby, Rosa, Beatrice, Lillian and Ernestine. There was no electricity, and the family could only afford to eat meat on Sundays, when Milton would save his meat for last, eat it very slowly and refuse to brush his teeth afterwards so that he could savour the taste for as long as possible. The family was forced to adopt a policy of zero waste in order to survive, and so Milton, who sometimes helped his mother to peel provisions, received a clout from her every now and then if she thought that he was cutting off too much flesh.

Milton built himself up and worked his way out of poverty. His first love was agriculture, but he was exposed to carpentry and woodwork as a young boy at the Glen Community School. Glen School, as it was called, was the most prestigious technical and vocational training centre on the island, and one of Milton’s teachers was the famous Thomas Saunders. The young Mayers graduated from Glen School and later on migrated to Trinidad when he was about 20 years old to meet his sisters (Beatrice and Rosa), seek employment and presumably to learn the ins-and-outs of trafficking.

A job was hard to come by in Trinidad, and Milton found himself eking out a living for a while by digging bush yams with a friend in snake-infested mountains and selling the yams to Trinidadians. The Trinidadian natives generally didn’t go yam-digging themselves because they were afraid of the snakes. Milton and his friend were obviously brave bush men who were propelled by survival imperatives.

The young, ambitious and hard-working Milton Mayers eventually managed to get a half-decent job in the field of construction at an army base in Chaguaramas. He so badly wanted the job that he stood in a long line for hours from fore day morning, and yet he was almost overlooked. He had a gut feeling that the white recruitment officer was going to stop taking names about four places ahead of him, and out of desperation he blurted out and loudly spelt his name to get the officer’s attention. The strategy worked and that was a defining moment in his life. He was a very good chef and used every chance he had to cook up a storm. He became friends with the same recruitment officer through his cooking. The officer, in turn, exposed him to “blue print” reading and drafting.

Milton excelled at the job and became a foreman in no time. He did a drafting course at the Victoria Institute and utilized his modest income to pay the tuition fees. The young professional returned to St Vincent in the 1940s with a few dollars in his pocket. He used this money to help his struggling father pay off for some farm land that the old man was trying to buy in Revierre. Milton completed the payments and afterwards helped with the cultivation of crops on the land. He also opened a small furniture shop in Calliaqua and operated it for a short while before he threw himself fully into architecture and construction.

Milton came back to St Vincent from Trinidad at a time when the modern architecture and construction industry here was in its infancy. He was actually the first trained architect in the country, and for a very long time he was the only person who could build according to a plan. Mr Mayers had the remarkable ability to quite accurately measure physical distances by sight and to precisely cut rafters on the ground with the use of a set square, and then assemble them into a perfectly geometric roof. He could draw plans without having to erase even once; and there was hardly ever a need for his plans to be revised. In those days, all structural drawings had to be lodged at the Sanitation Department. Hobbs Huggins, Milton’s close friend and childhood neighbour, helped with any typing that was required.

These days someone would typically specialize in either architecture (the design component) or the actual building component, but Milton offered the complete package. He designed and built so many homes starting with a stone wall house at Carenage (or Canash) for lawyer Alec Hughes. This house is now owned by the heirs of Das DaSilva. Milton rode a bicycle to work at first, but he was advised by Mr. Hughes to buy a car because it would help to boost his professional image, social esteem and ultimately work well in the marketplace. Milton took the advice and joined what was then a very small group of car owners in the country. The group, including Mr Mayers, was roughly five members strong.

Milton’s second residential project was another stone wall house, this time for the Crichton family in Arnos Vale. After he finished that house, he literally started building “all over the place” since his name spread like wild fire and, to use his own words, his popularity soared to Michael Jackson-like proportions. Mr Mayers gained valuable experience along the way and even though he was head and shoulders above his rivals, he never became complacent. He was always pre-occupied with self-improvement and continuously upgraded and updated his building skills through correspondence courses.

Milton’s first commercial building project was the Olive’s Hotel for Sammy Ballantyne, the Governor General’s father, and his career got a big boost when he won the first ever construction contract to be awarded in the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines. This was a contract to design and build the E. T. Joshua airport terminal building and Milton Mayers clinched it after he submitted the lowest bid and was involved in some persuasive political negotiation. He then efficiently completed the assignment and, as allowed by the terms of his contract, used the excess materials to build a private home that resembled the airport terminal at the site of the SOV club. This sparked some rumours of impropriety, but Milton was publicly absolved of any wrong doing when the facts were revealed.

Mr Mayers was a conscientious worker but also knew how to have a good time. He was in truth and in fact quite a saga boy in his early days. He carried a peculiar hairstyle with a path in the middle, and often wore a special “stingy brim” hat that he made himself. Milton won all the dancing competitions in town and was very popular with the ladies. He went on many memorable Congo Valley goat cooks, and believed that the meat was sweeter when it was done on firewood. Milton’s favourite dish was fish “boilene,” which he happened to have had for his last meal.

The saga boy already had several children by the time he got married to Juanita Stephenson in the 1950s. This union did not last very long but produced one daughter: Marcel Mayers. Milton then played the role of single parent for a while before he settled down somewhat and took Val Byron to be his second and final wife on September 4, 1968. Milton’s marriage to Val ended only when he died. He was thankful that God brought her into his life and repeatedly described her in his will, according to a Monty Maule eulogy, as his “beloved wife Val.” This beloved wife supported her husband every step of the way and helped him in his weak areas. The couple had four children: Marcus, Milton Jr., Maferne and Maxyn and all of these children carried their father’s initials. Furthermore, Milton’s first five known children (some of whom were male and some of whom were female) had exactly the same middle name as their dad: Theophilus.

While he was a single parent, Milton prepared delicious meals daily for his children and picked them up from school for lunch every day. He adhered to a fixed menu, so much so that his children knew what they were going to eat on each day of the week. Mr Mayers was extremely well organised, adhered to a precise regimen and emphasized the need for a methodical approach to things. He taught his children how to graft a mango tree and how to make ham, and he routinely regaled them with stories about his childhood, life experiences and struggles as a black man to make it in the world. He let his children know that life was hard for him and warned that it could also become hard for them if they lost focus. Milton Mayers always stressed the importance of a good education and loved to quote Booker T. Washington. He wanted his children to become better off and to go further than him. Milton was a kind and loving father and also a dutiful son – he made sure to look after his parents in their old age right up to the end of their lives.

Even though Mr Mayers emerged as an affluent and outgoing individual, he was nonetheless a serious family man who neither suffered his home nor spoiled his children. He told his children that they should not waste too much time sleeping since “the early bird catches the worm” and duly woke them up at 5 a.m. every morning for devotions. They all performed chores around the house, even though there was a housekeeper, and his sons helped out at worksites during school vacations by toting concrete or performing some other task. There came a time when Mr Mayers could afford to take his family on annual summer trips to New York. He was a very strict father and disciplinarian who had no tolerance for skylarking or disrespect. He generally forbade his children from going to the nearby Aquatic Club or to the movies, and he was especially protective of his girls. Tattoos were prohibited and his sons could not even dream about sporting earrings.

Mr Mayers was considered by his children to be a good role model, and two of his sons—Moulton and Milton Jr.—followed in his professional footsteps. Moulton is solely an architect while Milton Jr. provides full building services, just like his father did. These two boys teamed up with their dad on several projects after completing their studies. Moulton Mayers designed Deane’s Pharmacy and his father built it; the Methodist office complex (which is across the road from the SDA church in Kingstown) was designed by Milton Jr. and built by Milton Sr. The initial P. H. Veira building and the Fred J. Dare building were designed and built by Milton Sr., but Moulton subsequently did the designs for their renovation. Moulton also redesigned the Kingstown Post Office after his father had originally built it.

Milton’s dream of establishing a second-to-none regional M. T. Mayers complete construction company with both of these sons was, however, shattered when Moulton branched out on his own and established a powerful independent architectural company. Moulton still collaborated with his father on many projects and father and son maintained a close personal relationship. Maferne, Milton’s daughter, successfully pursued studies in law, much to the delight of her father and family friend and lawyer Theodore Browne.

Milton’s influence went beyond the four walls of his home. He was a public father figure who encouraged people, even complete strangers, to save money at every opportunity he had. Mr Mayers was not afraid to state his views on any issue. He spoke his mind freely and did not stifle his conscience. He was a bit superstitious though and had nothing to do with number 13. He was very adamant about it, and refused to even write a cheque on that day of the month. Milton was also regrettably to some extent a prisoner of the prejudices of his times. He had, for instance, a terrible aversion to Rastas.

Mr Mayers was a staunch Methodist who went to worship regularly with his family. He also did a lot of work for his church and the members of its congregation as you may have by now realised. Milton faithfully, generously and with a cheerful heart gave back of his talents and his substance to the work of the Lord. For example, he built the Calliaqua Methodist Chapel absolutely free! The focal point in the church above the alter stage is a cross that deliberately resembles the “Old Rugged Cross” from the well-known hymn.

Milton Mayers was also a longstanding member of the Lions Club, but he turned down many invitations to join the Mechanics Lodge since the Lodge only became interested in him after he was making money. The secret society did not think that he was “good enough” to enter its ranks when he applied for membership as a little known young man.

Milton Mayers maintained very high standards throughout his professional career and had impeccable taste. He would kick down faulty work from his tradesmen or labourers with a fierce vengeance wherever he saw it, and ensure that it was properly redone. It took considerable energy, effort and skill to manage the Milton T. Mayers far-flung construction empire that had its own excavators, trucks and block making plant. Milton was just as adept in the management of human resources on vast construction sites and in the procurement process, as he was at his drawing board. The supreme architect guarded his hard won professional reputation very jealously and therefore avoided shady deals and shady characters at all costs.

Milton invested heavily in real estate, and therefore very wisely didn’t hinge his fortunes entirely on the vagaries of the construction industry despite his adaptability therein. He understood the value of diversification. At one point in time, he owned the entire parcel of land that is encircled by the road which runs from the Community College junction (just above his Villa home) up to the Honey Bun gap and then down the Honey Bun Road to its point of intersection with the main road, and then back around to the starting junction. Milton was however forced to give up some of the land because of complaints from a resentful old white man who feared that Mr. Mayers was somehow about to turn the place into a gigantic scrap yard for building material and equipment. Milton built a multi-room apartment block from which he received supplemental income on some of the land he retained.

Mr Mayers started a model private residential development project at a site in Glen that was to be named Fern Garden, but he abandoned that project after constructing only two houses, and then disposed of the remaining lots of land. Milton bought an ordinary 35 acre estate in Queensbury at 10 cents per square foot and turned it into a fruitful vineyard with a country house before he sold it profitably and used the proceeds from the sale to acquire the property in Kingstown where the Phillip’s Bakery is now located. He subsequently traded this property for one in the heart of the city besides the Public Works yard. This was Milton’s last acquisition, and the MTM building that is occupied by Digicel was erected in his memory after his death.

M. T. Mayers and the Honourable Milton Cato were close friends for a long time, but these two prominent gentlemen fell out over some issue in the late seventies and the fallout led to a clash of the Miltons: Milton Mayers versus Milton Cato in East St George in SVG’s first post-independence general elections which were held in December 1979. Cato obviously won that battle, as you would be able to tell from our political history, and then the Prime Minister duly applied some pressure on his namesake and former opponent. The Mayers construction company went through a prolonged dry spell in the aftermath of the elections.

MT, as he was called, joined forces with James Mitchell and this tag team campaigned together all over the country. Milton Cato referred to them as a “two man Party.” The truth is though that Mr Mayers was not big on party politics. He supported whatever he thought was in the best interest of the country.

In response to the pressure on the business front that was imposed by Prime Minister Cato, and before James Mitchell won elections in 1984, Mr Mayers extended his services into the St Lucia market. In St Lucia, Milton built (but did not design) the Barclays Bank Headquarters on Jeremy Street, a radio station and the WINERA carton manufacturing plant. He also worked on a house in CAP Estate. The St Lucia hustle placed some strain on his family life since he had to travel to St Lucia every Monday morning and return to St Vincent on Friday afternoons. There was the odd occasion when his wife and children joined him in St Lucia. He left St Lucia after it had a change of government.

Contractor Mayers built a house in Antigua for a banker by the name of Jose Benjamin and for one of Mr Benjamin’s neighbours. These were the only two houses in that vicinity to survive a devastating hurricane which hit Antigua and Barbuda. Milton’s hurricane proof buildings carry his distinctive trademark and are the best monuments and testimonials of his building genius. They stand out like beacons.

Milton Mayers was rightly described in a Searchlight newspaper tribute on April 7, 2000 as a “nation builder in the true sense of the word.” Moulton, his son, is planning to take on the difficult task of developing a comprehensive catalogue of his father’s work. It will be exceedingly difficult to chronicle the extensive contribution to construction that Milton Mayers made in his lifetime given the almost incomprehensible scope of his work. Milton found in architecture and construction his raison d’être, and he simply excelled at it. M. T. Mayers designed and built: Star Garage; Haddon Hotel; the DeNobriga Building (the first four-story building in the country and the tallest structure in Kingstown before the advent of the Financial Complex); the Mormon Church; and homes for Egerton Richards in Brighton, Joey Woods in Kings Hill and Offord Morris in Lowmans Windward to name a few.

The Cable and Wireless Building and Technical College were done on construction only contracts and Mr Mayers also built using third party designs: 42 low-income Plan houses in Arnos Vale that were financed by CDC (the precursor to VINLEC); boxing plants in La Croix and South Rivers; a tech-voc school in Georgetown; a Fisheries Complex in Barrouallie; Barclays Bank and RBTT. He worked on the Deep Water Pier for the reclamation site and the list goes on and on. During James Mitchell’s time in office, Mr Mayers served as a director of the National Commercial Bank and for all his great works the Mitchell government honoured him with an MBE.

Milton Mayers, in his own words, lived a good life. He accomplished a lot but remained humble and down to earth. He was plagued by asthma throughout his time on earth, and even though he never allowed it to get in his way, he ultimately succumbed to an asthmatic attack that took his breath away just after midnight on the last day of March in the year 2000. He was working on a magnificent house for Monty Maule in Dorsetshire Hill at 79 years old when he died. He had also appeared on the television news signing a government contract with the Ministry of Health for the construction of a clinic in Greiggs just a few days before he went to the “Great Beyond.” I bet that right now he’s building mansions in his Father’s House.