South African Garden And Home, October 1998. Romancing an era – a long neglected historic George House gets a make-over…
(Text and photographs by Alex Cremer)
Because it was partly hidden behind high boundary walls, the true beauty of Fairview only became obvious once I drove through the new gates. Then the regal proportions and straight-lined design of the double storey dwelling, built around 1865, could be properly viewed.
To me, the old place had a rather Georgian flavour that was further enhanced by the symmetry of the quite formal front garden, or perhaps I simply sought a scenario where traditional European elegance blended with the typical colonial style of the Victorian era.
When they bought the house in 1994, Philda and her husband,Desmond, a medical doctor, were astounded to see how little respect previous owners had for the historic value of the old place. Some areas were modernized and altered in a rather indiscriminate way, with haphazard repairs to damaged antique doors and windows, while sections added to the side were out of character with the original architectural design.
“Obviously we tried to get it all as close to the original as possible, but we had to play off the practical side of a family home against true authenticity,” says Desmond. “The purist may frown on some work done, or why we left certain modern aspects intact, but we wanted true comfort that reflected a sense of gracious Victorian living and not a stuffy museum.”
Even so, it was hard to get everything neat and tidy. The local architect firm of Smuts and De Kock Incoporated were called in to help, mainly with a new bathroom for the guest rooms, and the replanning needed to eliminate problems with the pitch of the flat roof sections and parapet walls. The kitchen was also completely remoddled according to their plans that incorporated the original hearth, now fitted with a wood-burning stove to capture that homely character enjoyed before the dawn of electricity.
One of the biggest tasks was the stripping of multi-layers of white paint that covered the huge Oregon pine support beams for the timber floors upstairs. This time-consuming job was expertly executed by Jannie Malherbe and his team of workers from the firm Futro.
“Some 30 years ago, local pine was used to replace the original floorboards in the main lounge downstairs, but luckily the rest of the old Oregon floor boards were in a good condition,” says Philda. “All we had to do was call in flooring expert Syd Ter Morshuizen to sand and retreat all the boards.”
To expose the beauty of the timber floors upstairs the wall-to-wall carpets in the main bedroom and twin rooms for the Benkenstein boys, Eckart and Alex, were removed. Their daughter’s room and the family room across the passage received coir matting and a double layer of underfelt to dampen any sound transmitted through the floorboards to the two guest suites below.
Six of the old top storey sash windows were in a very bad state, and craftsman Jack Fourie was asked to make new units by copying the original design. All the old windows downstairs were in a superb condition, even down to the hand-floated glass panes and the Oregon pine shutters installed by the builders more than a century ago.
The chimneys of the four fireplaces in the old house needed radical repairs before the units could again radiate any heat into the vast interior. The original unit in the main lounge was replaced with a similar antique model supplied by Peter Long of Cape Town.
“We had to hunt for appropriate good light fittings to replace the modern ones that were in the house. A major purchase was an old European copper candelabra that had been electrified for the lounge,” says Philda, but she also relates the story of the blackened lamp found among rubbish in an outside room. “We liked the design, and after cleaning it, were amazed to find it was made from good antique silver. It found a place of honour on the top landing.”
In deciding on an interior colour scheme Philda went mainly for bright yellow and a darker hue somewhere between salmon and terracotta. It was fairly easy to complement these two specially mixed Plascon colours with accents of white.
Although the Benkensteins brought some pieces from their previous home in Namibia, these had rather small proportions and had to be supplemented with bigger items like armoires and ornate dressers, pretty tables big enough for family gatherings and lovely cast-iron double beds for the guest suites. The search for these items ranged from Port Alfred to Cape Town, and was later extended to vast sections of the Great Karoo. And they were lucky to find antique metal door locks complete with genuine old-fashioned brass and porcelain knobs.
Although still in developing stages, the couple’s aim to create a true English country garden around the main dwelling is beginning to take shape. Already the formal front section with it’s roses and classical water feature is flourishing, as well as the herb and vegetable garden at the back.
It took a great deal of effort to once again capture Fairview’s long lost splendour and elegance. full marks to Desmond and Philda for seeing this potential, and taking up the challenge to rescue this historic George landmark.