There’s a house in the oldest suburb in the second-oldest town in South Africa, set back from a quiet broad street, and approached by a paved pathway across a generous stretch of well-tended lawn. It’s on the banks of the Eerste River and it’s at least 80 years old. How much more authentically Stellenbosch, home to several centuries of history and establishment, can you get?
As you enter the house, beneath its pitched 1920s roof, you’d be forgiven for expecting a traditional voorkamer, perhaps, or a long passageway, off which various small, low-ceilinged rooms might lead. Instead a large, cool, exotic interior opens up to greet you – dark-grey walled, with high ceilings and a seamless expanse of screeded flooring – punctuated by objets, striking furnishings, and modern and antique artworks. A collector lives here.
Michele Corner, born in Stellenbosch, has returned here via several countries’ worth of travel, amassing foreign experiences, a banker husband and, now, two children. The gloss of life in Belgium, Hong Kong and more recently London never lost its appeal, but a few years ago, needing a more settled environment in which to raise their daughters, they made a big decision.
‘We’d bought the house a while ago, largely as a rental investment,’ she explains, ‘but when we thought about it, it suddenly made sense for us to live here ourselves.’
Good schools (a bike ride away), the sunshine and the sports, plus the proximity of Michele’s parents in the town, combined to spur a major transformation of the property into the new family home.
Cognisant of the house’s 1920s heritage, and wanting to retain as much of its authentic structure as possible, Michele commissioned local architect Rick Stander to modernise it while staying respectful of its ‘shell’. The main changes, apart from one addition – the porch entrance – took place inside.
The original rooms were small and dark, so many of the interior walls were demolished; windows were enlarged; the high ceilings revealed. The ‘spine’ of the house – long and narrow – was opened up and is now one expansive living-dining area, extending back towards the partially open kitchen-scullery at the rear. ‘The hardest part of the renovations was living in London and doing them “remotely”, but luckily I could leave my very capable father in charge,’ she says.
Private spaces lead off this central area: the master bedroom, with open-plan bathroom, and a bedroom each for daughters Izzy (15) and Beth (17). There’s also a TV/family room (with adjoining bathroom), and, up a flight of stairs, a compact guest suite.
Throughout, sleek, hi-tech appliances sit easily amid a collection reflecting a glorious collision of Portuguese, Chinese and French culture – sourced in the markets of Macau, Cambodia, Belgium…
It’s the exterior of the house, however, that recalls the traditional South African home – with a long pool, complete with red-bricked surround (‘so Seventies’); a deep shaded stoep; and an established garden in which an ancient, prolifically bearing lemon tree has pride of place. Indoor-outdoor flow – so suited to the local climate – is assured, thanks to a giant wall of glass doors flanking the living area.
It looks and feels complete, but Michele – who loves tweaking as much as travelling – still has plans for this house. ‘Often I’ll wake up,’ she admits, ‘and rearrange everything. It’s a work-in-progress, really.’
‘It’s not a massive house,’ she notes, ‘but it lives well.’ And so it does, in its own, highly individual and quietly dramatic way.
Originally published in HL May 2014.