For more than a century, Baxter House has stood sentinel within walking distance of Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. The timber house was built at the turn of last century, and was used as a ration store during the Boer War.
Elle and Sid Katzeff first saw it many years ago on a windless summer’s day. ‘I was immediately smitten with its higgledy-piggledy charm,’ says Elle. The electrical wiring snaked around in conduits on the walls and the kitchen floor sloped towards the back door. Signs of alteration were everywhere as rooms has been added and doors boarded up over the years. ‘The sash windows stuck and the doors jammed,’ she says. ‘In a word, it was perfect!’
They took occupation that April. ‘We lay wide-eyed in bed as the paintings gently flapped against the bedroom walls.’ They had discovered the South Easter!
For Elle and Sid and their four children, the cottage was a safe haven. ‘We’d leave the doors wide open and the house unattended while we spent days on the beach,’ she says. ‘Evenings were spent around the dining room table playing cards and board games, and books piled up on bedside tables as we read late into the night.’ The giant boulders became their playground, and they lost count of the towels, clothing, and even a mattress (dragged down early one evening for more comfortable reclining) that got blown off ‘Big Bertha’ into the sea. ‘In their bunk beds the children slept sweetly, soothed by the silence and the sea air,’ says Elle.
And always, the penguins. ‘They’d come trudging up the hill at day’s end, like businessmen returning after a hard day at the office,’ says Elle. ‘They’d nest under the house, and make impolite noises at three in the morning.’
Even after all these years Elle is moved by the quiet beauty of Boulders Beach with its lone surviving beach hut. ‘It is here that we find our dear friend Jean Lowe, who at 90 is still to be found on the beach most days, supplying deck chairs and buckets and spades to passing tourists and locals alike,’ she says. ‘And the wind that so unsettled us when we first moved in all those years ago, has no place here, sheltered as it is by the giant boulders. In time, you get to love that wind, to make friends with it, as it blows rain clouds across the bay, clearing the smog and the detritus of the ocean. Without it, we would be stuck here mesmerised by the sheer beauty of a summer’s day. The wind gets us moving, stirs us to action.’
As for Baxter House, no amount of painting and patching could sustain the little build, so eventually the Katzeffs relented and began a renovation. Peter Silberbauer of Rustic Homes and heritage architect Hanneke De Wet oversaw the transformation.
‘We had hoped to use salvaged wood and refurbished doors and windows, but Peter insisted that new treated wood be used,’ says Elle, finally convinced that this decision would ensure Baxter House will still be standing in another hundred years. Just two of the original rooms remain untouched.‘When we finally took possession of the new improved Baxter House, Peter had placed a specially commissioned museum sign over the entrance to this nostalgic part of the home,’ Elle recalls.
It’s filled with treasures collected from Elle’s favourite decor and junk shops. ‘We furnished Baxter House with joy,’ says Elle. ‘Despite my best intentions there was no colour scheme or decorator’s plan.’ Disparate pieces find a happy home here.
‘I find that lovely things are just like lovely people. Put them together in a room, and they all get along fine in the end.’
Just as the house nurtured their children through the wonders of childhood, today it calls them back from their busy adult lives. And for Elle and Sid, ‘This place of light and whimsy is a love nest, a romantic hideaway to which we escape with our Labrador Baxter, as often as we can. Friends join us for festive dinners and lazy sleepovers, and Baxter takes us for walks along the beach. The house welcomes our family back each time like an old friend, tenderly making room for connection and renewal, nurturing all that is beautiful, good and true.’
Originally published in HL December 2014