Renovating a heritage house is a delicate procedure. How do you honour its heritage, preserve its historical features and, at the same time, make it livable? Emma Algotsson and Scott Drimie, the owners of this small Herbert Baker house in Parktown West in Johannesburg, described by the Heritage Trust as the ‘perfect cottage’, wished to transform it from what was essentially a one-person house into a family home for them and their two children, Lukas, seven, and Viktor, three, while meticulously preserving and restoring its original features.
The house was built in 1910 for Irish cartoonist Denis Santry, who did work for The Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Times. He jokingly named it Kleine Schuur, a reference to Cecil John Rhodes’s Groote Schuur, also built by Baker. Santry had his studio upstairs in the roof and lived downstairs.
Scott and Emma approached architect Nabeel Essa of Office 24-7. They arrived at a plan to make the ground-floor bedroom usable as the main suite, which would involve clearing out dry walling and built-in cupboards to return the rooms to their original configuration and create space. They added a spiral staircase (‘like an umbilical cord’) up to the children’s bedrooms and pyjama lounge upstairs. Nabeel designed a bed unit with an extended headboard to divide the space, and create a dressing room and bathroom behind. ‘The smallness of the rooms inspired a kind of European or Asian style needed to use space cleverly,’ says Nabeel.
The larger part of the brief, however, was to turn the cramped, old-fashioned servants’ quarters into a flatlet and office. They had been added by a subsequent owner in 1936 by Baker’s partner, Fleming, and were also under heritage protection. Nabeel ‘carved out’ an ingenious guest suite from the existing space, and most dramatically, added the beautiful jewel of a glass box for the studio that floats above the courtyard behind the house.
Nabeel, Emma and Scott decided that juxtaposing heritage and modern architecture was the best way to pay tribute to the original house. It was a way to frame the original and enhance their appreciation of it. ‘The new office creates views of the old house that weren’t there before,’ says Scott.
Part of the reason the addition works so well is that it complements the existing proportions of the house. The addition, Nabeel says, was ‘an exercise in smallness’. ‘We had to get the scale, proportion and texture right,’ he adds. ‘Herbert Baker was very detailed. We had to get the detail right.’
The box also touches lightly on the original. Nabeel deliberately left a gap between the old house and the studio, so you physically have to leave the old building for a couple of steps to go out to the new. ‘You feel the junction between old and new quite strongly,’ he says.
The sense of lightness is also emphasised by the way in which the studio’s support structure is rendered almost invisible by the vertical garden, designed by Brendon Edwards. ‘All you see is the floating glass box,’ says Nabeel. ‘It’s almost like a tree house floating on organic matter.’ Scott adds that it’s indigenous and matches the garden as much as possible.
Inside his new office, Scott added a wall-to-floor mural of one of Santry’s cartoons, to continue the dialogue between old and new. Just as the original house functioned as a living and working space for Santry, now, 100 years later, that original function has returned. Scott works in the studio where Santry’s work animates the space.
The result is a beautifully preserved heritage house that has been transformed to support a modern family lifestyle. ‘It is a way of looking at heritage in a sustainable way,’ Nabeel says. ‘It makes it a living heritage space rather than a museum frozen in time.’
This article was published in HL July 2014.