Historic Karoo Complex

Text Hilary Prendini Toffoli Styling Jeanne Botes Photographs Greg Cox Perched on the edge of the great Karoo, this well-preserved Victorian gem of a village is filled with precious old buildings. At its heart on a main road corner is a cluster of three that once housed a wheat mill, one of five in Prince Albert. Title deeds show that these structures date back to 1858 – not long after the village acquired its name and official status. About a century later they were converted into offices, and Samuel Luttig – the attorney who gave his name to the street alongside – moved in, followed by the village sheriff. By the time Kurt Steiner and Duke Kaufman first set eyes on this unique trio in 2009, the ceilings were sagging, and walls that had been made of unbaked bricks and mud plaster 150 years before were in danger of crumbling to dust. All three structures were in drastic need of rescue – the mill, the flat-roofed cottage attached to it, and the adjacent once-Victorian house that had been altered and added to over the years. Kurt and Duke, who live in Knysna, immediately felt drawn to the place. ‘We were intrigued by its history,’ says Kurt, ‘and we liked the position and the leiwater’ – water furrows that run past the house. ‘We thought it would be a great pity if this collection of historical buildings were allowed to deteriorate further.’ They also liked the old doors: ‘They were in bad condition, with layers of grimy enamel paint chipped and peeling, but so beautiful we knew that, once restored, they would add character to any new design.’ The new section could also incorporate decorative details made of some of the historic junk they found on the site. The couple decided the mill and cottage would become their holiday home, while the Victorian building would be converted into a retro decor shop and two galleries – the Alex Hamilton Gallery, housing the work of the contemporary Cape Town artist, and the Jürgen Schadeberg Gallery, showcasing the photographer’s iconic Fifties shots, including rare visuals of Nelson Mandela and singer Miriam Makeba. A twofold approach was needed – an eminent local architect named John Whitton, to give guidance on the architectural history of the area, working with Cape Town-based Swiss architect Jan Klingler on a skilful fusion of the historic renovated parts with the modern sections. ‘The difficult bit,’ says Kurt, ‘was that because Prince Albert is so isolated, most of the materials and the subcontractors had to come a long way. This increased the cost and time.’ He and Duke are Karoo-lovers, however. Their favourite place to be at sunset is on the roof, under the spectacular evening sky, with sundowners and their cherished golden retriever, Bonny, who is as much at home on the Prince Albert koppies as on the Knysna beaches. She always travels with them between homes, and they swear she recognises landmarks. Not surprisingly, the renovation stretched over months. At the end Kurt and Duke were completely satisfied. ‘A lot of attention was paid to detail,’ says Kurt. ‘The new interventions are light and discreet, and fit in with the old rooms. In the back yard is the new timber-clad living area, where we spend most of our time. It’s like a big crate – minimalist, contemporary and very private.’ That aesthetic prevails throughout. Floors and windows are bare, allowing breathing space for the art collection they’ve amassed. Pop art is a favourite, including three Marilyns by Californian artist Steve Kaufman (no relation) and a striking 3-D piece by New Yorker Charles Fazzino. They reside happily with work by Prince Albert artist George Coutouvidis. And so the house that was once a wheat mill has become a calm, soothing space, characterised by clarity and simplicity, for its relentlessly nomadic owners. This article was originally featured in the July 2012 issue of House and Leisure.