A Grand Old Dame
Along a leafy street in Emmarentia, Joburg, surrounded by typical suburban houses, there’s a gabled, green-roofed house with an extraordinarily long stoep. Perhaps it’s the size of the trees that alerts you that there’s something unusual about it. The circular driveway runs past huge camellias and cycads, notorious for being slow growers. Five palms in the centre of the drive tower over the house. Their scale seems to suggest that things here are a little more established than in the neighbourhood.
The house peeping through the greenery is arguably the oldest in Johannesburg, dating back to 1886. The garden was planted by Emmarentia Geldenhuys. Her husband, Louw, who became a member of the first Union parliament and was a well-known philanthropist, built this, the original farmhouse, in her honour. The suburb that eventually formed took her name, and the house was lived in by descendents of Louw and Emmarentia until the early 1990s.
Human rights journalist Carolyn Raphaely and Leonard Stoch, owner of Relectro, an ebike retailer, have lived here for 22 years with their daughter, Ricky, now in university. ‘This house is very peaceful,’ says Carolyn. ‘It feels like an old Cape farm house.’ Its tin roof, gables and bay windows combine colonial Victorian and Cape farmhouse architecture.
Inside, the floors are Canadian deel, and the ceilings are nearly five metres high. The lofty rooms join up in a rambling arrangement, but they are generously proportioned. Updates along the way have left Art Deco elements, most noteworthy a beautiful yellow bathroom with hexagonal floor tiles. The rooms are painted brightly – the passage is yellow, the sitting room dark rose, a spare bedroom deep blue, the dining room garnet – echoing the Victorian taste for vivid colours.
The house was in serious need of TLC when Leonard and Carolyn bought it on an auction. ‘You could put your arms through the cracks in some places,’ says Carolyn. They worked incrementally and did a renovation every few years, preserving original features wherever possible, updating domestic quarters first. In the kitchen, blue and white tiles – ‘Probably added at the beginning of the 20th century,’ says Carolyn – were rescued, restored and reused. The flooring was worn out and had to be replaced. ‘In the corner, the original floor has been kept for reference,’ she adds. The wooden pantry cupboards, painted dark blue, were hand-sanded by Leonard. The bottoms of the cupboard doors have burn marks from counter-top candles. ‘We didn’t over-restore,’ says Carolyn.
Many of the furnishings were bought on a single trip to Bali. ‘We went to Bali for Len’s parents’ golden wedding anniversary,’ Carolyn explains. ‘We returned with half a container load of furniture.’ The low, deep sofas and plantation chairs suit the scale of the gigantic verandah and lofty interiors. Something about the colonial style seems fitting, too. Mixed in with Morris chairs, riempie benches and other Africana, their shapes and textures seem right at home.
The house’s sense of heritage is enriched by the family heirlooms and personal collections that fill the rooms. ‘My mother’s garage was a treasure trove of paintings and old family portraits,’ says Carolyn. Oil paintings of her ancestors line the hallway. A rocking horse her father gave to her brother acts as a door stop. A glass case of taxidermy birds belonging to Leonard’s maternal grandfather fills another corner. Also in the hallway is Carolyn’s collection of vintage ‘marriage pictures’: photographic portraits of couples with painted wedding attire believed to legitimise the ‘town marriages’ of black migrant workers. She liked the idea of adding another kind of ancestor to the walls of this historical home. And there’s no doubt that its generous walls can accommodate a little more history.
Originally published in HL November 2014