When Patrick and Chloe O’Doherty bought their Parktown North home, which is 100 years old this year, it had been condemned. ‘It was completely derelict,’ says Patrick, ‘and there were 7.5cm-wide cracks going right through the walls.’ Patrick and Chloe had returned home after two years of travel, most recently spending six months driving around the US in a Chevy camper van. While contemplating their next move, the couple rented a Victorian house in Parkhurst. ‘That’s when we thought, we want a house like this,’ recalls Chloe. When they found their Parktown North property, the banks weren’t interested in financing it. Chloe and Patrick, however, weren’t prepared to knock it down – they wanted it precisely for its historical features. ‘We basically begged them,’ explains Patrick, and eventually the bank relented, but only on the condition that they met certain structural requirements.
The O’Dohertys had renovated before and since Patrick is an engineer, they had a good sense of what the project would involve. He decided to tackle the renovation himself with the help of his father and two skilled builders, but they had an immovable deadline as Chloe was pregnant at that point. ‘We are only the fourth owners of this house,’ says Chloe, so it hadn’t been radically altered barring a few windows that had been moved and a porch that was closed in with French doors in the 1960s or 1970s. ‘This was a crazy 1980s bathroom with bright-red cherry tiles and Perspex fittings,’ says Patrick, describing the guest bathroom. And the main bathroom had a dropped ceiling with a 1960s tongue-and-groove wooden roof.
Other layers that had accumulated over the decades of the 20th century could be peeled off. The back and front stoeps were clad in slate, ‘I presume in the 1970s,’ says Chloe. But underneath it, the original polished stoep was perfectly intact. A fireplace had been damaged when a wood-burning stove had been installed but luckily its twin in the adjacent room was in good shape, so they could use it as a reference.
The real work, however, involved the things that weren’t instantly noticeable. Beneath the carpets was parquet but the floors were so badly cracked that it had to be lifted, the floors repaired and the parquet relaid. ‘We pulled down and replaced all the ceilings,’ says Patrick. The wiring and the bathrooms had to be redone, and they knocked down a few internal walls to create an open-plan kitchen. This, coupled with the addition of a large kitchen window, let in more light throughout the house. But Chloe and Patrick didn’t interfere with the overall layout and configuration of the rooms. Although they moved the door of the main bathroom to make it en suite, ‘the bathrooms are where they were originally, as is the kitchen,’ says Chloe.
Considerable invisible work was involved in supporting the collapsing structure and they had to underpin every corner of the house with 2m-long concrete pads. ‘There are staples everywhere,’ explains Patrick. ‘We had to chisel out slits along every wall and then install thick reinforcing steel through the whole house.’ Outside, extensive drainage had to be added. ‘That’s why the house was so cracked, because it was sitting on a bog,’ explains Chloe. Retaining walls were built, levels changed and ground filled. ‘We took out about 50 skips, 20 bakkie loads and 20 trailers full of just stuff,’ says Patrick.
Patrick and Chloe kept many of the existing fittings, including the 1930s lights. Having inherited furniture from family members, they had an eclectic and historical mix of styles to complement the architecture: an Edwardian wardrobe, an Art Deco dining suite and vintage Scandi armchairs. They had beds manufactured according to a Victorian design but with modern proportions. Because the previous owner was downsizing, he left them some items, including etchings by his artist wife – one of which can be seen hanging on the bedroom wall. ‘It’s like an ode to who was here before,’ says Chloe. She even managed to reuse some of the curtain fabric for a cushion for the window seat in their bedroom. ‘I took it to the Oriental Plaza and had it made,’ she says. ‘Rather than always buying new things, I thought, how can I use what is here?’
Patrick and Chloe’s daughter Ava, one, was born soon after they moved in. And so the house celebrates its centenary filled with new life – stitched together with an invisible metal framework and carried on new foundations but essentially the same. ‘We wanted to keep a bit of old Joburg here,’ says Patrick. ‘You can daydream and pretend there’s a horse and cart coming down the drive – it’s nostalgic.’
This home originally appeared in House and Leisure’s Before & After issue.