Stonecrest – one of the most beautifully unaltered Edwardian Arts and Crafts homes on the Westcliff Ridge in Johannesburg – is named after the carved stone crest, high on its red-brick façade.
Set above two tall, gracefully arched windows, the crest features a noble-looking hound at its centre. ‘One early owner, I was told, had 17 dogs,’ says Annabelle Desfontaines, who has lived here for the past 30-odd years and can still remember walking up the driveway for the first time as a young woman with her heart pounding.
She has a couple of hounds who look very similar to the one on the crest, which adds a strange sense of timelessness to the way she and her family inhabit Stonecrest – it seems they could always have been here.
The house was built in 1902 and, apart from a few alterations by none other than the master of colonial architecture, Herbert Baker, in 1911, and later, in 1935, by Cowin & Ellis, it retains the spirit of its age. It’s a classical colonial Arts and Crafts mansion – part country pile, part suburban grande dame, part castle on a hill.
The terraced gardens fall away so that the bedrooms feel as though they’re among the treetops and the views carry the eye over Joburg’s urban forest – The Randlords, Johannesburg’s turn-of-the-century mining magnates and captains of industry, liked to feel they were masters of all they surveyed.
The house is a wonderfully eccentric maze of rooms arranged over multiple levels. On the ground floor, as well as four reception rooms that lead into one another, there’s a dedicated breakfast room just off the kitchen, and a wing with a series of rooms which Annabelle thinks must have been the butler’s suite.
There is also a wood-panelled study with a carved stone fireplace, which leads through to a huge dining room. Upstairs there are bedrooms, sunrooms, attics and landings. ‘There are 12 fireplaces,’ says Annabelle, adding that they’re all in working order.
These old mansions have usually been renovated beyond recognition; successive generations trying to ‘priss them up’ says Annabelle. She has done no such thing. And it was the recognition that Stonecrest’s original features and character were intact that had set her heart pounding when she walked up the drive all those years ago.
‘I love the features of old houses and, because of that, I didn’t want to come into an old house and make it new,’ she explains. ‘That’s why I say, for me, it’s not a case of trying to make it perfect. It’s [about] keeping it in a good state of repair, so everything is well cared for and well looked after, but not trying to do plastic surgery. One needs the imperfections to show the history, otherwise it just becomes another bland, perfect house.’
The features are grand: wood panelling and floors, bay windows and mouldings all intact. Standing in the dining room, she points out, ‘This wallpaper here is the original wallpaper from when we moved in 31 years ago. Most of it is still in perfect condition, and, although there is a little bit of damage here and there, I just love it. I think it’s so beautiful. I wouldn’t like to have to change it.’
Apart from adding the odd bath and shower, the house has remained unchanged under Annabelle’s care. In fact, when Annabelle has ended up sanding skirtings or door frames to add a fresh layer of paint, she’s stopped before she’s got to the painting phase, preferring the way the sanding has revealed the layers of history and evidence of the passage of time. ‘There’s a century of paint and life and energy and people who have been through this house,’ she says. ‘It’s so beautiful – why would I paint it a flat colour?’
As well as being a family home – ‘I’ve got four children,’ says Annabelle – Stonecrest has served as a base for Annabelle’s vintage fashion store, Wizards Vintage, which has operated from some of the receptions rooms. Annabelle has also held trunk shows and hosted the occasional event – small weddings and the occasional 50th birthday party. One wing has been run as a B&B for some years. The house is big enough for guests to come and go as they please, undisturbed and undetected.
But rather than make permanent alterations, Annabelle has simply reinvented the spaces from the inside. ‘I make them appropriate for what is happening at the time and in that room,’ she says. Her approach to furnishing has been similarly loose and spontaneous – a kind of eclecticism in which the variations in style, era and ‘seriousness’ coalesce.
There are highly ornate carved designs, and just as many ‘rough and simple’ serviceable furnishings. While some corners are crowded with detail, other spaces are open and unadorned. ‘I could easily live in a huge, austere castle,’ Annabelle says. She loves the fact that castles, for all their grandeur, are inherently unfussy.
Annabelle also points to the hints of Dutch influence in the oil paintings as one of her inspirations. ‘There’s almost a monastic sombreness, and yet it has a depth,’ she says. It’s the perfect description of Stonecrest now – it was as if it was made to be inhabited in this way. No wonder her heart pounded – it was a homecoming even before she moved in.