Inside One of South Africa's Most Historic Houses: The Stonecrest Manor
Considered one of the most beautifully unaltered Edwardian Arts and Crafts homes on Johannesburg’s Westcliff Ridge, stately Stonecrest Manor takes its name from the carved stone crest high on its red brick façade. Set above two tall, gracefully-arched windows, the crest features a sleek, noble-looking hunting hound at its centre.
“I was told that one early owner had 17 dogs,” says Annabelle Desfontaines, who has lived in the manor for better part of 30 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 dogs who look very similar to the one on the crest, a coincidence that adds a strange sense of timelessness to the way she and her family have lived at Stonecrest: it’s almost like they have always been here. Indeed, Desfontaines’ beautiful and eclectic decorating style has served to bolster this effect.
Originally built in 1902 by no less than Sir Herbert Baker, the noted architect who was instrumental in the development of British Colonial architecture and structural design, Stonecrest continues to embody the genteel elegance characteristic of the turn of the last century. While further embellishments were added in 1935 by the equally iconic local design firm Cowin & Ellis, along with some maintenance work over the years, the manor has remained virtually unchanged—and its current owner likes it that way.
While many old Johannesburg mansions have been renovated beyond recognition, thanks mostly to successive generations trying to “priss them up” as Desfontaines puts it, she has retained much of the original structure, Indeed, what made her heart pound when she arrived was the recognition that Stonecrest’s original features and character were largely intact.
“I really love the features of old houses, and because of that, I didn’t want to come into an old house and try and make it new,” she says. “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 that everything is well cared for and well looked after, but not trying to do plastic surgery on it. One needs the imperfections to show the history; otherwise, it just becomes another bland, perfect house.”
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A classic example from the Arts and Crafts period, this suburban abode reflects the trend, at the time, for the use of earthy, locally-sourced materials, as well as handcrafted details. Built for a family of Randlords—the powerful South African mining magnates and captains of industry who made their fortunes in the early days of the African gold and diamond boom—the house rises from a plinth of local stone, with a broad layer of red brick and a strip of stippled Tyrolean topped with a slate roof. Terraced gardens fall away so that the bedrooms seem as if they’re among the treetops, while the views carry the eye over the magnificence of the urban forest.
Inside, the manor is a wonderfully eccentric maze of rooms. “There are four reception rooms that kind of lead into each other, and all of them are quite generous sizes with very high ceilings,” Desfontaines explains. There are multiple levels, from a stony basement that now serves as a TV room and the wood-panelled study with a carved stone fireplace, through to a huge dining room, and an upstairs realm of bedrooms, sun rooms, attics, and landings. The manor also boasts of 12 working fireplaces, along with a dedicated breakfast room just off the kitchen. The kitchen has a comfortable sense of timelessness, like though in a farm with a woodtopped counter and a pair of black and white hounds sleeping under the table. Off the vast kitchen there’s a dedicated breakfast room, and a wing with another series of rooms with broad floor planks, slate tiles, and art-deco metro tiles.
The features are grand: wood panelling and floors, bay windows and mouldings all intact. Standing in the dining room, Desfontaines points out that much of the wallpaper is still the original wallpaper from when the family first moved in over three decades ago. “Most of it is still in perfect condition,” she says. “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 structure has remained unchanged under Desfontaines’ care. In fact, most often when she has finished sanding skirtings or doorframes, she stops before she gets to the painting phase, preferring the way the sanding has revealed layers of history—evidence that celebrates 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?”
For the bulk of the time, Stonecrest has served as a family home. “I have four children,” Desfontaines says. “Apart from our oldest son who was a year and a half when we moved in, my kids were all born in this house.” At the same time, however, the manor also served as the base for Desfontaines’ vintage fashion store, Wizards Vintage, which has operated from some of the reception rooms. She has also held trunk shows and hosted occasional events like small weddings and the occasional 50th birthday celebration. One wing has even been run as a B&B for some years as the house is big enough for guests to come and go as they please undisturbed and undetected.
As opposed to making permanent alterations, Desfontaines 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. The basement could be a cellar, but its stone walls have been hung with tapestries and it serves as a TV room. “Our hideaway space,” she explains with a laugh, “although the family refers to it as ‘the dungeon.’”
Her approach to furnishing it has been similarly loose and spontaneous—a kind of eclecticism in which the variations in style, era, and seriousness coalesce in the rich, dim light of the interiors. There are highly ornate carved elements, but just as many “rough and simple” serviceable furnishings. On her fashion buying trips through the decades, Desfontaines says, “I’d go to London, Paris, and Milan, and so wherever I was, I always made sure I had time to go scour the markets. A lot of these things have been brought back from our travels.” Her finds include both furniture and the numerous oil paintings that adorn the walls. The eclectic mix balances itself out in a graceful, eccentric equilibrium.
While some corners are crowded with detail, other spaces are open and unadorned. “I could easily live in a huge, austere castle,” she says. She loves the fact that castles, for all their grandeur, are inherently unfussy. There’s velvet, but it’s there to keep the cold out. The furniture is pulled up to the fire, and there are large empty spaces: it’s a spontaneous, authentic reflection of the life of the place, and that’s what she loves. Layering, texture, and patina remain central to the aesthetic. There’s something quite masculine about it, but at the same time, something whimsical and romantic. Desfontaines points out that the hints of Dutch influence in the oil paintings is one of her inspirations. “There’s almost a monastic sombreness, and yet it has a depth,” she says.
It’s the perfect description of how Stonecrest is today: a home meant to be inhabited in such a way.