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 sleek, noble-looking hound at its center. “One early owner, I was told, had 17 dogs,” notes Annabelle Desfontaines, who has lived there 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 like they’ve always lived here. Her beautifully eclectic style only adds to the effect.
The house was built in 1902, and, although it had a few alterations along the way — by none other than the master of colonial architecture, Herbert Baker, in 1911, and later, in 1935, by Cowin & Ellis — 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. From a plinth of local stone (the architects at the time celebrated earthy, honest local materials and handcrafted details), the house rises 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 and the views carry the eye over Joburg’s urban forest. (The Randlords — Johannesburg’s instantly rich turn-of-the-century mining magnets, moguls and captains of industry and commerce, for whom these grand houses were built, liked to feel they were masters of all they surveyed!)
Inside, it’s 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 remarks. There are multiple levels, from the stony basement (now the TV room) and the wood paneled study with a carved stone fireplace, through to a huge dining room, and an upstairs realm of bedrooms, sun rooms, attics and landings. “It has 12 fireplaces,” Desfontaines notes, adding: “All of them work.” Off the kitchen there’s a dedicated breakfast room, and a wing with a series of rooms Desfontaines says must have been the butler’s suite.
These old Johannesburg mansions have usually been renovated beyond recognition, successive generations trying to “priss them up” as Desfontaines puts it. She did no such thing. What had made her heart pound was the recognition that Stonecrest’s original features and character were 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,” Desfontaines contends. “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.”
The features are grand: wood paneling and floors, bay windows and moldings all intact. Standing in the dining room, Desfontaines 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 structure has remained unchanged under Desfontaines’ care. In fact, most often when she sands skirtings or doorframes to add a fresh layer of paint, she stops before the painting phase, preferring the way the sanding has revealed the layers of history and celebrating evidence of the passage of time. “There’s a century of paint and life and energy and people who have been through this house. It’s so beautiful – why would I paint it a flat color?”
Plus, it’s also a family home. “I’ve got four children!” quips Desfontaines. “Apart from our oldest son who was a year and a half when we moved in, my kids were all born into this house.” Over the years Stonecrest has served as a base for Desfontaines’ vintage fashion store, Wizards Vintage, which has operated from some of the reception rooms. Annabelle has also held trunk shows and hosted events — small weddings and the occasional 50th birthday party celebration. One wing has been run as a B&B for years — the house is big enough for guests to come and go as they please undisturbed and undetected.
But rather than make any permanent alterations, Desfontaines’ approach has been simply to reinvent the spaces from the inside. “I make them appropriate for what is happening at the time and in that room,” Desfontaines confesses. 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,” 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 designs, and just as many “rough and simple” serviceable furnishings. “Some of them are more serious pieces,” she admits, but they’re not particularly privileged. The eclectic mix balances itself out in a graceful, eccentric equilibrium.
In her decades traveling to Europe on designer fashion buying trips, Annabelle says, “I’d go to London and Paris and Milan, and so wherever I was, I always made sure I had time to go scour the markets.” She loved Alfies Antique Market in London, and the King’s Road. “A lot of these things have been brought back from our travels.” Not just the furniture, but the myriad oil paintings that line the walls, too. While some corners are crowded with detail, other spaces are open and unadorned. “I could easily live in a huge, austere castle,” Desfontaines declares. 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 somberness, and yet it has a depth,” Desfontaines explains.
It’s the perfect description of Stonecrest now — it was as if it were made to be inhabited in this way. No wonder Desfontaines’ heart pounded. It was a homecoming even before she moved in!
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