Pastoral Perfection – Cape Dutch Architecture
Simplicity, authenticity and practical magic define the traditional Cape Dutch homestead at Babylonstoren.
The air, heavy in the late afternoon sunshine, hums with the work of countless bees in Babylonstoren’s garden of Eden. Here owners Karen Roos and Koos Bekker grow over 300 varieties of edible or medicinal plants in the extraordinary gardens inspired by the farms that resupplied ships passing the Cape of Good Hope in 1692, when the farm was first granted to burgher (citizen) Pieter van der Byl, a junior officer in Stellenbosch’s mounted infantry. Today, the werf (farmyard) and its structures remain among the finest unspoilt examples of traditional Cape Dutch architectural styles in South Africa’s Cape Winelands. Roos’s deft touch and nuanced appreciation of tradition are unmistakable in its Owners’ House, which has been not so much restored as reinvigorated.
When Roos and Bekker first bought Babylonstoren as their weekend retreat, one of its many attractions for Karen was that the farmhouse, which was built in 1777, had been largely unchanged since 1931, when a Victorian renovation that had removed the gables was corrected and the gables replaced.
Roos, a former editor of Elle Decoration South Africa, has gone to great lengths to restore the 17th-century Cape Dutch farm house, which includes the manner house. Her husband owns one of South Africa’s largest media companies.
The clearest evidence of Roos’s commitment to authenticity can be found in the central sitting room. Here she supervised the painstaking removal of 23 layers of paint to reveal the original ochre wall paint finely edged with stripes of teal, cream and dark brown. The colours were exactly matched and the room carefully repainted in its original hue. “It has the benefit of downplaying the heaviness of the dark wood built-in cupboards the Dutch loved so much,” says Roos. “They have the potential to be overwhelming if the walls are whitewashed but here they just melt in.”
The home’s traditional H-shaped layout has been preserved and original fittings throughout have been returned to their original splendour – worn flagstones polished to a high gloss, wide yellowwood floorboards and ceiling beams, wooden windows and sills set deep into the thick clays walls built by the Dutch to beat the African heat were refinished.
Despite its grand heritage, Babylonstoren is still a farmhouse and, fittingly, much of the action takes place in its kitchen, which serves as a cooking space and gathering place. In front of the open hearth is an enormous refectory table where the family reconnects and refuels, and friends visit. Cooking takes place at the AGA Gas Hob and woodburning stove. In true Roos style, the kitchen chandelier – made from an antique wine-bottle drier – is rustic yet contemporary. The home is no museum: its sensibility is authentic but unfailingly modern.
Minimalism prevails in the bedrooms and sitting room, where contemporary linen, leather and steel furnishings impart a feeling of coolness and calm. A scarlet-covered couch is the perfect place for an afternoon nap in front of the fireplace lined with narrow handmade bricks, or klompjes.
The library-cum-study, meanwhile, is a veritable wonder room. Cabinets of curiosities are filled with fascinating collections and objets, from shards of pottery dug up on the farm and original VOC Delftware to massive ammonites and an encyclopedic collection of butterflies.
The ensuite bathrooms evoke a grand Edwardian spa and the lavish luxury of indoor plumbing. You may find yourself looking for excuses to splash about in the massive circular bath or languish under the rain shower in the wet room.
Babylonstoren Manor House has been continuously occupied for 240 years, and in Roos’s hands is a fresh, living celebration of Cape Dutch style. In her interpretation, the house connects the past to the future in the most gracious and subtle way, making it feel like a modern home that hasn’t forgotten its history.
photos by Greg Cox