Cinema Dreaming of a palm-fringed paradise of the movies, this couple spliced comfort and luxury to edit a serene Sri Lankan retreat with star quality.
The young English bride of a rich tea plantation owner who comes to live at his property in Ceylon battles nature and isolation. So goes the story line of Elephant Walk, a 1954 Paramount Pictures film set in the lush jungles of what is now known as Sri Lanka. With beautiful cinematography and the heady presence of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Finch, the film was impressive in its day.
Young Englishman Tony Bannister was utterly intrigued by the film when he first viewed it as a teenager and it ignited in him a passion for all things colonial: the tea plantations, the way of life in Ceylon at that time, the lush landscape and an appreciation of size and perspective of the design and aspect of space in houses from that era. His fascination with the teardrop-shaped island has been present ever since.
Many years later Tony’s partner, hotelier Paul Walters, was working in Bali as general manager of two Ubud resorts (The Serai, now Alila, and The Chedi Club), both conceived by the visionary behind Aman Resorts, Adrian Zecha. The resort group was developing a number of properties in Sri Lanka at the time and Paul also had a growing interest in the country.
In August 2005, while the island nation was still struggling in the aftermath of the tsunami of the year before, Tony and Paul decided to visit. While there they met long-time resident of Galle Fort, Charles Hulse, a keen advocate of Sri Lanka who acted as a matchmaker for people looking to buy there.
Charles took Tony and Paul for a drive to view a one-hectare property in Angulugaha, not far from Galle. “I got goosebumps when we arrived,” says Tony. The small house on the property was built in traditional Sinhalese style with good bones and it was owned by a Sri Lankan family who wanted to move to the capital city, Colombo.
Three months after their return to Sydney, where they were living, the pair received a call from Charles saying that he could get the property for them at a good price if they were still interested. Having first thought the idea was a folly, the couple had a re-think and decided to take the plunge. They embarked on making their dream a reality firstly by planning the renovations for Ivory House.
Tony is head of Scout, a global trend forecasting business for fashion, colour and interiors so, with his expertise and Paul’s resort experience, they were sure they had all bases covered for this project. Both men knew what they wanted to do with the design and engaged an English father and son team who were local developers and project managers to translate their ideas through the construction process.
First, they hired a local builder but after a year of little progress and experiencing some frustrating setbacks, they met a more experienced Sri Lankan builder who said, “I can see the pain in your eyes and I’ll prove that we can make this right”. They swapped builders and proceeded to make headway.
The low ceilings of the original house were raised by 1.5 metres around the perimeter of the building and up to three metres at the highest point to create the airy interiors. Then the house was extended on two sides to accommodate four generous bedrooms, each with an ensuite, and three with private stone-walled outdoor showers as well.
A deep U-shaped verandah, designed in the local style with stately timber columns, was constructed to wrap around the front facade of the house and the area is defined by paving in roughhewn granite tiles.
The external walls were painted in Dulux ‘Prism White’, the doors and shutters in high-gloss ‘Old Monterey Grey’ and the external columns in matt ‘Minerva Grey’.
Inside, the floors are in a concrete and white cement mix that was finished in both wax and polish. As the floors have aged and weathered an enchanting eggshell crackle has appeared, giving it the look of an ancient ceramic glaze.
Aiming for a simple, pared-back colonial style, Tony and Paul set about sourcing vintage and antique furniture and decorative items for the house, such as the ebony wood and woven cane plantation chairs. Many other items were custom made locally, such as the brushed stainless-steel wall lights, pendant lanterns and even the new bolts that fitted onto the original timber window shutters. New cane outdoor settings made in Colombo, and antique reproduction furniture in jackwood were stained in an ebony finish.
Soft furnishings were custom-made by Souk 58 Interior Design, hand-embroidered floral bed coverlets were sourced from Jaipur, and Afghan goat-hair rugs in geometric patterns were unearthed locally, all adding to the layers of simple luxury, enhanced by a collection of works by Sri Lankan artists.
Paul took charge of the lighting scheme, creating a dreamy, resort-style sensory experience as the lights from the interior, exterior and landscape work in tandem to create a warm and relaxing atmosphere, perfect for the tropical location.
“Ivory House presented Tony and I with the opportunity to create our own piece of paradise, to build a place with a unique serenity and character where we had the freedom to bring together all the inspirations and ideas we had collected and collated over the years on our travels to many wonderful exotic destinations,” says Paul.
The property makes the perfect halfway point between their lives in London and the Scout forecasting headquarters in Sydney. “Ivory House is our downtime and the transition zone between two busy worlds, being exactly halfway between the cities. It’s why we’re able to visit as often as we do,” explains Tony.
The pair lease Ivory House to visitors when they are not in town. “We like people to treat the house as if it’s their own home. We’ve both put so much into it and hope that it’s our point of difference that really stands out,” says Tony.
It’s certainly a relaxing and serene property, nestled in a little village on the island’s south coast, located among tranquil paddy fields. The sounds of village life, children playing, local music or monks chanting at a nearby temple are a comforting soundtrack to days spent recharging at Ivory House.
For holiday bookings, visit evinsl.com.