SET IN STONE
This opulent Edwardian home on Johannesburg’s Westcliff Ridge has been the perfect setting for the romantic, eclectic style of its vintage fashion connoisseur owner for more than three decades
One of the most unaltered Edwardian Arts and Crafts homes on Westcliff Ridge in Johannesburg, Stonecrest is named after the carved crest on its brick façade. Set above two tall arched windows, the crest features a sleek hound at its centre. ‘One early owner had 17 dogs,’ says Annabelle Desfontaines, who’s lived here for the past 31 years. She has a few hounds herself who look similar to the one pictured, adding a sense of timelessness to the way she and her family inhabit Stonecrest – as if they’ve always been here. Her beautifully eclectic style only adds to the effect.
The house was built in 1902 and although it’s had alterations along the way – by Sir Herbert Baker in 1911 and Cowin & Ellis in 1935 – it retains the spirit of its age. It’s a classical colonial Arts and Crafts mansion – part-country pile, part-suburban grande dame, partcastle on a hill. From a plinth of local stone, the house rises with a broad layer of brick and a strip of stippled Tyrolean, topped with a slate roof. Terraced gardens fall away so that the bedrooms seem to be nestled among the treetops and the views carry the eye over the city.
Inside, it’s a maze of rooms. ‘There are four reception rooms that lead into each other and all of them are generously sized, with high ceilings,’ says Desfontaines. There are multiple levels, from the basement (now the TV room) and the study to the dining room and an upstairs realm of bedrooms, sunrooms, attics and landings. Off the kitchen, there’s a dedicated breakfast area and a wing that was once the butler’s suite.
These old Johannesburg mansions are often renovated beyond recognition, with successive generations trying to ‘priss them up’, as Desfontaines puts it. She did no such thing. What made her heart pound when she first laid eyes on the building was the recognition that Stonecrest’s original features and character were intact. Apart from adding the odd bath and shower, the structure’s remained unchanged under her care. In fact, when she’s ended up sanding skirtings or door frames to add a fresh layer of paint, she’s stopped before reaching the painting phase, preferring the way the sanding has revealed the layers of history and celebrates evidence of the passage of time.
As well as being a family home, over the years Stonecrest’s served as a base for Desfontaines’ vintage fashion store, Wizards Vintage, while one wing has been run as a B&B for some time. She’s held trunk shows here too and hosted occasional events, but rather than make any permanent alterations, Desfontaines’ approach has been simply to reinvent the spaces from the inside. 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’.
Similarly, her approach to furnishing has been loose and spontaneous: 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, yet layering, texture and patina remain central to the overall aesthetic.
There’s something quite masculine about the home, but at the same time, something whimsical and romantic. ‘There’s almost a monastic sombreness, yet it has depth,’ Desfontaines says, which is the perfect description of Stonecrest as it stands now – as if it were made to be inhabited in this way.
There’s a century of paint, life, energy and people who have been through this house. It’s so wonderful – why would I paint it a flat colour?
this page The raised stoep offers magnificent views of the city. opposite (clockwise, from top left) Desfontaines’ vintage fashion store, Wizards Vintage, operates from several of the reception rooms; while remaining true to the abode’s historic aesthetic, Stonecrest is infused with its owner’s eclectic personal style; a bright sunroom is used for growing succulents.
DESFONTAINES’ TIPS FOR LIVING IN A HISTORIC HOUSE
Resist the urge to fully modernise the home ‘I really love the features of old houses and because of that, I didn’t want to come into an old house and try to make it new.’
While maintenance is key, embrace the imperfections ‘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’s well looked after, but not trying to do plastic surgery on it. One needs the imperfections to show the history, otherwise it becomes just another bland, perfect house.’
Retain its authenticity ‘In the dining room is the original wallpaper from when we moved in 31 years ago. Most of it’s still in perfect condition and although there’s a bit of damage here and there, I love it. I think it’s beautiful and I wouldn’t like to have to change it.’
When making alterations, don’t try to completely reinvent the space ‘I make changes appropriate for what’s happening at the time and in a particular room.’
Marvel at its history ‘There’s a century of paint, life, energy and people who’ve been through this house. It’s so wonderful – why would I paint it a flat colour?’
I really love the features of old houses and because of that, I didn’t want to come into an old house and try to make it new
this page Stonecrest, Annabelle Desfontaines’ grand family home, dates back to 1902. opposite Surrounded by terraced gardens and resting on a stone plinth topped with layers of clay brick, the building’s classical exterior reveals its Arts and Crafts roots.
this page Symmetrical, high-arched windows wash the dining room with natural light. opposite A triple-volume hall panelled in dark wood is furnished with a delicately carved antique server.
this page Double doors lead into a high-volumed dining room with original wallpaper. opposite (clockwise, from top left) Many of the objetson display were collected on Desfontaines’ trips abroad; Art Deco tiles adorn the kitchen walls; in winter, Stonecrest’s interiors are warmed by 12 fireplaces; a mixed array of collectables creates a sense of timelessness in the home.
this spread With its carved stone fireplace, deep-buttoned velvet furniture , expansive bay windows and simultaneous sense of formality and comfort, the spacious study is one of Desfontaines’ favourite rooms.
this page A carved four-poster bed dominates the large master bedroom, which is warmed by Persian rugs and layered fabrics. opposite The addition of the occasional bath and shower, as in this guest bathroom, are among the few alterations Desfontaines has made to the home.