WORDS Sam Woulidge PHOTOS Micky Hoyle PRODUCTIONS Sumien Brink
When Jacques Erasmus and Hein Liebenberg bought a 160-year-old house in the country and imagined a modern conversion, they had the heart to listen to the old dame.
She often enters the conversation, this house of theirs. They speak of her as if she were a friend. A gentle but strong, dignified woman. One who has experienced much and is deserving of respect.
“They” are Jacques Erasmus, designer, curator of beauty, chef and restaurant owner of popular Cape Town restaurant Hemelhuijs, and Hein Liebenberg, who works in the financial services industry.
When the couple bought the 1854 Cape Dutch house in Montagu, they knew only that it was the second-oldest house in town (the oldest being the museum building) and that they would have to do major renovations.
They envisioned a steel-and-glass conversion that would sit daringly but comfortably alongside the Cape Dutch features of the house, but the grande dame decreed otherwise. Jacques says it’s as if the house were a living entity and that both he and Hein had to adhere to her desires. What ensued was akin to a conversation with her.
“For a year before we started renovating, I spent every weekend sleeping on a mattress on the floor of the empty entrance hall. It was important to do this, because only then did I hear the house. I could hear her breathe. I could hear the creaking of the wood, the sounds the pipes make, how the wind whispers through the rooms and where she ached. And in doing so I realised that ours would have to be a historical renovation; it wasn’t so much what we wanted the house to be but rather what it should be.”
Historical renovation implies formality, yet this house is anything but. Although it is filled with precious antiques, this is very much a lived-in home, a space where everything, no matter its value, is used. In the kitchen, Jacques’s favourite room because it reminds him of the farm kitchen of his youth, stands a well-worn butcher’s block, hollowed out through use over many years. On a large table is a 300-year-old ceramic dish filled with figs. Jacques loves old things because of their stories. “Everything in the house has a story. And it may be precious, but it is not untouchable. We do not live in a museum.”
“Trek uit julle skoene,” Jacques and Hein encouraged us as we crossed the threshold of their home. Standing in the meditative space of an almost austere entrance hall, we could have been forgiven for thinking the request to take off our shoes was to protect such a historical house, but we would have been wrong. For this was the home of friends, and it’s as warm and welcoming as they are. And walking barefoot is what you do in your own home. It is also, according to Jacques, a physical way to emotionally connect with the house.
So we did as requested and padded barefoot through the house, appreciating the warm, polished surfaces of centuries-old wooden floorboards and the cool, smooth indentations of bricks underfoot.
The library, which he refers to as the room of curiosities, is Hein’s favourite space. Here, he tells me, “The memories come flooding back. Things that come out of my childhood, like the desk from my father’s study, things from Jacques’s family home. Things we bought on our travels together. This is where our respective journeys come together and our life together is revealed.”