Pinelands Home

WORDS Annette Klinger PHOTOS Jan Ras PRODUCTION Mark Serra

Meticulous restoration – not renovation – was key in giving architect Robert Silke’s 1938 Arts and Crafts Revival home in Pinelands a new lease of life.

There’s a certain witchiness to Robert Silke‘s new family home in the Cape Town suburb of Pinelands. A darkly dramatic front gate framed by a brick archway reading Caverswall opens onto a narrow garden path, which leads you to a house that’s equal parts imposing and intriguing, with a steeply pitched, clay-tiled roof, spiral chimneys and brickwork finish – all in the same burnt-honey shade. “It’s basically a gingerbread house, right?” says Robert, taking in the facade of the 1938 Arts and Crafts Revival structure he shares with partner Gideon and their one-year-old daughter Lilith.

“Pinelands was established in the 1920s, when there was a big push around the world for an approximation of English country living,” says Robert. “There was a planner in the UK called Ebenezer Howard, who invented the suburb, which he originally called a garden city. The idea gained global traction in reaction to the Spanish flu – people felt that the way they lived in cities wasn’t healthy. Pinelands was actually the third garden city in the world.”

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Pinelands, which has since been declared a heritage protection zone, is a stronghold of Arts and Crafts Revival architecture – a movement pioneered by John Ruskin and William Morris in the 1800s as an antidote to the industrialisation of the Victorian era. True to the vernacular, the human hand is visible in every facet of Caverswall, from the intricately patterned brickwork of the double chimneys to the irregular, wavy edges of the teak board cladding embellishing the dormer windows.

Robert Silke
House, garden and sky conspire to evoke John Constable’s The Hay Wain.

“Designed by Walgate and Elsworth, Caverswall was built as a showhouse for a multinational company, the Hume Pipe Corporation,” says Robert. “The company originally made ceramic sewage pipes, but later expanded into bricks and roof tiles. They decided to buy the biggest plot in this area of Pinelands and build a ‘palace’ that would showcase everything they made out of clay. But just as they finished it, World War II broke out, and the whole enterprise went to seed because no- one was building anything. By the time the war was over, people were building modern houses.”

Robert remembers being mesmerised by Caverswall in his 20s when driving past it on his way to a friend’s house parties. Bought on tender in 2021, the once-stately residence had been abandoned and had fallen into disrepair – but Robert maintains his objective from day one was to restore what was there, not renovate the structure out of its identity. “For me as a modern architect, the joy with this house was in not having to make decisions. I was effectively the apprentice working for the master, trying to establish what the original architect’s intention was.I was not responsible for the house being good; it was already good. I was working in a custodial capacity, not a creative capacity.”

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That’s not to say that Robert didn’t approach the restoration process with the same slavish attention to detail as he does his new builds. The aged roof tiles, bloomed with lichen, were left in peace, with only the broken tiles replaced. The weathered wood was revitalised with a special oil Robert spent weeks choosing. The gutters, all rusted through, were replaced, but with ones that matched the design and cast-iron finish of the originals. “It was almost like scraping barnacles off the hull of a boat,” he says, smiling.

While, aesthetically, the interior of Caverswall is a radical departure from the exterior, Robert extended the same purist principles to the inside of the house, working with what was already there instead of bringing in the sledgehammers. As many of the fixtures and fittings had been vandalised or stolen in the years the house stood empty, the work inside entailed Robert fastidiously tracking down everything from washbasins and chrome taps to light pendants – and even kitchen units that would ring true to the zeitgeist of 1938. And much of the interior’s transformation was achieved thanks to the varying shades of pale, whimsical pink that Robert chose for the walls.

“The challenge was to make the house less serious about itself,” he says. “One of the few avenues of intervention without messing up a house is paint. Often the impulse with old houses is to get rid of things – but what you should be telling yourself is, ‘Slow down, slow down, slow down…’.”

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