The villa where time stands still

PHOTOS: Dook | PRODUCTION: Annemarie Meintjies | WORDS: Jacqueline Myburgh Chemaly

In the warm, green heart of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, an architectural jewel has been preserved and found new life as a luxurious spa and urban retreat.

It isn’t often that Johannesburg preserves a treasure. Although laws protecting heritage buildings are in place, this remains a frontier town teeming with quick-fix design cowboys who are content to take chances with only the bottom line in their sights and won’t hesitate to compromise a piece of history if it suits them.

Happily, this was not to be the fate of the famous Villa d’Este, the eccentric wedding-cake-like house on the western-most corner of Saxonwold’s main drag, Cotswold Drive.

Since its construction in the 1920s, the Italian-style Renaissance home, with its collection of fountains and columns, has been a private residence that could only be glimpsed, intriguingly, from the road and was spoken of in flowery language by the few who visited there.

History, open to the public

Now this historic building houses the flagship spa belonging to the Camelot Group and the frescoed doors of Villa d’Este have been thrown open to those in search of rejuvenation and relaxation.

A unique urban sanctuary has emerged out of what used to be one of the most secretive spots in this city and, thanks to the new owners’ sensitive approach, none of the historical charm has been lost in the process.

When she acquired the property a year ago, Camelot owner Debbie Merdjan decreed that nothing of Villa d’Este’s original design should be destroyed in the creation of the spa – only added to. After all, this was a masterpiece by architect Gordon Leith, once a student of Sir Herbert Baker who created so many of Johannesburg’s landmark buildings.

Preserve but enhance

So it was up to consulting architect and interior designer, Leana Selsick, to find the design signature that would both work with the highly embellished Renaissance architecture and enhance the indulgent nature of a spa experience.

It was clear from the start that Villa d’Este would never be a classically clinical and Zen-like spa. Starting with the Temple of Love in the garden, to every embellished corner and parapet, this was to become a temple to luxury and indulgence.

The team took its design inspiration from the existing building plus the often decadent city in which it lives, and decided upon finishes that are plush and luxurious. The secret to the aesthetic success of the new-look Villa d’Este was not in any one decor style, says Leana, but rather in the flow of the buildings. And instead of taking away any of the over-the-top structures and designs, she simply added more.

Delights around every corner

Black and white, with touches of red and gilt, were identified as regal and luxurious colours and are a theme throughout. Every corner of Villa d’Este houses an unexpected delight and, where an existing detail or treatment has worked, it is repeated in other areas.

Treatment rooms are all individual with wallpaper, crystal chandeliers, plants, mirrors and moulding details designed to fill the senses with richness. The spa’s luxurious facilities include a heated vitality pool surrounded by the original Portuguese tiles that once surrounded the previous owners’ Jacuzzi. There is also a steaming Rasul chamber, complete with twinkling lights in the roof and a floatation pool with underwater lights and black-and-white mosaic tiles.

On the roof, the ultimate folly is a glass conservatory where visitors can choose either to enjoy a spa treatment under the green canopy of a gentle willow tree, or the tranquil sparkle of the evening sky.

In a secret corner of the garden, the new Birdcage restaurant offers stylish, healthy cuisine to complete the day’s indulgent experience.

Much of the Baroque-style furnishings and light fittings in Villa d’Este were sourced from Tom’s Art and the vintage style wallpaper is from Designers Guild. Unique objects and features come from trawling antique shops, markets and some are even from Debbie’s own mother’s cupboard.The oversized mirrors are proudly reproductions of the old Renaissance style.

Villa d’Este is an unexpected mix of the old, the not so old, the pretending-to-be-old and the unashamedly new. In other words, it’s perfectly Joburg.

• Camelot Villa d’Este: 011 646 5152, cnr. of Cotswold Drive and Jan Smuts Avenue, Saxonwold

• Camelot Spa Group: 086 111 4075,

• Leana Selsick: 082 576 2112,