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Paulet House: Lessons from history

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Paulet House is a heritage building owned by the Jakes Gerwel Foundation; now this comfortable old home, set in beautiful gardens, has been restored into a haven and residency for writers.

At least 14 books and six plays will result from the establishment of Paulet House, a heritage building being re-invented as a guest house/residency for writers in Somerset East in the Eastern Cape.

The comfortable space owned by the Jakes Gerwel Foundation pays homage to the work of the former rector and vice chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, the late Professor Jakes Gerwel, whose area was in Afrikaans/Dutch language and literature.

He was director-general of the presidency when Nelson Mandela was in office. He died in 2012. Paulet House was built in 1825, the year Lord Charles Somerset sold off the Somerset Farm as erven and declared the area a town. It was one of the first houses to be built.

The entrance hall is always a welcoming space after the two-hour journey from Port Elizabeth. Picture: Michelle van Niekerk

The land had been part of the supply farm for the troops fighting the Frontier Wars, hence the proximity to the Old English Officer’s Mess. The Gerwels bought the house in 1993 and let it to tenants who were running a BnB.

Professor Gerwel bought the house with the intention of retiring to the town where he was born. In 2007 that the Gerwels did some renovations and came to Paulet for regular visits. In 2018 Gerwel’s wife Phoebe donated the house to the foundation to be used for the “benefit of the community”.

Foundation executive director and Afrikaans author Theo Kemp said 2019 would be the first year of the writers’ residency and would assist 20 writers. Much has gone into preparing the house for its new role, with planning and fundraising starting in 2017.

The back garden has many quiet spaces where residents can find inspiration and room to think and write. Picture: Michelle van Niekerk

Architect John Rennie, who specialises in the restoration of heritage buildings, contracted local builders Frans Taylor and Jacque Oelofse to do the renovations, which cost R1.5 million.

“The house had some major cracks and structural problems. The stairs were a concern, as they were very narrow and a wall at the top of the stairs had to be removed.”

Work began in October 2018 and was completed in February, in time for the arrival of the first group of writers. Working with a R1m budget the house was furnished with period pieces and accents suited to its spaces.

The task was overseen by local interior designer Michelle van Niekerk whose studio Nest Interiors is based in Port Elizabeth. “Paulet House has always been very close to my heart,” says Van Niekerk.

“I was privileged to meet Professor Gerwel years ago and the opportunity to decorate Paulet House has been an honour.” Most of the furniture was sourced from antique shops in Port Elizabeth. The Gerwel family donated the antique cupboards and brass beds.

One of three upstairs bedrooms with an en-suite bathroom. Picture: Michelle van Niekerk

“We had some challenges with the large pieces for upstairs as the stairway is extremely narrow. But I used some of the chairs meant for upstairs in the lounge instead. We sourced a few antiques in Somerset East too. The best day in the planning was when I realised our budget would run to Persian rugs.” 

Van Niekerk opted for warm colour schemes that flow from one room to the next. The rooms have goose down duvets, 500 thread-count linen, mohair blankets, electric blankets and plush robes. Several are en suite.

Original art is being added piece by piece. In the dining room are a series of black-and-white photos taken by Rashid Lombard of Gerwel with various luminaries from Madiba to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Thabo Mbeki.

The formal lounge with some of the re-upholstered pieces of furniture. Picture: Michelle van Niekerk

Kemp has been acting as host and Van Niekerk as resident chef, a task she considers a privilege. “It feeds my soul as cooking is my other passion in life.” Van Niekerk has also been training long-time Paulet House staffer Beneatha Adams in the fine art of running a guest house and a top quality kitchen.

Of the four groups who have residency this year, the foundation’s writer’s project in collaboration with NB Publishers, sees unpublished writers working one-on-one with mentors/editors Suzette Myburgh and Francois Bloemhof on their manuscripts for four days at the end of every quarter.

At the end of this year, Kemp will present four manuscripts to NB with an option to publish.

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