Driefontein for rent, to a caring tenant
Fancy renting a 100-year-old farmhouse house in the northern suburbs of Joburg, the only remaining original farmhouse? Driefontein in Parkmore recently had its exterior renovated and now waits quietly on the corner of 15th Street and Coleraine Avenue for a caring tenant to fill its rooms with busyness.
The modest house, built in 1906 as a typical Highveld farmhouse and now a heritage site, has five large rooms, several fireplaces, a small pantry, and attractive sash windows and wooden floors. Ceilings are tongue and groove and painted black, and there is a small cellar.
The house belongs to the City’s Johannesburg Property Company (JPC). The exterior was restored last year, while the interior awaits restoration, to be done to coincide with the needs of a tenant. In particular the floors will need restoration, which the City hopes will be done by the tenant, with an adjustment to the rental to compensate for the cost. Because of its age and status, the house may not be altered in any way.
The property still retains two four-metre tall water tanks, left as reminders of early farming life.
The City hopes to get tenants who are concerned about the heritage of the house, like community or cultural societies or associations.
Lungile Xhakaza, portfolio manager with the JPC, says a call for tenders was advertised on 7 July. Several tender proposals have already been received, and the closing date is midday on Friday, 28 July.
The house has a solid stone base and white-washed walls and an iron roof. It has a well-maintained garden, with toilets situated in the small outbuildings.
The house belonged to Leo Weber, son of Max, a Swiss archaeologist who was the first curator of the Johannesburg geological museum. Leo died in 1980, leaving the house to his son Ralph, who lives in Germany.
In the early 1980s the house was under threat with a possible road widening scheme in the area. But in 1983 the scheme was dropped and the house was saved. In August 1983 the house the sold on auction and bought by Dr Bruno Foli, who gave the house to the Sandton council in 1989, to be used as a “cultural centre and the headquarters of the Sandton Historical Foundation”, according to the Sandton Chronicle of 21 July.
In 1990 renovations were done to the house and the ablution block was built. Family graves in a nearby woodland were moved and the gravestones lie in the garden of Driefontein. In the process the original kitchen and bathroom, both considerably dilapidated, were demolished.
The house is today surrounded by upmarket houses and townhouse complexes, where once a busy farming settlement existed, supplying the town’s fresh fruit and vegetable needs.
History of Driefontein
Dr Jane Carruthers has written a short history of the farm Driefontein, and according to her, the first owner of the large property called Driefontein was LP van Vuuren. He sold it to JJC Erasmus who sold the property to Johannes Lodewikus Pretorius, who came into possession of 3422 morgen, stretching from Witkoppen to Craighall. The three springs suggested by the title have not been located but the Braamfontein Spruit ran through the original property.
In 1877 Pretorius sold a third of the farm, around 894 morgen, to Jan Antonie Smit (the south-eastern part of Bryanston), and continued to farm the remainder of Driefontein, writes Carruthers.
When Pretorius died in 1888 the farm was divided among his nine sons, each of them paying £60 for a 280 morgen share. The value of the land had arisen considerably since 1886 when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand.
In 1890 one of the sons, Gerhardus Jacobus, bought out his brothers’ portions and consolidated the farm again. But as the town spread northwards, he sold off portions, one of which went to Herbert Gladstone Nolan, who sold it to Adolf and Elsa Wilhelmi, who, seeking adventure, arrived in Johannesburg from Germany in 1891. In 1893 they bought 51 morgen and they planted fruit trees - some of which still exist on the property - and supplied the growing town with produce.
Elsa sub-divided the land and sold 9.56 morgen to the Salvation Army, and 42 morgen to Ralph Sandilands Arderne. At the beginning of the South African War of 1899-1902 she returned to Germany, where her husband joined her, avoiding imprisonment for fighting with the Boers.
They returned to South Africa at the end of the war, and, having no land, they became tenants on their previous farm, courtesy of Arderne. In 1906, recounts Carruthers, Arderne generously gave them back almost half of the land – some 20 morgen - he had bought from them in 1899.
Elsa farmed this land and in 1937 sold it to Philip Arnold, who built a large house, now the property of the Sandton Field and Study Centre, acquired in 1977.
Elsa’s daughter, Freya, was given a two-morgen piece of land by Arderne, and the Driefontein farmhouse was built, situated on the top of the hill, with the Braamfontein Spruit half a kilometre to the north of the house.
In the meantime, another immigrant, Max Weber, bought land adjoining Freya’s piece, and subsequently married her, extending her farm with the addition of his two pieces – 5,5 morgen and 10,2 morgen.
Max Weber was born in 1874 and trained as a manufacturer of scientific instruments. In his early 1920s, says researcher Avril Reid, he decided to go to America but on the dockside of Marseilles harbour he impulsively changed his mind and jumped aboard a ship for Cape Town.
He is next found fighting for the Boers in Natal, where he was wounded and sent to Joburg to recover. But the town had just been taken by the British and, fearing arrest as an “uitlander”, he took refuge north of the town, possibly on Driefontein, where he met the Wilhelmi family, says Reid. In 1900 he moved north, possibly meeting up with Adolf Wilhelmi, who was fighting with Boer commander General de la Rey.
After the war he developed a “passionate interest” in geology and became an “accomplished geologist”, building a laboratory near the farmhouse. He later became curator of the Johannesburg geological museum.
He was appointed consultant geologist to the Messina copper mine, and friend and partner to the geologist Dr Hans Merensky.
“Over the years Max Weber developed a special reputation for recognising different minerals and he was a scientist of distinction,” says Reid.
He is described by author Juliet Marais Louw in the 1976 book, Wagon-tracks and orchards, early days in Sandton. At the time he lived on the nearby Benmore Farm, as a “modest and self-effacing man”. She describes his laboratory as having the “air of an alchemist’s den”.
The laboratory was later altered by Leo, Max and Freya’s son and became known as Railway Cottage because of the number of railway sleepers used in the alteration. It was demolished in 1990.
Weber died in 1948 and Freya continued to run the farm before she died in 1982, leaving the farm to be divided between their sons, Normi and Leo.
Louw, who was born in 1910, recounts with much affection her relationship with Freya, whom she first met with her two sons.
Louw describes her as “working on the farm like a man: ploughing, planting crops and flowers, pruning fruit trees, taking her produce to Newtown market”.
”To me she always seemed to enjoy wholeheartedly everything she did,” adds Louw.
Freya had married Max when she was 17, he 34. As a child, she was taught by her mother but at 12 she was sent to the German School but she was so homesick and cried so much that her father brought her home and she never went to school again. She continued to be taught by her mother and Max gave her violin lessons.
”She was an extremely intelligent woman, good and kind and true as steel,” says Louw.
In her mother’s day there was a little shop and post office on the farm, called Post Office Freya. Her mother worked hard on the farm, home schooling her children, at the same time fighting to get a school built in the area. She was a great reader, and, says Carruthers, “she had a great sense of humour and a bubbling personality which endeared her to everyone who met her”.
Freya’s father Adolf had dammed a section of the Braamfontein spruit and it became a favourite picnic place for the German community in the town.
Max’s income from the Messina Copper Mines meant that the family didn’t need to rely on farming to earn a living, but Freya loved farm work and “continued to the end of her life more or less as she had done in the lean years of her girlhood”.
During the depression, says Louw, she helped out many families, giving them money or accommodation.
She used to make trips to the Johannesburg library in town and bring back books for the family and her mother, who read in German, Afrikaans, English, Hollands and a little French.
Louw recalls her visits to the Driefontein house, where “everybody was always busy and yet there was such a feeling of peace”. And, despite family tragedies, it was “big, strong capable Freya, who was the gentle one; warm-hearted, patient, understanding, humorous, compassionate”, who Louw remembers best.
Update: 13 December 2017
The Parkmore Community Association (PCA) now rents the house, where they have been operating since June this year. "The vision is to create a community facility that provides flexible work and meeting spaces for those who work from home, or require desk space but not a full office, or for committees to use for meetings," explains Kate Wardle, the chairperson of the PCA. She adds that she would like the house to be used for Domestic Watch meetings too.
A Mr Khumalo moved into the outbuildings over 20 years ago, and had been instrumental in preventing the house from being vandalised. He passed away unexpectedly this year. His daughter lived on the property with him, and she will remain for the next year or so.
The PCA plays an important role in the suburb, by maintaining security in Parkmore, as well as reporting potholes and cleaning the parks and sidewalks. The City of Joburg renovated the house recently, and it is in excellent condition. There is no running water in the house, but water is available in the outbuildings. Wardle says the City has chosen not to run water to the house, as it would not have originally had on-tap water.
The PCA has worked hard to clear the overgrown garden, and the beginnings of an orderly garden are taking shape. "The next step is to secure the property, get people to invest and create a partnership to achieve the dream of community working space," adds Wardle. She hopes to also arrange access to the house to local schoolchildren. And in 2018 the PCA hopes to get a blue heritage plaque, recognising its historical importance.
The PCA has a lease for 9 years and 11 months.