A grand and sadly neglected property in Westcliff with unique views of surrounding suburbs sold for R7,1-million this week.
The property, built in typical Portuguese style in 1930 but vacant for the past three years, was sold to Ingrid Straude by Park Village Auctions on behalf of the estate of Julien Missak, who died in 1980. Two adjoining empty properties, erfs 716 (2 576m²) and 717 (2 524m²), sold for R1,350m and R1,460m respectively, to Dockrat Inc Attorneys.
This is the second attempt by Park Village Auctions to sell the properties - several weeks before this auction the three properties were sold to an American to be converted to corporate headquarters, but the sale fell through, very much to the relief of the new owner.
Straude, a communications consultant, said after the purchase that she was in a state of disbelief. “I don’t know how to describe it. I just identified with the house. Two days ago I felt that the house was mine.” She says that at the start of the auction on Thursday morning, she picked up a small piece of plaster from inside the house, and held on to it throughout the process – by the time her bid was accepted, about 10 minutes later, the plaster in her hand was just fine white crumbs.
“I must have a genetic disorder that compels me to take on these projects,” she says, laughing. She has renovated five homes since 1991 – three in Melville, one in Auckland Park, and one in Westcliff.
She has just sold her Westcliff house and hopes to move into the Missak house in the coming months, with her husband and son. She says she went to the first auction and was disappointed to have lost the house then, but the bidding just went too high for her. The aborted sale price was R12,3-million. Before this week’s auction, she says the market rumour was that the house would sell for between R6 and R8-million. She has looked at around 60 houses in the past months.
The house, a double storey on 5 896m² of land on the western edge of Westcliff ridge, has unusual views overlooking Melville, Auckland Park and Milpark, with the imposing University of Johannesburg RAU campus buildings peeping out from the ridges to the west.
It’s a small house by Westcliff standards, with only three bedrooms, but the wooden floors and staircase, and lovely pressed steel ceilings are all still in good condition, as is the large recessed fireplace in the entrance hall.
The wooden windows are protected by metal shutters, and the balcony over the arched entrance portico still offers the great views its owners have enjoyed for the past 75 years. Its beautiful Art Deco light fittings no longer enhance the 4m high ceilings, having been removed in 2004.
The garden is terraced, and stretches down to the road, with a wonderful enclosed garden with a central fountain at the bottom, surrounded by a row of jacarandas and large, mature conifers. Stone walls add an old-world feeling to the garden and house.
To the east of the house is a stone wine cellar, with a small veranda topped with tendrils of wisteria and honeysuckle. Immediately behind this is the kitchen garden, with still-existing hutches for rabbits, fowls and pigeons. South of the house is an extensive orchard of fruit trees, now part of the other two properties.
The house has provisional protection under the Heritage Resources Act of 1999, which means that no changes can be made to it without obtaining a permit from the Gauteng Provincial Heritage Resources Authority. The same applies to the two empty plots alongside it.
Whereas most people would be daunted by the prospect of a neglected house, with serious damp problems, an outdated kitchen, bathrooms that need attention, and a garden that that needs widespread planting, Straude sees it as “a fun project”.
She estimates it will take her 5-6 years to fully restore, at an estimated cost of R3-million. She plans to deal with the damp first, then move on to the kitchen, and build a swimming pool later. She hopes to pursue what appears to be a red theme in the garden – a large pointsettia tree is in glorious full bloom at the moment, along with a red bottlebrush shrub.
Her investment would then total R10,8m, an average price for houses in Westcliff, according to property company Lew Geffen. Houses on the market in Westcliff at the moment range from a low R2-million to R17-million.
Mohammed Dockrat of Dockrat Inc Attorneys says the syndicate that bought the two empty stands were uncertain of what they were going to do with the properties at this stage.
Origins of house
JM “Ginger” Fernandez, originally from Madeira, an island off Portugal, came to Johannesburg in the 1920s. He came from a tradition of small-scale market gardeners who constructed gardens on rocky, waterless ridges, using soil conservation and water management techniques that were applied to the steep, rocky property in Westcliff.
The terraced garden of the property is not just a series of regimented stepped rows running up the hill. Fernandez designed the garden with pathways, viewpoints, ponds and quiet places, but never drawing attention away from the classical stairways and balustrades up to the house.
Fernandez was involved with obtaining workers from Mozambique to work on the gold mines. At one point he had 100 mineworkers working on his property, constructing the gardens.
In 1950 Missak, the son of an Armenian Turk, bought the house. Missak was born in Belguim and trained as a doctor although he never qualified, having inherited wealth from his father, who made his fortune in manufacturing and selling cigars. He immigrated to South Africa around 1949 for health reasons, and lived in the house as a recluse.
In 1970 he took his holy orders with a Greek orthodox community in England, taking the name Brother Hieronimus, following the strict disciplined routine of monks while staying in the Westcliff house. He died in 1980 and is buried in Westpark Cemetery, leaving his collection of old books and fine porcelain to the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg), of which he was a founder member.
The collection remained in the house for several years, forming the core of the Flemish and Armenian Cultural Centre, maintained by the university in the house. After several burglaries, in which the most valuable pieces of the collection were removed, the reminder of the collection was taken to the rare book collection of the university’s library, where they remain.
The Armenian community in Johannesburg took over the house, but the gardens gradually diminished, even though the university employed a caretaker until December 2004, to look after the property. Over the years the property has been used for television shoots, bringing in a small income.
A planned 2003 auction was aborted by the Greek religious order in England and the local Armenian community. In 2004 an Armenian woman removed all the Art Deco light fittings, and along the way the furniture was sold. An iron gate was stolen in November 2004.
The proceeds from the sale – R9,910m – will go to the local Armenian community and the order in England.