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Africa’s most photographed house

REAL ESTATE
By Brigid Chemweno | July 31st 2014
The outside of the most photographed house in Africa, The African Heritage House, situated at Mlolongo along Mombasa road Nairobi. [PHOTO: MOSES OMUSULA/STANDARD]

African Heritage House, located on Mombasa Road near Mlolongo, is the most photographed house in Africa.

Built between 1989 and 1994, the house was designed by Alan Donovan, the co-founder of the African Heritage Pan-African Galleries, with former Vice-President, the late Joseph Murumbi and his wife Sheila.

Donovan crossed Sahara in a Volkswagen bus in 1970 on his way to Kenya. On arrival, he found a house on the Athi plains, which overlooked the Nairobi National Park. He decided that it was his perfect setting for the mud house of his dreams. He started to draw the house, which he built on a nearby site two decades later.

To get acquainted with the style of his dream house, Donovan visited magnificent mud palaces in Southern Morocco before he could start to build his house. He went on an expedition to learn how the Moroccan builders make mud bricks with straw and mud. Later, he opted for stone blocks and plaster.

The original designs in the house were reworked by architect David Bristow and Joanna Bristow and the drawings and the drying cement, which was shaped by hand, was done by artisans and local craftsmen.

Inside the house, African arts and crafts can be seen on every wall, floor and ceiling. They include textile, furniture, wood, masonry, pottery and weaponry.

The idea of curved house posts and ornately carved shutters reflect the influence of the old palaces of Nigeria, inspired by the old palace in Benin, which was destroyed by the British.

Artsy

On the house side entry is a carved Lamu door and coral stone walls with elaborately carved plasterwork with beaded items from Shango shrine in Nigeria and handmade wrought iron furniture, also from Nigeria.

Carpets on the floor include fabled woven Angora tapestry from Madagascar and a woven mat from Zimbabwe. Maasai shield designs have also been used in the walls and ceilings. One bathroom in the house has its own garden, which is a favourite of many visitors.

Kate Baumgarten, an Australian artist who had set up a haven in a reconstructed mosque in Lamu, provided shutters and folding doors from her workshops.

Most of the other furniture in the house were either made on site or came from Lamu and other smaller islands. The roof at the top is one of Donovan’s favourite rooms and he spends most of his time enjoying the view of Nairobi National Park at this point.

Carol Beckwith, an American artist and photographer, alongside artists from African Heritage, helped him paint the interior of the upstairs sitting room in patterns from a mud cloth of Mali and the wondrous Bakuba textiles from Zaire.

The house is one of the first houses in Africa to be featured in the prestigious US Architectural Digest in 1996. Photographer Tim Beddow drove from London across Egypt and Ethiopia to photograph the house.

He arrived with his girlfriend in a Land Rover full of photographic equipment. He spent several days utilising the natural light that pervades the house in early morning and later in the afternoon.

The house appeared on the cover of Marie Claire in Paris and featured in Marie Claire in Spain and Italy. Models were flown in for a photo shoot for the St John Collection for Sax Fith Avenue in New York.

A photographer from Paris, Deidi von Schaewen, photographed the house for an important new book in three languages by Taschen Publishers.

Trust

It is proposed that the house be made a national heritage site by the National Museums of Kenya and Donovan intends to transform the house, its properties and collections into a trust for the people of Kenya, Africa and the world to enjoy as a permanent museum.

In an interview with Home & Away, Donovan said the house will be administered as an advanced African Studies Research Centre by the American University of Washington, DC in conjunction with local universities, linked to the Murumbi legacies at the Kenya National Archives and the National Museums of Kenya.

Donovan says the African Heritage House, which was to be a lasting tribute to Murumbi, could be demolished to give way for the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) unless a way is found to straighten the curves and bends of the route of the 1898 steam train.

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