Cullinan House: Art nouveau in Houghton
Built in 1910, Houghton’s heritage gem, the Cullinan House, is the only remaining example of Art Nouveau architecture in Johannesburg.
Noble Living in Houghton
Designed in the classic-revivalist style of Robert Howden, the distinguished architect who would become first president of the South African Institute of Architects, and built by Sir Thomas Cullinan, master builder, founder of the Premier Diamond Mine and namesake of the largest diamond ever discovered, Cullinan House in Upper Houghton is certainly not lacking in pedigree. And neither is its noble lineage lost on its current owners, American-born Lawson Ricketts and Nick Geimer, who have zealously guarded Cullinan’s legacy for the past three years. ‘Nick was overseas when I spotted the ad for the house,’ recalls Lawson. ‘At the time, I had no idea where Houghton Ridge was but, map in hand, I found the little enclave of schools and oak-lined avenues and then I pulled up to the most magnificent house… It was a diamond in the rough, for sure.’
The ‘rough’ Lawson refers to is the state of dishevelled grandeur he confronted when entering the indomitable Art Nouveau fortress with her Greco-Roman symmetrical facade, sandstone architraves and crown of classical pediments. ‘Despite being 100 years old, Howden’s impeccable exterior craftsmanship had stood the test of time,’ he says. ‘But the inside was another story.’
‘Only one small crack in the brickwork had to be repointed, new gutters fashioned to match the existing half-rounds, and a paint job done to the roof.’ – Lawson Ricketts
Art Nouveau-Saving Renovations
Lawson explains how the house had undergone numerous renovations during the course of its life as residence to everyone from Joseph Mitchell, Cullinan’s brother-in-law and business associate, to an order of Dominican friars. ‘The original ceramic floor was in such a poor state that we had to make the painful decision to pull it up and replace it with Georgian slate and marble,’ he recalls, adding that bathrooms were also given a sorely needed facelift. ‘We put in modern reproductions of Victorian taps, all imported from London, and added Carrara marble trimmings and underfloor heating.’
The couple also installed a designer kitchen outfitted with top-drawer Miele appliances, and all the windows and doors were reconditioned with solid-brass hardware sourced in the US. Off the conservatory, the terracotta patio and pool deck were removed and replaced with slate and an outdoor living room and braai then instated. An interior designer by training, Lawson and his team at Plaid Cabbage Interiors then tackled the task of dressing the rejuvenated home. ‘We followed a simple brief: Respect the heritage of the structure but incorporate furnishings and fabrics with a modern durability and luxury,’ he explains.
Culling out Cullinan Garden’s Best Plantings
He and Nick also disentangled the home from the ungroomed plantings that engulfed it, removing 17 conifers and other ‘invader’ species and discovering, in so doing, a subterranean wall that would inspire the layout of the back garden. Retaining walls were straightened and 250 rose bushes, hydrangeas and boxwood planted. Lawson is particularly fond of the charming side garden that flows from the dining room. ‘It creates an additional entertaining space for eight months of the year when the weather in Joburg is divine until as late as eight at night,’ he says. When asked what he loves most about Cullinan House, Lawson is unhesitating: ‘The fact that, in only three years, we have been able to reimagine the grand spaces that were originally designed for one of Johannesburg’s most prominent families.’ Nick’s favourite is the bar that Lawson designed especially for him – and where the couple can be found most evenings, rooted beside the open fire, martinis in hands and dogs at feet.
‘The wallpaper in the dining room was chosen from a William Morris collection and is representative of wall coverings that would have been typical in Edwardian homes of the early 1900s.’ – Lawson Ricketts
In the Houghton Zone
Situated to the north-east of the Johannesburg city centre, on the southern portion of Houghton Ridge, and separated from Lower Houghton by the East-West section of Houghton Drive, Upper Houghton was developed as a residential area around the turn of the 20th century, primarily by Barney Barnato’s Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company (the name Houghton Estate – by which it’s also called – is derived from Houghton Estate Gold Mining Company, which initially purchased the property in 1888). Declared a National Heritage Area, seventy percent of the suburb’s surviving structures are located on properties that were developed between 1900 and 1930. Lawson Ricketts, owner of Cullinan House, highlights his favourite parts of the area.
The Munro Drive: Named after John Munro, a director of the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company, and initially built from stacked stone in 1919, this circuitous scenic drive connects Upper and Lower Houghton.
The Wilds: Donated to the Municipality of Johannesburg in 1924 by the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company, The Wilds – which covers an area of 18 hectares – was established as an indigenous garden in 1937 and declared a National Monument in 1981.
The ‘Education Corridor’: With St John’s College, King Edward VII School (KES) and Roedean School all within a 10-minute walk from Upper Houghton, the morning school run is a breeze.
The Upper Houghton Heritage Open Garden Weekend: Over the weekend of 4–5 October, a handful of Johannesburg’s most magnificent gardens – Cullinan House’s among them – are open to the public for viewing.
- Firzt Realty Company: firztonline.co.za, web reference FZN15043. Asking price R11,5 million.
- Plaid Cabbage Interiors: plaidcabbageinteriors.com
- Upper Houghton Residents Association: upperhoughton.org
- Upper Houghton Open Garden Weeken: gardensofthegoldencity.co.za
Text: Jocelyn Warrington