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For Sh300 million, own Africa’s ‘most photographed house’ in Mlolongo!

‘That house is like being in a dream’, said William Bellamy, US Ambassador to Kenya

Mud dreams: British billionaire Sir Richard Branson was one among high profile guests in the house where many famous Kenyan couples have also said ‘I do’ under the “wedding tree”, an old Acacia at the front lawn of the African Heritage House in Mlolongo.
[Cover photo: Deidi van Schaewen]

By April Mbalu

Contributing Editor/Lifestyle

The priceless African Heritage House, Kenya’s most famous private home and ‘the most photographed house in Africa’ has a price tag after all. For Sh300 million you can own this scenic pad in Mlolongo, Machakos County where it squats on seven acres overlooking the Nairobi National Park.

Owned by art collector, Alan Donovan, it took 12 years to build after discarding the initial idea of a round walled hut like house on a cliff.

See, his parcel of land had no cliff and he thought it would be challenging furnishing a rounded house, anyway. He stuck with the mud walled design from the advice of architect, the late David Bristow of Nairobi’s Triad Architects-whose efforts include; Times Tower, Corner House, UAP Towers.

The Swahili styled makuti thatching was designed by musician and architect, Joy Mboya

Bury me here: News that the African Heritage House was to be demolished to make way for the Standard Gauge Railway took owner Alan Donovan straight to the hospital in 2015. High blood pressure, the doctor said. Born in Colorado, USA, 80 years ago, Donovan desires to be buried around his beloved masterpiece.

Bristow mused up the cascading forms of the African Heritage House while his daughter, Joanna Bristow, designed the exterior to achieve Donovan’s dream of a house which was “as African as possible; the architecture, the décor, the furniture and all the other elements.” Joanna was then the creative designer at Donovan’s African Heritage Gallery. She now runs Joanna Bristow Jewellery in Marrakech, Morocco.

The three floor affair has a terraced garden on the flat roof top with a pool extension starring Swahili styled makuti thatching designed by musician and architect, Joy Mboya, then a singer at African Heritage Gallery.

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But instead of mud, considering the rainfall around Mlolongo, Donovan went for stone blocks from Athi River quarries which were plastered with earth colours giving the house its distinctive, quaint appearance, protruding beams and all. The interior ceilings are held together by mangrove roots from Kenya’s coast.

Aesthetic richness and a mausoleum of its extinct wonders

God was not in a hurry: The African Heritage Gallery held global tours showcasing African art and artifacts, jewelry, fashion and fabrics with musicians, models and acrobats in tow. Among others they included musician Joy Mboya, Miss Kenya Khadija Adam (above) and later Miss Africa and Mr Kenya, Mickey Ragos, were the others in that cohort that later included Jabali Africa.
If you have ever bought anything from the various Maasai markets in Nairobi, just know the idea came from African Heritage Gallery where African Heritage Buying Day were held most Tuesdays.

William Bellamy, US ambassador to Kenya and whose farewell party was held there in 2006 said “that house is like being in a dream.”

The Los Angeles Times termed the house with turreted facade and a tower bearing the geometric designs of a Nigerian emir’s palace as “both a trove of a continent’s aesthetic richness and a mausoleum of its extinct wonders.”

The prestigious Architectural Digest described it as “rising from the serene Kenyan plain, like an outcropping of earth, a vision of usefulness informed by the African genius for decoration” but alas! in 2015 two Chinese contractors accompanied by Kenyan cops informed Donovan that the African Heritage House was to be demolished as it was obstructing the Standard Gauge Railway.

The final buyer will not be the commercially minded who might erect high rise apartments next to it

Picture perfect: This architectural masterpiece was inspired by mud walled mosques of West Africa, in particular, Mali’s over 600 year old Grand Mosque in Djenne where it remains the largest earthen structure in the world.

But high octane lobbying saw the railway diverted to save what is one of Kenya’s national treasures. In fact, one loaded American had volunteered to relocate it piece by piece to the USA where Donovan was born in Colorado 80 years ago.

But it is at the African Heritage House that Donovan desires to be buried. “I was going to will it to a foundation before I die, so I can live here,” he said in 2012.

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But that might not be the case if the house gets a new buyer. Knight Frank, the real estate and property agency, are selling Donovan’s artistic creation along with over 6,000 rare art collected over half a century.

I am too old now and need to find someone who will look after the priceless items

Splash out your stress: “The sale should not affect the national status of the house… as long as the new owner does not make alterations in the design,” said Donovan of the house that should fetch much more in an open auction.

Tarquin Gross, the head of agency at Knight Frank, piped that the eventual buyer will be the breed with an eye on “the preservation of the cultural artifacts” and not the commercially minded who might erect high rise apartments next to it.

Donovan now feels “I am too old now and need to find someone who will look after the priceless items. I may go to another house in the vicinity and continue with my Pan Africa studies.”

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