‘That house is like being in a dream’, said William Bellamy, US Ambassador to Kenya
By April Mbalu
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.”