Words: Lucille Davie
For so long I have been infatuated with this house, peeping from between the trees and tall bamboo at the start of Oxford Road. The whimsical, eclectic mansion Dolobran. Years ago, I had taken a rare public tour of the house, which stares defiantly across the freeway at Herbert Baker’s more staid but still grand ‘Northwards’.
Baker, Cecil John Rhodes’s favourite architect, has left his impressive footprint in the city with homes and churches dotted around the suburbs, as well as his own home, Stonehouse, not far from Northwards. Baker’s buildings are scattered around the country too, including the magisterial Union Buildings.
BUILDING IN AFRICA
Like other well-to-do people in Jo’burg in the early 1900s, Llewellyn Andersson asked Baker to design him a house. When Baker presented his Cape Dutch revival design of Dolobran to Andersson, he looked at the design and exclaimed: “This is not the way to build in Africa!” as quoted by Graham Viney in Colonial Houses of South Africa. Andersson didn’t want a shingle roof, he didn’t want small windows, he wanted “light, air and sun”, writes Viney. Andersson described the design as “second-rate” to Northwards, and a “bland effort”.
He turned to a newcomer in town, James Cope-Christie, who lived in the then Rhodesia but moved to Jo’burg when a recession hit Salisbury (now Harare). Cope-Christie did a fine job: light and sun streams through the large windows, some illuminated by gorgeous Art Nouveau stained glass, particularly the oriel window on the stairway.
Andersson was an accountant, Cope- Christie an architect; the former a South African, the latter a Brit, but they were similar characters, and Cope-Christie understood precisely Andersson’s vision of building for the African climate, something very different from Baker’s vision, whose Stonehouse has small windows. I can imagine Andersson and Cope-Christie getting on well: they were both sportsmen, both adventurous, both big thinkers.
Architect William Martinson, who led the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tour, says the oriel window captures the setting sun and transmits a beautiful light into the space beyond. Martinson, who has worked on various restoration projects on Dolobran and acted as house-sitter at different periods in the 1990s, described living in the house as “an extraordinary privilege”. He says, “Cope-Christie’s eclectic romantic Dolobran has a grand vision supported by a remarkably generous client who supported the idea of creating such a fine house.”