Staunch custodian of living history

The house as it looks today.

With its thick thatch roof and sturdy structure, positioned at the end of a cul-de-sac on the edge of the Zoarvlei wetlands, Klein Zoar squats like a sentinel, upholding a rich and colourful past.

The house that once belonged to folk hero Wolraad Woltemade dates back to the early 18th century. For more than 300 years, it has stood there in Yzer Plaat, as the Dutch called the suburb (named after the thick layer of koffieklip or ferrocrete that covers the area) but later called Brooklyn after World War I. The house has withstood decay, surrounding urbanisation, neglect but finally, in the last three decades it has seen the attention and preservation it deserves.

Jos Baker and her late husband, David, much to the concern of friends and associates, who thought they were slightly touched, bought the house in 1984. At that time, it was in a state of disrepair, despite attempts at restoration over the years, including plans drawn up by architects Gwen and Gawie Fagan in 1974 when it was bought by David Evans and his wife Annette, who, as Jos says, “played midwife to the rebirth of the cottage”.

David and Jos made it their mission to make the house their own, taking curatorship of a house that, as Jos refers to in her book Preserving a House (2009), as “crying out for help”. In their keen and sensitive restoration, the couple assiduously researched anything and everything to do with the house, going through hundreds of old Cape records and sourcing many paintings done of the house over the years. This included enduring a nail-biting session in which they bid for Storm Approaching Farm, the painting based on impressions of the house by Edward Roworth (1880-1964), that now hangs over a window in Jos’s bedroom.

Jos is an award-winning food and wine writer and restaurant critic and was dubbed a national treasure when she garnered the Eat Out Lifetime Achiever Award in 2007 for her contribution to food and wine journalism. And while she may be turning 80 in a few months, she’s adamant that she’s not going to budge from her beloved house.

In her book, she writes, “Rescuing the cottage was in no small way heroic,” which is both an accurate and romantic notion of her passion for maintaining this bastion of Cape history .

The last decade has seen a greater challenge for Jos as she has soldiered on alone, since the death of her husband, yet she has been determined to carry on his work. The surrounding urban decay has seen several moments that have not been easy, and Jos described how her sleep was often interrupted by the sounds of the local sex workers “plying their trade” outside her bedroom window.

Today the immediate area has been cleaned up with a MyCiTi park-and-ride area, but further up Wemyss Road there still remain problems (see page 8, “Neighbours at loggerheads in Brooklyn”.)

Recently, with the help of friend, Dirk Odendaal, Jos put out the appeal, on The Cape’s Threatened Buildings Facebook page for the public to help contribute to the hefty bill for a new thatch roof.

“As a restaurant critic, I’ve shared my views with you for some 20 years. Dubbed a ‘living national treasure’, it seems fitting that I live in a national monument, Klein Zoar. Now Klein Zoar and I need your help in preserving the living past.

“My 300 year-old home, is reputedly the home of folk hero Wolraad Woltemade. But with ownership came curatorship. I have written a book about the house to raise money; have let the main house, sold treasured possessions and downscaled into the east wing. But as a pensioner … I have had to borrow the crippling R198 000 to re-thatch Klein Zoar.”

She has also created a web page dedicated to help keeping up the house and maintaining it.

A couple of years ago, Jos moved to the flat-roofed east wing of the cottage, which was built in 1820, and has made it as charming as the main homestead. While thinning down on her furniture and much-loved collections, she carefully placed her antiques and paintings of Klein Zoar in the smaller space.

With the recent onset of thyroid problems, Jos admits she is feeling rather fragile and often “has absolutely no energy”.

“The other side got too big, and it seemed more sensible to move in here. I regard it as my home, but David gave his whole life for the house,” she relates, as we sit in the lounge which is dominated by a large fireplace that was obviously a hub of activity in its heyday and today keeps the smaller space warm with wood fires.

“I’ve been here so long; it’s a lengthy period to live in a house, and, yes, I will have to be carried out of here in a box,” she jokes, as she talks of the future.

The larger house is now rented out to a younger couple, but the air of history surrounds it, particularly in the thick thatch; the national monument plaque and the low typical Cape wall that edges the cottage.

According to Jos’s book, meticulously researched, archive records point to the fact that the simple thatched dwelling was built in the early 18th century, with architect Dirk Visser putting the date around 1710 with the addition of the flat-roofed wing 110 years later.

As Jos writes, “It literally grew out of the ground with building materials sourced from the surrounding area. The koffieklip, and stones, weathered by the sea formed the walls and reeds and clay from the nearby vlei provided thatch and mortar and the fragile construction was limewashed inside and out to hold it together.”

Of the moment when they moved in, Jos writes, “Once ours and stripped bare, Klein Zoar was able to breathe. Freshly painted with beams, doors and windowsills fed with oil and floors resmeared with dung, the cottage revealed rooms with classic proportions and inviting vistas”.

It must take a dedicated preserver indeed to annually resurface the dung floor that is dotted with salvaged peach pips, and that is what Jos and her husband did year in and year out in the years they lived in the main cottage.

The house’s back faces against the south-easter and, as can be seen from the paintings and the current photographs is a typical longhouse with a single row of interleading rooms, again making the custodians very special people to be able to live in a house where you move through one room to get to another, compromising on privacy.

Doors were a luxury in the old days and, as Jos writes, were probably introduced in the 1950s.

Talking about the bid for funds to keep the house in a good condition , Jos says, “I believe the house is worth saving. It’s got a wonderful vibe and was the house of a hero. That might sound fanciful and the constant maintenance, especially when David was ill, was a hell of a burden. But it’s worth it.”

If you can help, email jos- or visit www. klein-zoar