Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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Galle, Sri Lanka

Arguably the most elegant villa in Galle is also its oldest. According to a bold relief carved on the stone steps of the Dutch colonial homestead, the building dates back to 1712. Substantially extended in the 1850s and again in 2002, Doornberg’s latest incarnation places it at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s most desirable places to stay in the 21st century.

There has always been something deeply alluring about colonial architecture. Maybe this is simply the fusion of European styles and native traditions. Or perhaps there is something peculiarly romantic about buildings erected in an age when so much of the world was unknown. Either way, constructed in the earliest days of Eurasian commerce, Doornberg remains a remarkable symbol of a remarkable era.

“It was a terrible mess when I first saw it”, says Mary McIntrye, the Californian designer who oversaw the buildings’ immaculate renovation. The building had been used as an orphanage by the Anglican Church during the 1950s and 1960s but was subsequently abandoned. When McIntyre first began resurrecting the downtrodden architectural gem in 2001, the garden had returned to jungle and was desperately encroaching upon the house itself.

Stripping back the tar and paint-covered woodwork of the doors and windows was a particularly time-consuming process. “A quarter of a door would take two men with scrapers the best part of two weeks. Eventually we opted for a caustic soda mix to get rid of the tar. We had to be very careful but I think it came out great and it was really very uplifting to uncover all the original mouldings”. The cement floor also had to go. Gentle prodding revealed the broken remains of an earlier terracotta tiled floor. Fresh tiles were considered but Mary’s initial hesitations soon evolved into a conviction that a terracotta floor would do nothing to brighten up such a typically dark and austere Dutch interior. Thus the floor today is composed of pale tinted cement slabs, polished weekly and edged with thin strips of glass. The effect is smooth and cheerful.

Although she has been unable to establish the identity of the original architect, McIntyre was determined to keep the spirit of the original building. The Dutch architect was “clearly a man of great taste who wanted to produce a building of the utmost quality”. That Doornberg remains standing nearly 300 years later is fine testament to his abilities. “The man was a genius”, continues McIntyre. “Every room is methodically accurate, right down to the very last centimetre. Even the location is incredible. It’s pitched on the hillside at just the right angle to pick up a breeze from both the ocean and the land which is an amazingly helpful thing in those hot humid months”.

British owners added a second wing during the 1850s, most probably as a servants’ quarters, while McIntyre herself oversaw the recent construction of an exact mirror image of the original structure. She was assisted by the architect Channa Daswatta, a man seen by many as the spiritual son and heir of the great Geoffrey Bawa. To create the new extension, McIntyre and Daswatta were able to rely completely on the original plans from 1712.

The earliest part of the house has a formal, quasi-Dutch design; its grand entrance flanked by bedrooms leading to a magnificent hall, again opening onto bedrooms. The front and back verandahs were possibly later additions although contemporary watercolours indicate that verandahs were fashionable with the Dutch from 1707 onwards. Doornberg now follows a U shape with the original 1712 front looking down a hill towards 17th century Galle Fort (a World Heritage Site) and out across the Indian Ocean. It is almost impossible not to behold this view and ponder how it must have looked when these same waters were dotted with the wooden hulls of Dutch merchant ships ploughing between the ports of Europe and the spice islands of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.