Turtle Bunbury

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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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Robert Drummond

Middle Street, Galle, Sri Lanka

Galle Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1988. Since then, more than 50 of the Fort’s 473 houses have been purchased and restored by non-Sri Lankans. In Robert Drummond’s capable hands, a 250-year-old Dutch villa has been spectacularly restored. The project was privately funded, met all UNESCO’s requirements and stands as a terrific example of how such a restoration should be carried out.

Built for a Dutch merchant family in the mid 18th century, Drummond’s villa was in a dark and sorry condition when he first acquired it in 1998. A collapsed roof had caused considerable damage to the interior although, remarkably, the original sand and coral walls remained firm.

In setting out to restore the villas, Drummond’s principal aim was to modernize the interior while maintaining an emphasis on the original skeleton, the thick walls, arches and hearthstones. All surviving doors and windows were also to be retained, to keep a sense of continuity.

One of the most striking aspects of Drummond’s restoration is the floor. Like many villas in the Fort, this had previously consisted of little more than mud with broken concrete on top. Drummond had the floor levelled and then, using a concrete base, poured a thin coat of samara coloured cement over the entirety. Copper compression strips were added as the cement dried, creating a handsome tile effect as well as preventing any cracks. In certain areas, such as outside bathrooms, the cement was deliberately picked in order to give it a better grip. An added bonus during this process was the discovery of a granite hearthstone between two doorways which now serves as a major floor-level feature. The overall effect has greatly brightened the villa’s ambience.

The removal of unnecessary 20th century partitions and a false low ceiling from the ground floor revealed what was once a large living room and dining area. Three arches on the room’s northern side opened out onto an unruly courtyard, overgrown and full of junk. Drummond realigned the arches so that the middle one now stands dead centre between the front door and a frangipani tree in the courtyard. A set of antique doors was then installed in each archway. A new roof was under-laid with planks of cheerful palu wood to create a new ceiling. Skylights were also added, further accentuating the sense of freedom and space.

The street-side exterior has been left unpainted, a useful camouflage on a street of unpainted villas. An inner verandah or stoep runs fifty-seven feet down the length of the building but gives little indication of the exceptional renovation that has taken place inside. Doors to the left and right of the entrance hall lead into two downstairs bedrooms. Both rooms are now dominated by a low, free-standing cement wall, which conceal bathrooms. The wall is a compromise, keeping the integrity of the bedroom, while simultaneously giving the bathroom an unobtrusive, albeit illusional, sense of space.

Throughout the house, Drummond has been careful to retain whatever original fixtures he could. Windows, shutters and doors – submerged in a century of insensitive paint – have been scraped back to their original state, resulting in a collage of speckled colours.

Besides landscaping the courtyard into a pool-garden, Drummond’s final undertaking was to furnish the house. The bedrooms are simply decorated; visitors tend to relax in the living room and garden. Furniture consists of a rough-and-ready cupboard made in Bentota using window frames and other salvaged timber goods. But it is in the simple, uncluttered, calming main room that he has truly excelled. The dining table is a particular triumph. A hefty board of Palmyra wood is elevated on two cubes of steel. The application of a blowtorch to the inside surface of the cubes resulted in a delightful oil patina on the exterior. Such innovative attention to detail is to be greatly admired.

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