Photographs by James Fennell.
The island of Sri Lanka ranks high amongst the most beautiful regions in the world. Rimmed by several thousand miles of glorious sandy beaches, the interior offers an incredible landscape of contrasts from inpenetratable jungles to stark highlands to fertile agricultural plains. Small wonder then that the island has been attracting “visitors” at least since the dawn of time.
In the 1640s, a fleet of Dutch war ships rolled into the harbour at Galle on the island’s south east and evicted the incumbent Portuguese garrison. For the next 150 years, the coast of Sri Lanka was occupied by the puritanical forces of the Netherlands, headed up by the money toting Directors of the Dutch East Indies Company back in Amsterdam.
Set against this background, the date “1712” which features on a bold relief carved on the stone steps of the magnificent “Dutch House” in Galle brings history brilliantly to life. There has always been something deeply alluring about colonial architecture. Maybe this is simply a result of the fusion of European styles and native traditions. Or perhaps there is something peculiarly romantic about such buildings erected in an age when so much of the world was unknown. Either way, built in the earliest days of Eurasian commerce, the Dutch House is a remarkable symbol of a remarkable era.
“It was a terrible mess when I first saw it”, maintains Mary McIntrye, the California-born designer responsible for the building’s present state of elegance. The Anglican Church, who had operated the building as an orphanage since Sri Lanka gained independence from Great Britain in 1949, leased the property to Hong Kong based trader Geoffrey Dobbs in November 2000. McIntrye and her partner Joel Pauleau, a former Buddhist monk from New Caldeonia, were then recruited to convert the downtrodden slice of history into something respectable again.
As with most restorations, the work was painfully slow and tedious. But McIntyre was determined to keep the spirit of the original building because “whoever built [the Dutch House] was clearly a man of great taste who wanted to produce a building of the utmost quality”. That the Dutch house remains standing nearly 300 years later is a fine testament to his abilities.
That said, not all the building dates to 1712. A second wing was added by the British during the 1850s, most probably as a servants’ quarters, while McIntyre herself oversaw the construction of an exact mirror image of the original structure. For this they were able to rely completely on the original measurements from 1712, a possibility which emerged during the restoration. This has been a truly impressive effort, involving a collaborative effort between McIntrye, Pauleau and Sri Lankan architect Channa Daswatta, a man seen by many as the spiritual son and heir of the great Geoffrey Bawa.
As such the house has a U shape with the right hand – or 1712 - side looking down a hill towards the 17th century fort of Galle (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 lush, spicy islands of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). McIntyre and Pauleau have gone to great lengths to try and unravel who the original occupant of the house might have been, trawling through the archives of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam. Thus far they have been unsuccessful but they will never give up trying.
“The man was a genius”, explains Mary. “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”.
The original house has a formal, quasi-Dutch design; its grand entrance flanked by bedrooms leading to a magnificent tennis court sized hall, again flanked by bedrooms. The front and back verandahs were possibly later additions although contemporary watercolours indicate that verandahs were fashionable with the Dutch from 1707 onwards. The orphans educated here in recent years must have absorbed some sense of order to their lives from the fundamental geometrical design.
When Daswatta, McIntrye and Pauleau first started the restoration, they had a long way to go. All the woodwork had been coated in tar and then painted with several coats of pale gray. Stripping back to the original was a 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 that engulfed the entire building 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 what was, at day’s end, a typically dark and austere Dutch interior. Thus the floor today is made up of smooth, pale tinted cement slabs, polished weekly and edged with thin strips of glass. The effect is slick and cheerful.
The 19th century quarters were cleaned of all traces of squalour, grass lawns were planted, the surrounding scrub was cut back - a 200 year old Tamarind tree, a Mango tree and a handful of custard apple trees appeared out of nowhere. A stunning L-shaped swimming pool was added, dropping down over a jungle scape of whooping birds and tree-spinning monkeys. The latter were in the habit of playing games with the roof tiles so Daswatta decided to refit the roof with sturdier tiles, seven deep, reinforced by a series of beams and wooden planks.
Galle is a lovely place to visit. There are a number of exotic villas and crumbling hotels around for the visitor to stay. But none can hold a match to the Dutch House in terms of historical provenance and an immaculate restoration.
Visit the Dutch House at www.villasinsrilanka.com