He who loves an old house never loves in vain,’ said late-19th-century author Isabel La Howe Conant. Indeed, to own an old house is to own a little piece of history. But, as those who choose to dwell in these gracious architectural grande dames will tell you, with custodianship of the past comes a responsibility beyond that vested in the owners of new builds.
‘While knowledge of a house’s provenance and pedigree has curiosity appeal, most owners only show a serious interest in their old home’s history when it comes to getting approval for changes to it, or its demolitions’ says Flo Bird, chairperson of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF) and an impassioned campaigner for the preservation of the city’s built past.
Bird explains that structural alterations to any building over the age of 60 years in South Africa requires a permit from the provincial heritage resource agency, and failure to acquire this can have not only legal ramifications, but may also lead to the forfeiture of the home’s historical status.
But just because a building is more than 60 years old doesn’t make it a heritage building, she adds: ‘It is a protected one, but not a declared heritage site as such.’