Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Oasis of Calm Is Put Back Together, Piece by Piece ; on Mauritus, Renovation of Plantation Home Echoes Market Expansion

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Oasis of Calm Is Put Back Together, Piece by Piece ; on Mauritus, Renovation of Plantation Home Echoes Market Expansion

Article excerpt

Restoration of a historic home on Mauritius echoes the growth in its real estate market.

When a Mauritian businessman heard a couple of years ago that a historic plantation house in the island's capital of Port Louis was on the market, he seized the opportunity to save a piece of local heritage.

The home, called Avenport House, was built in 1853 for the French sugar cane magnate Georges Thomy-Thiery. The eight-room mansion, which has four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large vaulted attic, was designed as a traditional colonial French plantation house. It has elegant covered balconies, an extensive private courtyard and stands amid lush gardens on Saint Georges Street, once one of the city's grandest avenues.

After Thomy-Thiery returned to France in the 1870s, the house had three owners before being sold to the local businessman, who bought the property for an undisclosed price.

Few of the island's historic homes are still standing and even fewer are in good condition, as they were built mainly of wood. Time and the Mauritian weather, with its heavy rains and cyclones, take their toll, and maintenance is expensive.

Development also has had an impact on Port Louis's heritage. The chaotic, crowded capital has a busy industrial harbor and is a haphazard mix of ramshackle low-rise dwellings, shops and street markets, punctuated with Victorian-era government properties and newer high rises. These house the offices of banks and finance companies that, along with information technology, manufacturing and tourism, form the basis for the economy on this Indian Ocean island of 2,040 square kilometers, or 788 square miles.

Behind its large iron gates, Avenport House is an oasis of calm elegance. The facade and entrance porch, with original decorative tiled floor, pretty portico and ironwork balconies painted white, show no sign that the house was dilapidated before its recent renovation.

"It was in a very sad state and needed a lot of work to make it habitable again," said Ilinka Lukic of Haka Designs, an interiors company in London that helped complete the renovations and decor. "But the owner wanted the house to be regenerated in exactly the same style it was built in."

The exterior walls of teak boards and stone were renovated, replastered and painted white. The original shutters were restored and painted blue, like the original color scheme. The roof, which was replaced, is in the traditional French toile style, with tiles made from teak.

Local artisans used traditional methods for the repairs, which often required a lot of handwork. "We rubbed down and repainted the ironwork, and the teak floorboards, which are over three meters long, were professionally treated and retained where possible or replaced where necessary," Ms. Lukic said.

All the original window frames, internal doors, ceiling beams and any surviving wall moldings also were refurbished. At the time of purchase, much of the interior woodwork was rotten and, in places, infested with termites.

The central staircase is solid teak, with the patina acquired over 150 years, though the original banister was replaced in the 20th century. "The banister is not authentic, but the owner wanted us to leave everything as it was, to show how the house had evolved," Ms. Lukic said. "I wasn't allowed to replace some of the inauthentic window catches or doorknobs, so you have some from the 1800s, others from the 1950s or later."

Most of the rooms have been decorated with 19th-century antiques and chandeliers, though the top-floor landing and two rooms on that level are used as gallery space for the owner's collection of 20th- century and contemporary art. …

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