Restoring a slice of South African history. - Unique Property Company

Restoring a slice of South African history.

What do you do when a swimming pool hits the rocks? Keep calm and keep digging. That was one of the lessons learned by developer and landlord Kurt Steiner, and his partner Duke Kaufman, when they restored a slice of South African history.

Ground Zero for their restoration efforts was the main road of Prince Albert, a pretty village in the semi-desert area the Karoo. On a corner stood a wheat mill built in 1858, an attached cottage and a Victorian house; all haphazardly updated, inadequately maintained and pummeled by a century and a half of extreme weather.

Intrigued by the buildings’ history and keen to stop them crumbling, Kurt and Duke embarked on a remarkable restoration. And not even eye-watering costs daunted them. “Building in the Karoo is expensive,” noted Kurt. “Everything has to come from Knysna, or George, or Cape Town.” Of those Garden Route towns, Knysna is closest, but still a three-hour drive.

Work began in August 2010 on turning the mill and cottage into a holiday home, and the Victorian house into a gallery and retail space. “With the old buildings, we could change the inside but not the outside,” Kurt recalls. “We didn’t want to change the outside anyway. But the new build is very much European because the architect (Cape Town-based Jan Klingler) is Swiss – and spoke fluent Afrikaans!”

The project was blessed with a dream team. “We never heard about big problems,” Kurt reveals. “The architect and the builder just sorted it out. The builder had retired after working in the Seychelles and Madagascar. He took it on as a project because he was bored of being retired. That guy was amazing. He never left Prince Albert for four years, because everybody wanted to use him. I think he did four or five projects after us.”

There’s no doubt that the work helped the local community. “For the new build, we had to bring in specialists from outside,” says Kurt. “But we insisted for the ‘easy’ work – cleaning, for example – that they use local people.”

The project wrapped in March 2011. A good relationship with the local council and building inspectors – whom Kurt hails as “fantastic” – helped. But this enviably fast turnaround – which included a four-week break around Christmas –came at a cost. “The builders worked from Monday to Saturday,” notes Kurt. “We had to pay for accommodation, transport and everything. It all adds up. If you want to build in places like Prince Albert, it’s very pricey.”

Cost reared its head again when the project hit its only major obstacle – quite literally. As they dug the swimming pool – a necessity in the scorching semi-desert – “There was this massive rock underneath.” The result, says Kurt, is “probably one of the most expensive pools in the Karoo, because we had to jackhammer it for three weeks. But that pool is here to stay, because it’s carved into the rock.”

The property has been featured in national and international magazines such as the Digest of South African Architecture. But, despite this triumph, Kurt has no ambitions to build an empire. His small portfolio of properties includes one managed by Unique Property, near London’s Tate Modern gallery. “I don’t want to collect them!” he laughs. “When you’re renovating and maintaining them, there’s always something. I just want to have the right properties, in the right location.”

And he’s in no hurry to sell the renovated Prince Albert buildings, which are on sale for just shy of nine million rand (approximately 450,000 pounds). “The property market here is a little bit crazy,” he notes. “There’s not much available.” Mindful of the money he and Duke invested in the project, Kurt says, “We’ve had offers, but we didn’t accept them.”

In the meantime, the pair are keeping busy with their Jurgen Schadenberg gallery, which exhibits original photographs of South African icons such as Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba. “It’s been established for ten years,” says Kurt, “and making good money.”

And, despite Covid, “This past year is the second best since we opened. Obviously, we didn’t have international tourists. We had some international businesspeople: instead of being locked down in Europe, they were locked down here. But all the South Africans who were not travelling abroad came here. The town is very busy at the weekend. It’s full!”

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