An antiquarian’s deliciously distressed house in the Aegean was the first port of call for Berrin Torolsan when she set out to write the text for an inspiring new book on Turkish interiors. In this extract from At Home in Turkey, with photographs by Solvi dos Santos, she is captivated by a low-key restoration.
Selden Emre’s grand house on the island of Cunda, which once belonged to a Christian priest, dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. In its day it was one of the town’s most prestigious houses, located on the hill next to the basilica on a corner known as Merdibanli Sokak – the street with steps.
Cunda, off the coast of Ayvalık in the northwestern Aegean, is a small island attached to the mainland by a causeway. The largest of twenty or so islands in an archipelago that forms a lace-like pattern on the Aegean coastline, Cunda is the only one that is inhabited. With its magnificent views and scented breezes blowing down from Mount Ida, it has always been a popular retreat. The island’s architecture suffered in troubled times: the riots and civil wars of the final days of the Ottoman Empire were followed by a massive earthquake in 1944. But elegant 19th-century Neoclassical features are still visible everywhere.
Selden is a brilliant antiquarian with a keen eye for exquisite objects. Her three-storey house dominates its neighbours but is not ostentatious. It has been beautifully and faithfully restored to its former grandeur, yet in no way is it at odds with the other old houses in the neighbourhood, all of which are listed, and no fewer than 551 of which are under conservation by the state. The pale pistachio green of the exterior paintwork marries happily with the wooden shutters, the white detailing, the exposed stonework of the arched doorway.
Old architectural features, which often also prove to be clever practical solutions, are still in use. For example, rainwater is collected from the roof and channelled through zinc gutters and pipes into the cistern in the basement. Nowadays there is a city water supply, and if there are any water shortages one can order a tanker. But, as Selden says, “Why not use a perfect ecological system that already exists?” As a result, all year round she enjoys the softest of water. “Rainwater is free, and it makes your hair silky, the laundry soft and your plants happy.” All she did was install a small pump to bring water to the upstairs bathrooms. During the entire restoration concrete and synthetic materials were avoided. The thick stone walls, often lime-plastered and limewashed, and the wooden ceilings and floorboards all help to keep the house cool in the summer months, making air conditioning unnecessary.
An elegant arched doorway with massive oak doors opens into a spacious hall with chequered black-and-white flagging salvaged from another old building, the frosty patina of age sage greens, faded mauves and soft creams is enlivened by a vivid velvet nursing chair next to the fireplace. On the garden side of the hall is a raised platform, under which stands the cistern, filled to the brim with rainwater. On this platform, where the kitchen was originally located, is a second well-used fireplace with its original hearth, a sofa and a dining-cum-working table, all offering inviting corners to rest, work or just contemplate. Selden’s three cats also seem to be most at home here. Beyond is a very small, bright kitchen with a charming balcony, a later addition, where breakfast can be taken. From the platform one also has access to a little veranda, where most summer afternoons are spent and from which stairs lead down to a delightful walled garden, lovingly lined with pots and containers of sweet basil, old-fashioned roses, fragrant lemon geraniums, jasmine and clove-scented pinks.
A wrought-iron staircase with wooden steps – one of the few modern features of the house – takes one up to two rooms on the first floor, separated by a landing. The ceilings are lower here, as these were originally the winter rooms traditional in all Ottoman houses; sandwiched between two floors, they were warmer and easier to heat in winter. The shutters in these rooms are inside, so that they can be easily closed on stormy evenings. Selden has converted them into delightful guest bedrooms. All the cupboards, shelves and niches have been preserved, offering not only generous storage, but also handsome partitions, even concealing a bathroom in one of the rooms. All the timber elements are painted a distressed sage green.
The lath-and-plaster second floor overhangs the street, jutting out over the strong stone walls of the two lower floors and resting on delicate iron consoles. The rooms on this floor have magnificent views from every window, even the bathrooms. Selden reserved the two larger adjoining rooms as her bedroom and boudoir. The latter has a vaulted ceiling with plaster cornices and was presumably once the main reception room of the house. The ceiling has traces of painted decoration, and the walls are inlaid with small wooden plaques which would have enabled the owners to hang curtain rails above the windows and numerous heavy-framed paintings around the room without damaging the plasterwork.
Selden has a fine touch: the colours, furniture and objects she has chosen all have a poetic, uncontrived feel. The restoration may have taken two years to complete, but it looks as if it was effortlessly achieved.
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