Something New in the Blixen Garden

I don’t think I would have liked Ewart Grogan. Impressed by him, certainly; admired him, maybe. He was certainly no ordinary man. Only Lord Delamere was his rival among colonial Kenya’s pioneers.

Like Delamere, Grogan had a Nairobi road named after him – what is now River Road. That was because he made a lasting contribution to Kenya’s development: founding the timber and building materials industry, constructing the first deep-water port at Mombasa, introducing trout to our mountain streams, being one of the country’s main sisal growers.

The best known story of Grogan, I guess, is that he walked from the Cape to Cairo, after being told by the step-father of the girl he had fallen in love with that he should first prove his worth before getting the approval he was seeking. (That girl was Gertrude Watt. She did become Grogan’s wife. And her name lives on in Nairobi’s Gertrude’s Garden Children’s Hospital that he founded in memory of her.)

The other story best (or worst) known about Grogan is his public flogging of one of his servants who, as Grogan believed, had been insensitive or insubordinate to Gertrude…….

But why am I telling you all this about Ewart Grogan?

Because, the other day I was in the Karen area and I called in for lunch at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden, a place I have enjoyed many times over the years. But I was quite disoriented when I left the car park to go towards the restaurant, because I came across a building, a very impressive colonial-style building, that hadn’t been there before.

When I got back my bearings and found a terrace seat at the restaurant – also smartly renovated and given the name of L’Amour since I was last there – I started asking about the new/old building on the other side of the lawn.

It is (or was) the house that Grogan built in 1905 off Chiromo Road. Threatened with demolition to make way for a new development, it was rescued, disassembled stone by stone (the distinctive Kenyan blue stone) and reassembled at the Coffee Garden. Where it makes a very elegant conference centre and meeting place – and, like the adjacent Swedo House, where it can tell a good tale about the colonial times.

The reassembled house is now called the Grogan-MacMillan Manor, in recognition of the fact that in 1910 Grogan sold his home to Sir Northrup MacMillan, the very big man who was also a character – larger than life in more ways than one. He was an American millionaire who was keen on big-game hunting, fell in love with Kenya and decided to stay on.

At his acquired Nairobi house, Sir Northrup MacMillan entertained such dignitaries as President Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill. He bought a good deal of ranching land near Thika – a ranch that included the landmark I always associate with Thika – the Ol Donyo Sabuk mountain.

Lady Lucie MacMillan, it seems, was no ordinary woman. She founded the first public library in Kenya: the still-standing, classical-style MacMillan Library, now the headquarters of the Nairobi City Library Service.

There is a nice story about Sir Northrup’s funeral. His wish was to be buried on top of Ol Donyo Sabuk. But he had the misfortune to die in the rainy season. The going up the mountain was very wet and the hearse got stuck a number of times. Eventually, tired of all the pushing and the delays, Lady Lucie said, ‘I guess this will have to do!’ And so the burial site, where she and his favourite dog later joined him, is only half-way up the mountain.

Now, then, there are two historic buildings to savour at the Coffee Garden – a rather grand mansion and a modest but very pretty home. The Swedo House dates back to 1908, and it is a very fine example of European houses built at that time with wire mesh and mud walls and iron sheet roofs. First constructed by the Swedo African Coffee Company (of which Sir Northrup MacMillan was one of the founders) Karen Blixen lived there for a time before moving to Mbogani (now the Karen Blixen Museum) further down the road.

After this little history lesson, let me also tell you that the lunch at L’Amour Restaurant was superb.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation