The near demise of the Owl House

Did you know that the Owl House was almost destroyed and refurbished as municipal offices some years ago?

The story goes that Helen Martins’ precious Owl House nearly met its early end when the local municipality, who owns the property, was looking for a new office building and management considered flattening the Camel Yard and using the property for this purpose.  They even went as far as to obtain a quote from a demolition and building company to calculate the cost of clearing out the yard, but as it was to be quite expensive,  the idea was abandoned and the Owl House was saved from a near tragic end – luckily it seems.

The Owl House and the property it stands on belongs to the newly established Dr. Beyers Naudé Local Municipality. The then Nieu Bethesda Municipality took ownership through an arrangement with Helen Martins’ family and the Owl House Foundation (OHF) manages the museum for the municipality.

But it was a close call for the beloved Owl House, Helen Martins’ legacy and the drawstring of tourism to the tiny village of Nieu Bethesda.


The municipality gained ownership after Helen’s death, but it wasn’t an easy feat. She left the house and yard to her nephew, Herman Martins, in her last will, with instructions that it be kept as a museum. But, as it were, this document was never signed and witnessed.

Local lawman and writer Victor Dercksen tells the story of how he was approached in 1980 to handle the transfer of ownership of the property. This was four years after Helen’s death. “A piece of paper that was thought to be the deed of purchase was handed to me. It turned out to be only the donation of the content of the house to the municipality.

“The only way to lay claim to the property was to seize it for non-payment of taxes. But, as it turned out, some Good Samaritan had been paying the monies due all four years.”

It was only through the intervention of the MEC for Local Government in Cape Town that the taxes were returned to the said Samaritan, which paved the way for the “sale” of the house and an auction was set up. As planned, no one showed up and the municipality bought the house for the final sum of a full R10. Even though the municipality has changed names in the meantime, it still owns the property.

Day to day

Today the day to day running of the Owl House is overseen by the Owl House Foundation and a number of permanent staff, with the help and wisdom of an advisory team (also known as the A-team).

The OHF was founded in 1996 to draw local residents in as volunteers. PPC was encouraged to revive their support and they provided legal and logistical help in establishing the Owl House Foundation as a non-profit organisation. An agreement between the foundation and the municipality lead to the non-profit organisation taking over the daily running of the Owl House, including administrations, staff and conservation and renovation of the historical building and adjacent yard.

The agreement included the rental agreement, which has, according to previous directors, been reduced over the years.

The board of directors are elected every year during the Owl House Foundation’s annual general meeting. Members of the Owl House Foundation (informally referred to as Friends of the Owl House) are made up of interested and affected parties who pay an annual stipend. They can be nominated and elected as members of the board during the annual general meeting.

The board of directors of the Owl House Foundation continue to give their time on a volunteer basis to keep the Owl House and Camel Yard in the condition it is today.

Become a Friend of the Owl House by clicking on our contact page here!

9 thoughts on “The near demise of the Owl House”

  1. Thanks for this informative background to the early days when Helen Martins’ legacy was not fully understood. She certainly was an ‘outsider artist’ and it is only over time that her distinctive vision was recognised and understood. In fact, decoding her references and understanding her vision is an ongoing challenge that makes the Owl House so intriguing!

    Fortunately the municipality grew to realise the value of this extraordinary and unique cultural tourism asset. It started with the local Nieu-Bethesda Municiplaity, which morphed into the Cambdeboo Municipality that included Graaff Reinet. More recently this has grown to cover a larger area and has become the Dr Beyers Naude Local Municipality, which incorporates the towns of Graaff-Reinet, Aberdeen, Nieu-Bethesda, Jansenville, Klipplaat, Willowmore, Steytlerville and surrounding areas. Mayor Deon de Vos has visited the Owl House on several occasion and has shown his commitment to the preservation and promotion of the Owl House and the village of Nieu-Bethesda. The OHF Board and Advisory Team have had very constructive meetings with him and local Cllr Linda Botha.

    Through all these changes, the one constant has been Leonie Fouche, who has been the Municipal representative on the OHF Board. Her knowledge and commitment is impressive. I had the privilege of accompanying Leonie to a meeting with SAHRA relating to the pending declaration of the Owl House as a National Monument. Her intimate background knowledge is invaluable.

    Suggestion: what about a story about Leonie and her association with the Owl House. I’m sure would be hugely informative and interesting!

    1. Hi Philip! A wonderful idea. There are so many people who have been involved with the preservation of the Owl House, each playing a pivotal role. I am looking forward to speaking to a number of these individuals, including Leonie!


  2. I am most surprised to learn about the Municipality’s alleged intention to flatten the Camel Yard and to utilize the Owl House property for Municipal Offices. In my more than 20 years’ association with the Owl House and the Municipality, this is the first time I have heard about it! I have not come across a single record substantiating it!

    1. Hi Leonie,
      Thanks so much of your question. The story about the near destruction of the Owl House was told to me by one of the local residents while doing research two years ago. As far as I understood this was more than 30 years ago, during the time when not many people visited the Owl House. (Anne Graaff explained that you had to pick up a key from the postmistress to enter.) I am not sure whether these records are still available.

  3. A small point of correction. The OHF was not specifically formed to draw local residents in, but to look after the Owl House, which it recognised as a work of art worth preserving for posterity, and find friends for the Owl house from near and far. I helped to form the OHF so know the history. It was well understood at the time that the Owl House should draw on both local, national and international help and expertise in order to preserve and promote the art environment in the best way possible. In some ways the current OHF has lost this vision and become too local and insular. It is time to regain it.

    Anne Graaff

  4. Hi Elbe, I need to thank Huldah for refreshing my memory. This story surfaced a few years ago, either around the braai fire or over the pub counter. No-one could recall the source of this rumour, and as rumours go, it could not be substantiated. Always important to check your sources, otherwise credibility and integrity are compromised.

  5. I believe Elbe has it right. When I was researching the Owl House way back in the 1980’s (and way before your time, Leonie) this story was generally known in town. It was told to me by more than one person. As it was told to me, the municipality were thinking about moving the office and one option was to move to the premises of the Owl House, which they owned. They got a quote to alter the space to their requirements (which included levelling of the sculptures in the yard. The quote came in too expensive and so the idea was put aside.

  6. Herewith a quote from the thesis by Sue Imrie Ross 1996, page 20 of the pdf downloadable from the internet:
    ”She died intestate, and the Municipality of Nieu Bethesda bought the property from her
    family, after a period of indecision from all concern~d as to whether it should be destroyed or
    preserved. They purchased it without at that stage appreciating its artistic worth, nor knowing that
    it would later receive national and international recognition. Today The Owl House is run as a
    museum.” There is no direct reference to whether the municipality planned to destroy the Owl House. There are however, many instances where the municipality destroyed the plant life of the house, arbitrarily.

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