Turtle Bunbury

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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Charlie Hulse

Parrawa Street, Galle Fort

A street leads directly from the Indian Ocean to Charles Hulse’s house on Galle Fort’s Parrawa Street. The street is bound on either side by villas, many over 250 years old, built when Dutch spice merchants were in control of the country. American-born Hulse moved to Sri Lanka in 1974, fresh from two decades on the Greek island of Hydra. He settled on the south coast some miles west of the Fort, which had by then fallen into considerable decline. In 1987 Hulse seized an opportunity and purchased a rundown villa on the Fort’s south side. Assisted by a team of local carpenters and builders, he set to work restoring the property. Plywood partitions installed in the early 20th century were replaced with three arches, opening onto a small courtyard, flanked by two adjacent wings. The terracotta roof was simultaneously raised “Arkansas-style”, waterproofed and relaid.

The property consists of a living room, dining room, library, kitchen and three bedrooms. The courtyard occupies the space between the kitchen wing and guests bedrooms to the rear of the property. Hulse installed a small pool in the yard, shaded beneath a fragrant frangipani and a guava tree. A floor of polished white cement runs throughout the property, echoing the vibrant white of the walls and sofa covers. The white not only brightens the interior but also provides an excellent backdrop for Hulse’s eclectic art collection.

Hulse has enjoyed an eventful life. Raised in Arkansas during the Depression, he escaped to San Francisco at the age of fourteen and became a tap-dancer. He served with the US Airforce for three years during the Korean War, before embarking on a long Broadway run with Yul Brynner and Patricia Morrison in “The King and I”. He danced at the Lido in Paris in the 1950s before returning to San Francisco to teach dancing. He lived variously in Normandy and Hydra, before settling in Sri Lanka where he wrote the novel, “In Tall Cotton”.

When Hulse finished restoring his Galle townhouse, he invited friends to come and stay. Month after month, travellers from afar would tentatively make their way down Parrawa Street and “swing by Charlie’s for a Bloody Mary”. Those who got lost in the maze of the Fort’s streets were wont to marvel at the number of villas scattered through the coastal citadel – 473 according to the Sri Lankan Archaeological Department. At length, Jack and Jo Eden, a British couple based in Hong Kong, took the plunge and became the second foreign owners of a Galle Fort villa. Hulse was swiftly recruited as a consultant for the restoration. With more than fifty villas now in foreign ownership, Hulse’s “retirement” is regularly interrupted by the clang of his doorbell as another newcomer seeks advice on where to find a decent electrician or carpenter.

Hulse’s villa is something of a shrine to his past lives. While keepsakes from his Arkansas childhood are few – “I haven’t been back in a hundred years” - the walls feature works collected during his time in France and Hydra by the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, Nissan Engel, Ena de Silva, Dimitri Gassomis and Sam Fisher. Likewise, he has amassed many first-rate antique pieces on his travels – French, English, Italian, American and Sri Lankan – which now furnish his villa. But for Hulse, his preferred location is sitting by the pool, Bloody Mary in hand, perhaps discussing the pros and cons of Sri Lankan real estate with a young couple passing through.

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.