07/19/2014 02:36 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2014

Africa's Most Photographed House Is in Danger

Widely considered one of Africa’s greatest art collectors, Joseph Murumbi spent his life collecting a vast collection of art and books. Born the son of a Goan father and Maasai mother, Murumbi rose to become one of the leaders in the Kenya African Union. When he died he left behind more than 50,000 books and letters of correspondance, which included 8,000 rare books (these were books that were published prior to 1900).

Before his death, Murumbi and his American-Kenyan friend, Alan Donovan, another prolific art collector, co-founded The African Heritage House (often called ‘Africa’s most photographed house.’). Designed by Donovan, the beautiful building overlooks Nairobi National Park, and is described by Architectural Digest as “an architecture rising from the serene Kenyan plain like an outcropping of earth, a vision of usefulness informed by the African genius for decoration.” The house itself is “a combination of the mud architectures from across Africa.”

In 1969 Alan Donovan, one of the last Americans sent to Nigeria by the State Department during the Biafran war, decided he no longer wanted to be a bureaucrat.  He did, however, want to see the rest of Africa, so he learned French, bought a Volkswagen bus and drove across the Sahara. -- Architectural Digest, 1996

The House not only hosts art collections that span over 50 years of African history, but also rare artifacts whose value is considered priceless. The cultural value of The African Heritage House to all of Africa is “immeasurable.” Up until recently it was going to be turned into an Advanced African Studies Center, dedicated to the memory of Murumbi.

Donovan spoke to Architecture Digest about the inspiration behind the House in 1996:

Although I tried to use features from the various architectural forms that enchanted me in my travel in Africa,” says Alan Donovan, “an equally important reason for my home is to show people how to live with African arts and crafts.  I think this indigenous artistic and cultural heritage is under appreciated, both in Africa and worldwide.  My house is a step toward preservation.

However, this priceless piece of cultural history is now under threat. The Standard Gauge Railway seeks to demolish the house to use the land for construction. 

There are several points to challenge this:

1. The present railway was built in l889, fifty years before the Nairobi National Park came into existence which used the railway line as its border. As there were no blasting materials at the time, the Railway line meanders around stone outcrops. The SG railway should stay on the railway reserve but it needs to straighten the old colonial line for the 21st century train and should be allowed to do so.

2. The SG railway can be built on a platform so that wild animals can pass freely below it. This would not require any additional land, just a leeway to pass through park land as is already being planned through Tsavo National Park by the same SG railway.

3. The families living along the border of the Nairobi National Park have all occupied these lands for over 40 years. These borderlands provide a bulwark to protect the park from unwanted structures, poaching, sewage, lights and noise. To take these lands would not only be an environmental disaster but would cost taxpayers huge amounts for compensation. Whereas if the SG railway remains on the present railway route the costs for construction, including the platforms, would be paid by the contractor, not the public.

4. The existing route would provide passengers with sweeping views of the park, as well as preserve the borderlands along the park for other uses that are compatible with the Nairobi National Park.

When asked about the possibility of reconstructing the house elsewhere, Donovan says he may move the Murumbi collection to California. However, this vast collection of African art and artifacts should remain in Africa, where it belongs with the African people. 

What you can do: Sign this petition to the President of Kenya.

Read more at Daily Nation.

African Heritage House, combination of the mud architectures from across Afric