AS A CHILD growing up in London in the 1980s, Sarah Wheeler, now a dealer in turn-of-the-20th-century photography, traveled each summer with her sisters, Jacquetta and Charlotte, to Dar Sinclair, a white 1920s cottage on a bluff overlooking Tangier designed by their maternal great-grandfather, the British architect Jack Sinclair.
She hated every moment of it.
“I detested the food, the weather. I thought it was dirty. I was a bratty little English girl,” she says. Her father, the gambling magnate and political macher Stuart Wheeler, shared her gripes about the Moroccan city, an hour’s ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain. “Too hot; too much nature for him,” says Sarah Wheeler, 42. But for her mother, the aristocratic photographer Tessa Codrington, who inherited Dar Sinclair when she was in her 20s, the house and the sprawl it overlooked held perennial allure.
Codrington, who died in 2016 (her husband followed in 2020), was bewitched by Tangier’s ramshackle elegance. She reveled in its legacy as an international protectorate that attracted aesthetic-minded eccentrics — in her youth she spent time there with Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams — and by its vibrant palette of pinks, oranges and watery blues.
By the time Wheeler was a young adult, she, too, had become enchanted by the city’s moody charms: the scent of the freshly baked khubz flatbread in the air; the labyrinthine streets of the casbah and the medina; the sunset gold sand of the beaches. She dropped out of university, taught English in Tangier, then got a master’s in photography from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London before landing at one of the city’s auction houses.
But she only felt at home in Morocco. After Codrington’s closest friend, the English fashion show producer Johnnie Gairdner, died of pancreatic cancer in 2003 and bequeathed to Codrington a tiny dilapidated house next door to Sinclair called Lalla Yenou, Wheeler claimed it as her own refuge. “My mother asked me if I was interested in decorating Johnnie’s house, but I told her I would only do it up if it were mine,” she says. Codrington agreed, on the condition that Wheeler relinquish her future share of Dar Sinclair to her sisters (by then, Jacquetta was already becoming a well-known model).
It was not an obvious choice. Over the decades, Codrington had expanded her grandfather’s once-modest house into a sophisticated two-story villa, with five bedrooms and a view of the bay. “It might not have been an easy decision for other people,” says Wheeler, “but for me it was.”
GAIRDNER’S FORMER HOUSE, barely 1,100 square feet, was crumbling when she moved in: The plumbing was precarious; the roof leaked. Tangier’s inhospitable climate — damp and cool in the winter with sweaty, mildewy summers — made the walls crack and peel. “I didn’t care,” she says. “I was young, and it was a place I could have to myself.”
Fortunately, by then in her early 20s, she had already become close with one of Tangier’s best-known part-time residents, the Milanese garden designer and novelist Umberto Pasti. He helped her reimagine the dwelling, leaving intact its myriad quirks, including a panoramic hand-painted mural (“It may depict Tangier, but we don’t know,” she says) that wraps around one of the two small bedrooms. Other friends advised her to paint over it, but Pasti, now 64, whose house a few miles away is a layered fantasia of antiques, books and vintage fabrics, could see that Wheeler was at home with history — the northern Moroccan city’s and her own — however ragged and untamed. “Johnnie thought the mural had been done in the 1960s by the hippies who had once owned the place,” she recalls. “I loved that continuity.”
Soon she had the living room and dining area painted cotton candy pink to contrast with their robin’s egg blue window frames and hung the walls with local artists’ work and finds from the city’s flea markets, as well as gifts from many of its expat decorators and collectors whom she’d known since childhood. Her garden adjoins the lush acreage of Dar Sinclair; together, the properties have become a bustling multigenerational compound untouched by contemporary life. As Tangier grew up around them, transforming in the early aughts from a woolly port town to a city of 1.2 million people, this mountainside enclave remained bucolic and hidden away, with Lalla Yenou as the bohemian retreat beside the genteel main house.
Not long ago, Wheeler, who also keeps a one-bedroom apartment in London’s Queensway, used a small inheritance to expand her property. She wanted a slightly more substantial residence for herself and her son, Robin, who was born in 2020, as well as space for guests or renters. Her goal was to double the square footage without destroying Lalla Yenou’s essence; instead of adding another story, she asked the architect Cosimo Sesti, who is based in Italy but often works in Tangier, to build a second two-bedroom free-standing structure just below the original one on the steep hillside. They used the same simple materials — plaster, iron, local tile — to unite the two cottages.
As usual, she chose Pasti as her aesthetic collaborator on what she calls Dar Jdida (“the new house” in Arabic). Over the decades, the two have worked closely on economic development in the village of Rohuna, a rural outpost of 500 people about 40 miles south of Tangier where, two decades ago, Pasti built a second Moroccan home for himself and his partner, the fashion designer Stephan Janson. In recent years, Pasti and Wheeler have helped the local craftspeople in Rohuna develop their businesses, including Najim Imran Bando, a woodworker they discovered when he was 12. At 30, he has transformed his workshop, Now on the Ocean, into an international enterprise, making one-of-a-kind, glossily painted furniture from the sinuous branches of the Arbutus unedo, a native shrub known as a strawberry tree.
Pieces of Imran Bando’s work now define the interiors of Wheeler’s homes. In the kitchen of Dar Kadima (“the old house”), a small, square forest green table holds pots and pans for her housekeeper, Amina, whose mother worked for Gairdner; against the white wall of a bedroom in the new house, near a 19th-century English iron bed draped with a plaid shawl that Wheeler found in the nearby beach town of Asilah, stands one of his narrow five-shelve étagères.
The garden, smaller than it once was but still capacious, has similarly been rethought in collaboration with Pasti. It now blooms with Dalmatian irises that smell of grape jelly, blood red spikes of weeping bottlebrush and crinum lilies whose pink-and-white trumpets rise from thick, strappy leaves. The vine-covered, cerulean-painted metal railing around the new swimming pool that juts out over the acreage has already begun to rust, in keeping with the ever-present specter of decay.
And down the undulating garden path, planted so lushly with melianthus that it’s barely passable, lies the unmarked back entrance to the grounds of Dar Sinclair. Soon, Wheelers’s sisters will travel from London to come together again here, as they always have, their children playing hide-and-seek in the same luscious bowers of tuberose and jasmine where their mothers once did, joyous beneath that verdigris sky.
Production: Christopher Garis