Cape Town has a rich architectural heritage. Have you ever stopped for a moment and wondered what lies beyond the facades of the buildings you most probably drive past every day? Our city, like any other, is often just the wallpaper in our lives, and yet there’s artistic, political, social, cultural, commercial and scientific life going on in those places; sometimes in extraordinary interiors. They might be characterized by a magisterial dome, a set of frescoes, a period look, a carved staircase, a collection of furniture, or a set of tiles. Hidden Cape Town is about these places, many of them the unsung heroes providing the backdrop to public life.
I’ve tried to stick to the city’s centre, although that’s been quite hard when the occasional outpost in one of the old suburbs was too tempting to exclude.
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Groote Schuur is one, Welgelegen another. There’s probably another book anyway. Hidden Cape Town Part 2 could easily be filled with buildings peppering the route to Simon’s Town. There’s also easily a book on Cape Town’s many churches. I’ve cherry-picked places to feature from a long list of contenders, trying to highlight excellence over the commonplace, or the unusual over those of which there may be many other examples. Others I’ve disregarded, not because I’m a philistine, but because their intrinsic value is debatable or their interiors have nothing to contribute, either because they’ve changed irretrievably or because they’ve gone.
The title, Hidden Cape Town, could imply that the places you see featured are intentionally hidden from view. In most cases, as I discovered, this simply isn’t the case. Many are not inaccessible either; it’s just that as everybody rushes past getting on with life, there isn’t much thought for what lies beyond a familiar entrance. I suppose this is inevitable, given that central Cape Town is only now coming back to life after decades as a place to avoid. What has survived is often nothing short of miraculous if you think about what has already been lost and what we have nearly lost.
Some places are well known and celebrated because they’re great buildings with magnificent interiors. One is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Strand Street, where Anton Anreith’s massive statues of Hercules hold up a pulpit. While these sculptures are a reason to visit, so is the fact that its interior is virtually untouched by the passage of time and new discoveries are constantly being made in its archives. Another wonderful building is the former Metropolitan Methodist Church in Greenmarket Square. Now called the Central Methodist Mission, it’s regarded as a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture both inside and out. And there’s the Old Mutual Building, which, although difficult to get into, is regarded internationally as an iconic piece of Art Deco.
Others are popularly visited for their celebrated contents. The museum in Koopman’s-de Wet House is one, the Old Town House, housing the Michaelis Collection of Old Master Dutch and Flemish paintings is another. Go and see Frans Hals’s Portrait of a Woman: could this be one of the most significant paintings in Cape Town? But what about the portrait of Theodorus Bas Jacobi, also in the Michaelis Collection? Only recently it was confirmed as being the work of Jacob Adriaensz Backer – one of Rembrandt’s more illustrious competitors and a sought-afer and highly fashionable artist in his own day. After 400 years in obscurity, this painter has re-emerged from the shadows and this portrait, whose authorship has long been shrouded in mystery, is now something to celebrate. Are there other treasures lurking in this magnificent collection of Old Master paintings that costs only R10 to visit?
Many of the interior furnishings at Groote Schuur survive, along with period fittings and embellishments, but perhaps the time has come to dispense with later intrusions – like the wall-to-wall carpet.