There are places that are less well known, other than to those who use them. The Lodge de Goede Hoop is one, Herbert Baker’s Welgelegen is another. Here hang James Durdan’s paintings; the only record of what Baker’s interiors looked like when the Currey family lived there. And then there’s the 18th-century Huguenot House in Loop Street, now the home of Prins & Prins Diamonds. Its past was painstakingly unravelled as layers of old paint were peeled away to reveal the remains of a previously magnificent range of decorated interiors.
There’s the Nederlandse Gereformeerde Kerk Tafelberg in Buitenkant Street which, whenever you drive past, is locked and silent though clearly not abandoned because it’s kept in good condition. Curiously, it doesn’t even look like a church. Get inside – permission is given if you go to the office that you can only get to via the multi-storey carpark next door – and the massive hall-church with its hammer beam roof takes your breath away. Maybe I’ve just been blind all these years, but I never knew it was there. A series of small associated rooms are still painted in shades of Victorian brown with furnishings to match. Another of Cape Town’s secrets is the interior of the Gereformeerde Kerk Hof Street, a work from the 1950s by that seminal Afrikaans architect Gerard Moerdyk. Utterly pure in its simple modernity, its gently curving lines are a poetic rendition of a liturgical formula that needed expression through a centrally focused auditorium Nothing inside it is out of place. It’s as beautiful now as the day it was completed. Hidden amongst the trees alongside the Mount Nelson’s gates, it stands detached, silent and unobtrusive.
There are the curiosities. One of them, the Palm Tree Mosque in Long Street, has been there for nearly 200 years, but few people other than the faithful have ever been inside it. Not that it’s anything special architecturally speaking, but the fact that it’s still there – the most remarkable survival in the centre of the city – is something to celebrate. More so because its essential use hasn’t changed in all that time either. In fact, it’s busier than ever. The Castle of Good Hope is also full of surprises. One of them, the Cape Town Rifles (Dukes) Officers’ Mess, continues a military presence in the old fortress of Cape Town, and it houses a museum containing the memorabilia of what is, in fact, the Cape’s oldest infantry regiment. In the museum, Edward Rowarth’s magnificent portrait of Colonel Cecil James Sibbett, the regiment’s first Honorary Colonel (1935-1967) and at one period Private Secretary to Cecil John Rhodes, is magnificent.
Another curiosity lurks inside the New Somerset Hospital. There, the Lady Loch children’s ward contains a gallery of paintings donated in 1900 by benevolent citizens who, in their Sunday art circles, painted scenes from familiar nursery rhymes and fairy tales for the entertainment of the beleaguered little patients. A hanging committee was appointed to arrange them on the walls where they remain to this day. If the children weren’t transfixed by the characters from Sing a Song o’ Sixpence – the king in his counting house, the queen in her parlour or the maid in the garden hanging out the clothes – they could watch through their ward’s Tudor-style windows the rough Atlantic breaking on the African shores not far away. Today, the Lady Loch Ward is empty; who knows what these delightful paintings’ future holds?
And then there are the interiors – amongst them some magnificent ones belonging to the University of Cape Town – not included because budgets wouldn’t cover the enormous fees required in return for permission to photograph. I’m thinking of Smuts Hall, its dining hall and common room in particular. The Houses of Parliament aren’t here either, although not for want of trying. There was a mountain of red tape, and then there were those emails that went backwards and forwards and back again, asking me to resend already sent documentation over and again, getting me nowhere in a byzantine show of pointless inefficiency, only to be told that my request to photograph had been declined. What a pointless waste of everybody’s time; those individuals in the secretary to Parliament’s office should be ashamed of themselves. The interiors of the Parliament building are magnificent and deserve an airing in a book such as this one. Another interior that didn’t make it into the book is that of the old General Post Office in Darling Street. Those enormous painted panels by Sidney Carter and GW Pilkington were left out because we couldn’t find a way amongst all the market clutter around them to photograph them effectively.
Inevitably there are more churches than there are mosques or synagogues and, while some interiors achieve a keyhole view of a moment in history (Bertram House is one) others, like the Centre for the Book, are alive again after a lifetime in mothballs and are full of renewed purpose. Still others are just waiting for a new lease of life: surely it’s time to do something about the City Hall, one of the last great civic town halls thrown up by the British Empire? It desperately needs something new to do. I’ve walked through those vast halls. I’ve seen the panelled mayor’s chamber, in which hangs Terence McCaw’s lovely portrait of Mayor Bloomberg’s wife, along with Neville Lewis’s Malay Man. I’ve seen the coloured marbles, the jeweled tesserae on the floors and the ornate white stucco, and I’ve gained a sense of the pride that went into its construction at the turn of the last century. I’ve even watched an elderly man from Wiltshire, stripped to his tie and braces, a specialist in tower bell music, play the 39-bell carillon housed in the clock tower. Operated by an antiquated array of wooden levers and pedals that require enormous skill to play, it’s been silent for so long that only a much older generation of Capetonians will ever have heard it. It’s the last working carillon in South Africa. A restored city hall, reinvigorated and put to good use, will bring this unique instrument – and this part of Cape Town – back to life.
Something that astonishes is just how prolific Herbert Baker was. His buildings may be more prominent elsewhere, but here in Cape Town, apart from one or two obvious exceptions, they’re almost reticent. And there are lots of them, although I’ve chosen to feature only Groote Schuur, Welgelegen, St George’s Cathedral, UCT’s Hiddingh Campus – where there’s a glut of them, and bits of Bishops (Diocesan College). What else is clear, however, is that there are also one or two unsung architectural heroes in Cape Town. Charles Freeman, who designed the Metropolitan Methodist Church, is one, and James Morris, architect of the South African Reserve Bank, now the Taj Hotel Cape Town, is another. Dig a little deeper and both these men were responsible for more than just a little of what central Cape Town looks like today.
A real surprise for me was the interior of the Old Mutual – that dark and somewhat forbidding ziggurat in Darling Street. Now mostly apartments, nonetheless the miles of labyrinthine corridors and endless circuitous staircases didn’t prepare me for what lay behind the chained and padlocked aluminium doors on the eighth floor: a room, not big, but double-height, its walls adorned with towering frescoes depicting Cape Town’s history in gorgeous autumn colours, its floor the perfect parquet. As the golden early morning light streams in through those characteristic perpendicular, projecting triangular windows, the reason why Hidden Cape Town had to exist received the best affirmation there could be. Going into that assembly room for the first time suddenly made this book seem worthwhile. There, hidden from view, embalmed in the gloom of a now defunct office building, the subject matter of its decoration not the most politically correct, is one of Cape Town’s greatest treasures.
At the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, a collection of antique and mid-20th-century paintings and icons adorns the screen separating the sanctuary from the nave. At the centre of the upper register, a depiction of the Last Supper is flanked by the Twelve Apostles.
Maybe You Like Them Too
- Drink Umqombothi Africa’s Indigenous Sorghum (Home) Brews
- TAJ HOTEL CAPE TOWN St George’s and Wale streets Cape Town
- CITY HALL Darling Street Cape Town
- GROOTE KERK Adderley Street Cape Town
- NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SOUTH AFRICA Queen Victoria Street Cape Town