History & Heritage
Shysters, shy lions, stargazers and a great hotel
On its way to becoming the site of a much-anticipated hotel in Cape Town’s resurgent cultural precinct, the site on the corner of Adderley and Wale streets has undergone great transformation and seen many colourful characters.
Included in this parade are fraudsters, a much-maligned widow, some modest lions, nervous breakdowns, harried astronomers, outraged taxpayers and a larger-than-life architect, James Morris.
Taj Hotel, together with the adjacent Mandela Rhodes Place building and St George’s Cathedral is the major component of a precinct linking St George’s Mall with the historic Company Gardens, St George’s Cathedral, the old Slave Lodge, the Houses of Parliament, with the Groote Kerk, Grand Parade and the City Hall nearby. The area has seen many of the epochal events in South Africa’s history, but many other incidents in the last 300 years deserve a mention.
The refreshment station established in 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company was the embryo of what is today the City of Cape Town, with Table Mountain as its iconic skyline
The principal reason for establishing the settlement was the need for a vegetable garden and a hospital. The hospital was built on the site bounded by today’s Adderley, Wale, St. George’s and Longmarket Streets and fresh produce was grown in what are now the Company Gardens. The hospital was demolished in 1786, the property sub-divided and houses were built on the site, which was later bought by the Board of Executors and the Reserve Bank.
The hotel site
The buildings on the site are both of significant historical importance within the city. The first is the old Reserve Bank Building, located on the corner of St George’s Mall and Wale Street. It was designed by renowned Cape Town architect James Morris and was completed in 1932.
Inspired by the iconic Palazzo Pitti in Florence, the building has striking exterior architecture. The street facades, constructed of Paarl Granite, were designed to symbolise the financial strength and stability of the Reserve Bank. The front gates, window grilles and front doors on St George’s Mall are of beautifully detailed bronze.
The Temple Chambers – the BOE Building – at the corner of Adderley Street and Wale Street has a colourful history dating back to 1896. It was significantly altered in the late 1920s and has had some more minor alterations done on it on a few other occasions. The name “Temple Chambers” was given to the building out of courtesy to the Barristers of the Supreme Court, who had their offices there.
In building the Taj Hotel, every effort has been made to remain as faithful as possible to the internal historic structure of the buildings. This has given the establishment a blend of old-world charm and elegance. The interior of the Reserve Bank building is richly detailed and contains many beautiful spaces, the most noteworthy of which is the old banking hall in the plan of a Greek cross. This space, with its beautifully detailed barrel vaulted skylight supported by four slightly fluted Portuguese Skyros marble columns, is a natural focal point within the building. Part of banking hall has been converted into the hotel lobby.
The hotel with its blend of the heritage buildings and the ‘modern’ tower is a reflection of the urban revival of the heritage area. It has its own individual design characteristics to capture the distinctive personality of the location and reflect the unique brand image of Taj.
Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces has been creating, enhancing and caring for landmark properties around the world for over 100 years.
The vision for the hotel is to create a synthesis between two historic buildings on the site and a contemporary building that rises out of the historical fabric as a new tower. The challenge is to celebrate the old and the new in a complimentary fashion, creating a new building that maintains an architecture of delicacy and human scale.
When dealing with the historic buildings, the facades were restored and modern external interventions kept to a minimum, while internally every effort was made to remain faithful to the historic fabric, maintaining and restoring as many of the important historic rooms as possible.
The architectural resolution of the new tower is contemporary using both ‘traditional’ materials like natural stone such as limestone, as well as modern materials like steel and glass, creating a delicate, layered façade that incorporates walls, large windows and balconies looking out over the city.
Many assume the statue overlooking the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets to be Britannia, a relic from the Cape’s days as a British colony. The statue was in fact intended as a symbol of the benevolence of the Board of Executors. Commissioned by the architect George Murray Alexander in 1894, a sculptor rendered, “A shepherdess, holding in her right hand the crook, her left hand resting on the anchor, while approaching her a cupid is submitting a book or volume containing facts on which information or guidance is required, and another cupid of client having one hand on the Scales of Justice and in the other a wreath.”
This bit of whimsy didn’t sit well with the townsfolk, nor did the cost – a modest 94 Pounds. In his book which chronicles the first 150 years of the BOE, Ashley Lillie notes that “The portentous and absurd subject matter is rendered in an appropriately clumsy manner. Not surprising therefore that the large, draped female came to be known as ‘Widow Twankey’ the immemorial pantomime dame, always a figure of fun, who nonetheless comes up trump in the end.”
Lillie’s history has it that while the architect was blamed for this ignominy, the sculptor and presumably the model, remain anonymous.
The progress of the building was hampered by a builder’s strike and the architect suffered a nervous breakdown. It was finally completed in 1896.
Despite brickbats and setbacks, the beauty of the two buildings remains, as does evidence of the care taken in their planning construction. Reg de Smidt, the chief architectural assistant on the Reserve Bank writes that meticulous planning was taken to ensure the banking hall was bathed in sunlight.
“For every month of 1929, James Morris (the architect) bludgeoned the Astronomer Royal into measuring the position of the shadows on the skylight. The angle of the sun would create variations of light intensity in the central banking area and Morris wanted direct sunlight in the banking hall.”
The banking hall may have been bathed in Cape sunshine, but there were shadier dealings afoot. Morris had specified that the columns in the light-well should be sourced from Sweden. He wanted mottled green and cream Cippolino.
In his history of the BOE, Lillie writes: “When the columns arrived, the wily Scot, Morris, was convinced (that) cheaper marble had been substituted at a higher price.”
“A court case proved him right but also aroused the ire of the taxpayers and inevitably, a journal of the time, the South African Review, asked: ‘What does the government mean by spending nearly 1 500 Pounds of the taxpayers’ money on four columns?'”
Eventually the columns were scrapped and cheaper ones were sourced. These are the cream and brown Portuguese Styros marble columns that still grace the lobby today.
Morris wasn’t done yet: he’d commissioned the sculptor Ivan Mitford Barberton to sculpt four medallions of lions, the badge of the Reserve Bank, to be mounted at each corner of the bronze grilles on front facade. When Barberton presented his clay models of the lions, Morris derided him, “for omitting their private parts,” writes Lillie.
“Barberton assured him – as he had experience of hunting lions in Kenya – that members of the cat family always concealed their genitals behind their back leg.”
Morris’ attention to detail applied not only to animal anatomy, but also to the tiles of the building, unnoticed by most passers-by, but nevertheless crucial in Morris’ eyes. The three-way hip tiles at the corner of Adderley, St George’s and Wale Streets were modelled, cast and fired at great cost. Morris also had spares made in case an aircraft crashed into the building or workers broke them while cleaning the gutters.
Having modelled the Reserve Bank on the classical Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Morris didn’t want the delicate roofline spoilt by lift gear, so the lift mechanism was installed in the basement, even though this doubled the length of the lift cables.
Design direction – interior architecture and design
The interior architecture and design of the Taj Cape Town respects and complements the historical character of the significant heritage buildings comprising the base of the hotel: the Old Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers. It provides a holistic classical experience in the existing or “Heritage” areas buildings and an interpretive contemporary experience in the “Towers” areas of the hotel. The analogy is of a family with different members, with mutual respect between the older and younger members, all speaking one language but each using different vocabulary.
Public areas and guestrooms located in the Heritage areas of the hotel provide a grand yet calm ambience of tradition and wealth. The interior architecture in the Heritage areas will continue the neoclassical detailing of the existing building. The public areas and guestrooms in the new Towers areas of the hotel provide a contemporary response to the Heritage areas. The Taj Cape Town is a culmination of the historical and the contemporary times of Cape Town, the Heritage and the Towers. However, in all areas, it offers a sophisticated ambience evoking both the history and the hope of Cape Town.
Sources: Ashley Lillie; 1838 – 1988: The first 150 years of The Board of Executors; dhk Architects; Jayne Ayres of the South African Heritage Resources Agency