Think Cape Dutch architecture and one immediately calls to mind the style’s most distinctive feature: the central gable. But gables are not anything new, you might argue, what’s the big deal? – European architecture is full of examples. But at the Cape, gables are different.
Rather than lying at the end of a house, as they do in Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe, they are set right in the middle of the façade over the front door. They’re even given an appealing name for this reason – the central dormer gable. Over time this gable, the work of skilled Malay craftsment, was to become something of a status symbol – the larger and more ornate, the wealthier the settler.
Common to each gable is the date in which the house was built, a fair amount of elaborate design work (dependent on the wealth of the settler) and, as mentioned, the central placement. But the dormer gable was not always a feature.
Initially the homes of the Cape would have been simple, three-roomed affairs without any ornate gables. The homes became more elaborate only when second or third generation Dutch settlers came into money.
Photograph: Laborie in Paarl, built in 1750
Cape Dutch style explained: white-washed walls, dark grey thatch; typically, though not always, a green front door; a window above the front door, encased in the detail of the tall gable; evenly spaced half-windows on either side of the door; and another two to four full-width windows. Over time the homes expanded to allow for further rooms, using the T, H and U-shaped designs we see in those buildings that survive today.
Settlers arriving at the time of Jan van Riebeeck did not set out to build unique and exclusive homes. They came to set up farms to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to the Dutch East India Company’s ships as they passed en route to the East on the Spice Route. Local materials for building were scarce, so they had to be creative.
They used local wood for the frames of the houses and support beams, the walls were made of clay that didn’t weather terribly well, so they overlayed with plaster lime made of sea shells mixed with water, fat and salt (the walls were whitewashed annually, usually at Christmas). The walls were also two bricks deep to protect the homes from both heat and damp, and they used peach pips for their floors. Building was limited so they kept their home structures to 6 metres wide, with a roof pitch of 45 degrees (similar to their European homes).
Roofs were thatched with dried wild reeds (restio), whilst glass for windows were imported from Holland and might have been some time coming, so the windows were relatively small. This consistent standardisation across the homes of the Cape is another thing that sets it apart as a style.
Those buildings that remain are beautiful. Some architectural historians have even suggested that Cape Dutch architecture is the most important contribution settlers made to world culture.
Photograph: Groot Constantia in the Constania Valley, Cape Town
Where to see Cape Dutch architecture – 8 best spots:
The H-shaped manor house, dating back to 1812 and declared a national monument, is fully restored and furnished with yellowwood ceilings, floorboards, doors in teak frames and evidence of painted friezes on the walls. Couple a visit with a cellar tour and wine tasting. (Times: 9.30 – 17.00 daily)
Constantia Manor House
The oldest wine estate in the country, and part of the farm originally granted Simon van der Stel, Groot Constantia’s manor house is an exhibition of furniture, paintings, textiles, ceramics, brass and copper ware. Restored after a fire, it is one of two manor houses on the property. The other is Hoop op Constantia, a U-plan with three gables (originally known as Klein Constantia). Times: 10.00 – 17.00 daily
The Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet is a museum for Cape Dutch architecture – stop at the tourist information office for a map. Especially visit: Nooitgedacht, Reinet House, 15, 104 & 135 Cradock Street, Elifa, 90 Stockenstroom Street, Hester Rupert Art Museum, Drostdy Hotel, 61 & 104 Church Street, 1 & 21 Parsonage Street.
Photograph: Reinet House in Graaff Reinet built in circa 1812
Morgenster, Somerset West
See one of the best examples of the baroque style holbol gable with scrollwork and scallop shell apex in this H-shape Cape Dutch manor house. The morning star engraved into the front gable is the logo for the estate. Times: 10.00 – 16.00
Spier boasts 21 Cape Dutch gables from various periods, the most of any historic farm in the Cape. The Spier complex includes a row of gabled buildings: the Jonkershuis, the workshops and the homestead, plus stables and slave quarters.
Historic Dorp Street is a plethora of Cape Dutch style architecture. The centre of town is typical of the period; and even new building contracts centre on the old Cape Dutch style. Especially visit: Burgher House, Oude Werf, Voorgelegen, Utopia, and the wine estate Lanzerac.
The third oldest town in the country, Swellendam is also one of the most beautiful, filled with whitewashed Cape Dutch homes, particularly the centre of town. Especially visit: Drostdy Museum, the Old Gaol building, Oefeningshuis, 14 Drostdy Street, The Glen, Park Villa, Morgenzon, and the farm Lismore (just outside town).
Settled in 1700, Tulbagh has many beautiful examples of Cape Dutch architecture. Head to Church Street where one house after the other is an example of the period. Much of this street was restored after an earthquake in 1969.
Photograph: Buitenverwachting in Constantia dates back to 1773