Mass vaccinations to a lecture on evolution – City Hall was immediately put to a variety of uses after it opened its doors in 1905. Cape Town was a city at last – it has its own building with offices, chamber, library and mayoral suites at the front and a Grand Hall at the back. It became the heart of Cape Town civic life with boxing competitions, Malay choir concerts, performances by Cape Town Municipal Orchestra (inaugural concert 1914; now called Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra). Performers include Igor Stravinsky, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Noël Coward, and Pretty Yende – the hall has great acoustics and was the largest hall in the city, centrally located on Cape Town’s biggest square, Grand Parade.
It was impressive and grand architecturally – with materials from near and far – most famously the buttery coloured limestone from Bath (England), polished granite columns from Aberdeen (Scotland) and marble for its grand double stair case from Italy.
From today it has a new use – a temporary Parliament after the General Assembly’s fire on 2 Jan 2022. While I waited in the heat for the handing over the keys from the Executive City Mayor to Parliament’s Speaker, I felt I could have been in central Paris with its Napoleonic Second Empire facade – grand, classical and fancy mansard roof. But it is very much of the British Empire – Cape Town was the last of its colonies to have its own city hall (previously there was the small, Old Town House in Greenmarket Sq, built during the previous era of the Dutch East India Company).
Similar city halls with neo-classical facades with clock towers, can be found across Britain and its empire, including in South Africa eg Johannesburg, Harrismith (Free State) and Durban. But Cape Town’s is hard to beat – not doubt aided by the big budget, thanks to the taxes and wealth from the country’s gold and diamond mines, as well as the dedication and passion of its proud administrators, coupled with the talent of architects, builders and suppliers here. There was clearly the wish to make a statement and show a successful city, well run, proud, confident (and British).
No surprises City Hall’s interior is in some ways reminiscent of central London’s civil service buildings, like Whitehall’s Treasury – chandeliers, moldings, well detailed wooden doors, wide corridors with offices leading off (very contemporary at the time), mosaic floors and light switches, many imported from ‘Great Britain’. Advisors and suppliers included no less Sir George Martin, organist of St Paul’s Cathedral in London drawing up the spec for the organ. And the clock being specified by Edmund Beckett, 1st Baron Grimthorpe designed the mechanism for the clock of the Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament in London), responsible for the chimes of Big Ben.
Both locals and Brits were employed in the construction – artisans from nearby District 6, until the plague broke out in 1901 – one of the many problems that “plagued” construction.
In 1895 there was open competition to find the best designers; there were a staggering 168 entries. The City decided to go for the entry by Johannesburg based Reid & Green, despite it being placed third by the architect, Harry Greaves, they appointed to be judge! (Greaves designed Parliament close-by, completed in 1884.) By the time the building was completed, the partnership of Green and Reid had disbanded – they didn’t like the way each other worked on the project which was fraught with difficulties. The foundations had to be five times deeper than anticipated (5.5 metres rather than one). Two men working on the construction site fell to their deaths after an accident involving two cranes. One ship full of materials sunk in Table Bay after a huge gale. But the biggest problem must have been the bitter, bloody South African War (aka Second Anglo-Boer War) which started the same year as construction, 1899 (the war ended in 1902). In 1890 Boer soldiers destroyed the railway line preventing stone reaching Cape Town; so it was back to plan A of using Monk Limestone from Bath, initially vetoed by local masons.
City Hall was largely designed during Victoria’s reign – indeed city elders wanted it to commemorate her golden jubilee – a phenomenal 50 years of being on the throne. But she died in 1901 and City Hall opened in 1905, so many call it Edwardian in style. Indeed King Edward VII looks at the City Hall – face-to-face, high up on his pediment opposite the main entrance, in Sicilian marble no less.
Queen Elizabeth had one of her two big 21st birthday parties in City Hall; the princess was visiting with her family in 1947 as part of their thank you for South African WW2 efforts. A friend’s mother who lives in District 6 proudly says the Queen touched her toe when she was a baby. Another friend who lives in Bonteheuwel mentioned how her grandparents made the Queen’s birthday cake!
Nelson Mandela (whose fans included the Queen) gave his first speech here as a freed man after 27 years in prison, 11 Feb 1990. He spoke to the crowds at the top of the steps. The Royal family who used the balcony above and it was planned that he would go here too but Mandela wanted to be nearer the people. One of the people with him was the young Cyril Ramaphosa. 28 years later stood here for his first address to the nation as leader of the ANC on 11 Feb 2018. It marked Mandela’s birth in 1918 which was on 18 July so on 18 July also in 2018 a painted bronze statue of Mandela was unveiled here by artists Xhanti Mpakama and Barry Jackson. The statue, actually a tiny bit larger than life, was to get more tourists to the area and it is succeeding – Culture Connectors love coming here on my city walks. (Other than Table Mountain behind, it is the only indicator of location.)
There has been talk of bulldozing City Hall. In the 1960s it was considered no longer fit for purpose – too small (and old fashioned). A new Modern skyscraper was built instead, the Civic Centre, close-by on the reclaimed foreshore. Ironically this is too small with City offices in many different places (some being used temporarily by Parliament). In 1982 City Hall became home of the central library before it moved next door to the refurbished Drill Hall in 2008.
When I moved to Cape Town in 2010, I came to City Hall for ad hoc design shows, charity concerts and fringe theatre; I loved being in the building – in all its faded glory. In 1990 Cape Town based restoration architects, Rennie Scurr were employed and, as Rennie Scurr and Adendorff, the concert hall re-opened in 2018 after nine months, its first major refurbishment since 1947 ie the British Royal family visit. (Watch this SABC video about the restoration, focusing on the organ, but with pictures of Mandela’s 1990 speech.)
At the end of the last year, despite the contractual budget complications that came with Covid and a public body, the front of City Hall re-opened. It is more than a restoration, it is a renewal and upgrade with IT cabling, lifts for disabled access, temperature control, health and safely etc. The main shop/offices of Cape Town tourism are now here and a permanent exhibition on Nelson Mandela. But now City Hall is a fitting, temporary home for South Africa’s Parliament. Cyril Ramaphosa will be back again – this time to give the annual State of the Nation Address. And the City isn’t charging a cent for its new, temporary tenant! And the Mandela exhibition will be open again straight afterwards – 17 Feb 2022. I recommend a visit.
Kate Crane Briggs
31 Jan 2022
Sources of info: Cape Town City Hall: A Short Sketch by David Hart (draft 2018 July 10), artefacts and Cape Town on Foot by Ursula Stevens.
Images below from today’s media event for handing over the key’s to Parliament , except for the last two – the black and white one is the Treasury Whitehall, London (Pinterest) and the last one from a city history Culture Connect tour last year, led by Lesley Cox