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Groote Schuur Residence was first built as a granary by the Dutch East India Company in 1893 ©Alison Westwood

Groote Schuur Residence

Location: Klipper Road, Rondebosch

 

Although Cecil John Rhodes liked to open his gardens at Groote Schuur to the public every weekend, visitors are not exactly encouraged these days. The estate is now the official residence of South Africa’s president. Security is tight and tours must be arranged in advance and a passport or identity document provided.

 

Nonetheless, a visit is well worth the effort. Set against the slopes of Table Mountain, this magnificent house was first built as a granary in 1658 by the Dutch East India Company, accounting for its name, which means ‘Great Barn’. After Cecil John Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890, he first rented the property and then purchased it in 1893.

 

He then commissioned a young, unknown British architect visiting Cape Town to renovate the building. It was Herbert Baker’s first project in South Africa and led to his creation of what became known as the Cape Dutch Revival Style.

 

After a suspicious fire destroyed a portion of the house in December 1896, Baker and Rhodes reconstructed and modernised the building using handmade ironmongery and antique Dutch and Spanish tiles, bricks and lanterns. Rhodes commissioned agents to find original furniture, silver and glassware from the Cape, some of which had to be re-imported from Holland. Where no suitable furniture could be found, Baker designed pieces himself. Rhodes bequeathed his estate to the nation and from 1911 until 1994 Groote Schuur was the official Cape residence of South Africa’s prime ministers and presidents. It was here in 1990 that FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela signed the ‘Groote Schuur Minute’, an historic commitment to peaceful negotiations.

 

The teak-lined manor is now a museum, housing a fine collection of Del ceramics, Chinese and Japanese porcelain, 17th-century Flemish tapestries and many other treasures, including Rhodes’s personal library and one of only three Dolmetsch ‘Beethoven’ fortepianos ever made, which visitors are sometimes invited to play.