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Notes on the Geography of South Africa: Swellendam 1: Houses

Smaller than Paarl or Stellenbosch, Swellendam feels like a town rather than a small city. At the same time, although tourism is crucial to its economy, Swellendam is less fussy than some other Western Cape towns; it's less packaged for tourism than Franschhoek, for example.

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South Africa: Swellendam 1: Houses picture 1

House proud is hardly adequate to explain the meticulous care given this rural home, perhaps three miles from the town center. It was owned during the 1830s by Marthinus Steyn, an ancestor of President Martinus Steyn; from 1870 to 1900 it belonged to President Francis Reitz.

The subdued but prominent name on the gate hints at the fact that, like many of the old homes in Swellendam, this one, called Klippe Rivier, is now a B&B.

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Hans Fransen is the expert on these places and has written extensively about them. Klippe Rivier, he says, traces its roots to a quitrent deed of 1740 morgen, about 3,500 acres. Call it a Boer-style homestead grant. It was registered in 1818, and the house was built by 1825. (The trellis and vines are a later addition.) Fransen calls Klippe Rivier "easily the finest house in the Overberg" (The Old Houses of the Cape, 1974). (The Overberg is one of the Western Cape's half-dozen districts or district municipalities.)

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We're here, on Highway N2 in the wheat lands east of the Hottentot Mountains and, hence, in the Overberg.

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Eventually we bump into another mountain, the Langeberg, or Long Mountain, an anticlinal ridge of Table Mountain Sandstone. The Dutch East India Company created a settlement district here, about 150 miles of Capetown, in 1743.

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It was called Swellendam and grew slowly into a town today of 20,000, overseen by the Langeberg. Here the main street approaches the town center. It's Voortrek Street.

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Swellendam is in the center of an agricultural area, as this combine suggests as it rumbles to the fairground. Behind it: the town's shopping center.

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Although the British took charge of the then-Cape Colony in 1814, and although many settlers were British, Cape Dutch remained the dominant architectural style, here with an end gable in the distinctive holbol style. The term refers to the alternation of convex and concave curves. The roof was originally thatched, then converted to iron, then, perhaps in connection with the conversion to a B&B, back to thatch.

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The house was built by one Johannes Rothmann. The letters JVDS apparently stand for "Jaar Van De Slaven," the Year of the Slaves. That would be 1834, the year of the abolition of slavery. Why Rothmann put that on his front gable is unknown but at least suggests that the event was transformational.

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Another house on Voortrek Street, this one was built in 1825 by the wainwright Jacobus van Dyk. He sold it in 1839, and it became a school in 1870. It retains its original end gables, along with its original windows--four full, two half. The thatch roof is gone, and so are the front gable and a fan light over the front door.

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It's still a school, though now one for boys having trouble at regular schools.

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Another well-known house, Moolmanshof.

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The stoep has flights to either side, but the thatch is gone and the entrance stripped.

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Still, the house is a big one, enlarged in 1847 to an H-shape with holbol end-gables.

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The Auld House was the home of the prominent Barry family. The founder, Joseph Barry, arrived in 1817 but did not marry and settle until 1825. The next year he bought this home from a schoolmaster; it burned in 1834 but was rebuilt. Thanks in part to his wife, Johanna van Reenen, he went on to build a commercial empire based on sheep and wool but extending into finance.

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One more. Looks like a house, but looks can be deceiving.

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Present use.

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Off Voortrek Street, this is New Morgenzon ("New Morning Light"). It was built in 1751 as the residence of the secretary of the landdrost, a term abolished in 1827 and replaced by Resident Magistrate. The house was eventually privatized. It served as a girls' school from 1855 to 1875 and eventually became a home for the aged. Inadequate for that purpose, a new home was built, and New Morgenzon was restored to its 1827 appearance and made into a community center.

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Its east facade suggests that the original occupants weren't much interested in the scenery.

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The new home for the aged, which is next door, at least has plenty of windows.

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A distinctly British variant, with bungalow porches around a hipped roof yet with a gable making a major concession to the Dutch heritage.

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No concessions here. The house was built in 1853 in a simple Georgian form; the verandas and metalwork were added after 1900. For a time it belonged to Swellendam's mayor, so nodding to Dutch tradition apparently wasn't prerequisite to holding the post.

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Here we are on the east side of town. A bit of land like this in the foreground is an invitation to a developer.

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The result is Rotary Park, a retirement community with stalag-quality fencing.

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Still, gates aren't very smart, and we can wiggle in.

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Don't try finding your house if you've been drinking.

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A feeble attempt at gables.

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Here's another security-conscious subdivision. What do you make of the concrete-slab yard fences? The bright side is you never have to paint or stain them, and they'll last til the last syllable of whatever it was he said.


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