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Notes on the Geography of South Africa: Port Elizabeth

Elizabeth who, you ask? Well, the answer is Elizabeth Donkin, who died young in India and never set foot here. Her husband did, in an official capacity as the officer in charge of the settlement's establishment. This was 1820, when 4,000 settlers arrived by ship to establish a British presence. Rufane Donkin apparently missed his wife and remembered her with the name he gave the settlement. And now you know.

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South Africa: Port Elizabeth picture 1

We're about 500 sea-miles east of Cape Town and at Delgoa Bay, a corruption of "de Lagoa," or lagoon. You'll have to hunt for a lagoon, but apparently there was one at the mouth of the small, olive-green stream you see passing with a bordering strip of green under the elevated highway. The name came not from Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to see the place. Nor from Vasco da Gama, who came a few years later. It came two short lifetimes later, in 1576, with another Portuguese navigator, Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo. Odd that it took another 250 years before Europeans attempted a permanent settlement, but something very similar happened with Durban.

We're on what's called "the hill" at a point overlooking what's called "the valley." There's a fair view here of the port(supplemented now by an entirely new one a few miles to the left or east.) Any guesses why that patch of forest on the right survives? We'll take a look.

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Right you are, if you guessed right. Any idea about the vocations of the occupants?

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Plenty of sailors passed through, and some stayed. The name Cape Recif translates to Cape Reef, which just might help explain what happened to this captain's ship.

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Another case, this one from half a dozen years later.

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Port Elizabeth is not frozen in the colonial past, though this view of downtown makes one question the thing we call progress. In any event, we're standing in the Donkin Reserve, a very plain park--a bit of grass, really--preserved by Ruhane Donkin in memory of Elizabeth. Notice those row houses fronting the park?

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They were built in the 1860s and '70s, apparently not at one go and not even starting at one end and working to the other. Rather,they were built here and there yet apparently with an overall plan in mind, because when the line was done the houses fit together perfectly. Who built them? Sorry, no help from me. The only other thing I know is that the land here originally sloped down to a gully behind the houses, so fill had to be brought in before construction could begin.

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Early in 2014 the buildings were being gutted, which provided a good opportunity to see the construction methods of the 1860s. Think you can buy such clear joists today? Not at my building-supply store, you can't.

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In the middle of the Donkin Reserve there's a lighthouse from 1861 and an oddly proportioned pyramid built by Rufane Donkin.

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A plaque recalls Elizabeth Donkin dying in Meerut, now a couple of hours north of Delhi. The plaque is hard to read, but it was easier to decipher 25 years ago, when another picture was taken. It's somewhere in the file called Circle Trip.

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The King Edward Hotel faces the Donkin Reserve on the inland side. The hotel was closed in 2014, when this picture was taken.

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A closer view.

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The "M" stands for Mansions, which may be a little puzzling until you learn that the place was built not as a hotel but as an apartment house.

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We're going back down the hill. Steel yourself, because this isn't the kind of place that draws buckets of tourists. The first bad sign is right here, where the waterfront has been blighted by an elevated freeway. A San Franciscan might say, "Another Embarcadero Freeway." Except this one hasn't been torn down.

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The tower looks like a smokestack, but the fancy steps hint that it might be more. By the way, that building whose edge you see on the left was a good hotel in the days before the elevated highway. For some reason business dried up, and the hotel closed.

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It's not a smokestack. It's the town's campanile, built in 1921.

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South Africans remember their past. Why? Here's a theory for you: the British and the Afrikaners were in such brutal competition for the place that each group took every opportunity to celebrate its achievements. Don't like the theory? Fine: we offer a double-your-money-back guarantee.

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So here we are, one block inland, on what used to be Main Street. Now it's Govan Mbeki, named for Thabo's father. Traffic has been calmed by reducing it to one line with speed bumps, but the view still isn't inspiring.

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Think this is bad?

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Try this on for size. Makes you wonder what people born after 1980 will make of the 1960's, socially a revolutionary decade but architecturally a warning about what the world might become.

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Of course modern architecture did have a strong defense: it was sweeping away the nonsense of the past.

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Architects were desperate to find something besides the neoclassical and gothic.

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How's this for something different? It's a functioning church, St. Mary's Anglican cathedral, rebuilt after a fire in 1895. The facade here dates from 1924. The main entrance is on the other side, and the ground floor on this side has always been commercial space. How's that for the entrepreneurial spirit?

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You can see the same church hiding near the end of the lineup on the right. In the distance is the town's original Market Square. In the middle of it is the town hall, with the octagonal tower of the post office peeping over the town hall's roof.

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The interesting thing is that the town hall is new, a replica of a building finished in 1862 and destroyed by fire in 1977. So by about 1980 somebody in town decided that the modern buildings along Main Street weren't as good looking as the old stuff, which in this case was then rebuilt, though with modern interiors. The clock tower, by the way, was not part of the original design in 1860 but was installed in 1880 after the church on which it stood was demolished.

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Kitty-corner to the town hall is the public library, completed in 1902 on the site of an old court house. The architect was one Henry Cheers from Twickenham, a London suburb. The terra-cotta panels were made in England and shipped here in numbered pieces for assembly under the direction of the town engineer, Orlando Middleton, who had completed his RIBA exam. All of which raises the question of how cultures project themselves into new lands and under what conditions they evolve into something else. Which they surely didn't in this case, and don't in most others. There you go, another theory with a money-back guarantee.

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The building wasn't cheap. One local donor contributed 10,000 pounds and got himself memorialized inside. Alas, this is Sunday. No chance to peek and no time to wait.

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The grim post office, from 1902. We could blame the shade.

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What a difference color makes. It's the Feather Market, built in 1882 to sell ostrich feathers and converted in the 1990s to a concert hall. This face is an addition from 1908. It hides the older, cast-iron hall behind.

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In meliora spera was the motto of Rufane Donkin, who we conclude hoped for better times. The shield is mostly his, too, which is why the elephant is Indian. How can we tell? You probably can't see it, but the word India appears in tiny letters under the elephant.

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Just behind the town hall is this recent (1986) Coptic Cross commemorating Prester John and Portuguese navigators. Yes, Vasco da Gama is said to have been motivated in part by the quest for the mythic priest-king.

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Speaking of monuments: here, a few blocks inland from the Donkin Reserve and in a large city park, stands the Prince Alfred's Guard memorial. It was made in Glasgow and shipped here for assembly in 1907. MacFarlane's had an extensive catalog of pieces that could be assembled to suit the client.

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The trooper stands in field-service uniform. Hard to believe that he was in the catalog.

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Different sides of the monument recall different campaigns.

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The builder's plate.

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You're wondering about residential neighborhoods? We'll look at a couple, beginning with this hotel bordering Havelock Square, which actually is a square park next to the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. Original purpose of this building? Don't know.

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This one is easier. It's a mansion on Bird Street, which runs straight down to the waterfront.

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A listed townhouse, although it looks a lot like a four-plex.

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Now there you go, just the place for anyone who misses the 1950s.

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You have to like this one better, though upkeep must be a headache. We're on Newington Road, a bit farther inland but apparently prime real estate in the 1880s. The house has a name, Windyridge, though the day was calm.

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These may not catch your eye, but they too are from the 1880s and are almost unchanged since then, at least on the outside. They are officially classed as heritage buildings for that reason. We're still on Newington Road.

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Same street, same idea. Can this be the original color? I'm betting not.

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Nearby, a bit of Deco from the last gasp of Empire.


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