The history of the Taj Hotel in Cape Town is intertwined with the area where it stands: on the corner of Wale and Adderley Streets and opposite St George’s Cathedral. Converting old existing buildings into newly constructed ones must be an enormously challenging task for the designers and architects. Judging by how it all works, they seem to have been very successful. Space creation has certainly been prioritised to create dimensions which are pleasing to the eye and lovely to walk through.
It is in this rather spectacular manner that the hotel as it is today came into being – through the conversion of existing spaces into new, workable ones. Its conversion from previously existing Cape Town buildings therefore warrants some explanation. A former General Manager of the Taj Cape Town, Michael Powell, said the following about the hotel’s conversion: “When faced with this unique heritage-listed building and its valuable history, we decided that the timeless facade, and the interior, with its period bronze fittings and fixtures, should take centre stage. All the modern conveniences and technology should operate almost invisibly in supporting roles.”
One of the buildings incorporated into the project for the conversion into the hotel is the 1932 Old Reserve Bank Building, built to the most precise proportions. This cannot be better seen than when one enters the foyer of the hotel – how the new and the dimensions of the old come together. This space was once the banking hall. Clients entered to deposit or withdraw funds; today they come to be energised, to be guests in a hotel and to depart, refreshed and enriched from the experience. Looking up at the ceiling you see the magnificent barrel vault supported by elegant Portuguese Skyros columns of marble quarried in Portugal. You feel the scale and dimension, and the air swirling around you as you perambulate through the space.
The façade of the building is in the style of Florentine architecture during the time of the Medici, more specifically resembling Cosimo I’s Pitti Palace which he constructed as a place to relax from the strict programme of court life in the centre of Florence. And so the place that is the Taj Hotel of Cape Town is just that … a place where the visitor can just switch off. Fortunately, the granite for the building’s façade was acquired locally, from Paarl, so no transporting all that stone from the quarries frequented by Michelangelo in search of his next perfect slab of marble! This Boland town is renowned for its granite intrusions that burst out of the earth’ s crust 500 million years ago. Driving north on the N1, one can see the Paarl Rock, that bulbous granite outcrop as part of the larger Paarl Mountain.
Part of the Taj’s façade is the elegant entrance No 4 Wale Street with its brass plaque still visible from the road. It was here, at Temple Chambers, that advocates once practised. It was also here that there once stood the hospital of the Dutch East India Company, between 1697 and 1782. Today visitors and tourists can see the special plaque placed there by the Simon van der Stel Foundation (see the photograph below).
The Simon van der Stel Foundation was founded on 8 April 1959 at a ceremony at the Cape Town Castle to promote the conservation of South Africa’s national heritage buildings and sites such as the Dutch East India Company’s hospital where the Taj Cape Town now stands. Read more at http://simonvdstel.org.
The other former building incorporated into the present Taj Cape Town was that of the Board of Executors, dating back to 1896. The statue that stands at the corner of the building facing in the direction of Table Mountain (although obscured by other buildings) became known as the Widow Twankey. This is rather tongue-in-cheek when considering that its purpose was to demonstrate the benevolence that a trust company such as the Board of Executors was able to exact for its clients, especially for those widowed, whose capital had to be carefully curated. Not forgetting the wealthy whose funds were expected to grow at an alarming rate.
Looking out from the hotel foyer on to St George’s Mall there is a great deal of history, not least the Bishop Gray Memorial placed there to commemorate His Grace the First Bishop of Cape Town who arrived in Cape Town with his wife Sophie Gray in 1848. He died on 1 September 1872 and is buried in the grounds of St Saviour’s Church Claremont. Around the Taj there is a considerable amount of interesting history. The best is to book a tour with one of the tour companies, eg http://www.capetourism.co.za/info-cape-town/tourism-cape-town-travel.html.
However, while there are a great many features that make the hotel special, guests come here to relax. The hotel comprises rooms and suites, plus a spa, a fitness centre, two restaurants, a bar and cigar lounge, as well as the Lobby Lounge for relaxation. It is expected that one’s room will be comfortable and well-appointed. A hotel of this nature obviously has a wide range of luxury rooms and suites, although for the discerning visitor there are definitely good deals to come by. One way of seeing what’s on offer is to go to Booking.Com or some of the other sites, such as Trivago. Go to https://taj.tajhotels.com/en-in/taj-cape-town.
The hotel features works of a number of local artists with local topics and polychromatic scenes such as Cape Town street vendors. The style of the paintings above closely resembles the colourful works of one of South Africa’s best-known artists, Maggie Laubser. To read more about her, go to http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/maria-magdalena-maggie-laubser.
There are also striking examples of Indian art in some places, such as in the foyer and lobby, providing a balance between the more classical and the new and modern.
Breakfast is served from the Mint Restaurant as well as the Lobby Lounge, where a scrumptious experience awaits the early morning riser – or if you want to lie in a bit, eggs to order. Hot breakfasts abound and there’s much else to choose from at the buffet.
The buffet at the Taj is as colourful as the art on the walls.
The chef takes personal pride in coming to check, or add, to ensure there are no spaces.
There’s something for everyone … cereals, croissants, salmon, cheeses, meats … and hot breakfast to order.
The tables are beautifully decorated and works of art are interpersed in the lobby and elsewhere to create a calm aesthetic.
Décor at the Taj is paramount.
For curry and Eastern food lovers the Bombay Brasserie is an experience. From curries to biryani, it’s all there, accompanied by South African wines of superior quality.
The experience at Taj Cape Town was a pleasant one. The way it was constructed and created, from the older existing building to the new, was masterful. Holding on to the strong historical side, pulling in the stories and history to make it blend and work into a modern hotel in possibly one of Cape Town’s most vibrant areas and sacred spaces must have taken a lot of thinking.
For more information, visit https://taj.tajhotels.com/en-in/taj-cape-town.
- Photographs: Paul Murray