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Daisy Jones: Rethinking Cape Town’s Heritage Square

By , 6 October 2020



Approaching number 71 Buitengracht in Cape Town, there’s the sound of banging. Entering the four-storey, 1902 building through heavy wooden doors you discover a workman with a pickaxe. He’s the source of the banging. He’s breaking apart a corner in a courtyard. There’s a painter here too. He’s touching up a wooden column that flanks the second set of doors at the entrance. These doors are new, in smart glass and chrome.

Around the corner, at 92 Bree Street, the paint is newly dry on a new Heritage Square sign, the official entrance to the courtyard of one of Cape Town’s oldest courtyards. A few doors down, at the corner of Bree and Shortmarket, Liam Tomlin is occupying a table at Chefs Warehouse & Canteen, his first restaurant in Cape Town.

The 250-year-old courtyard is his new space, his latest foodie project, due to open next month: “We’re hoping for mid-November”. It’s called Local at Heritage and Tomlin says it’s “one of most exciting projects I’ve worked on for years”.

Why is he excited – and not daunted? Does he not have enough on his plate in this challenging post-Lockdown climate? Tomlin already has five restaurants in the Cape: Chefs Warehouse & Canteen, Chefs Warehouse Beau Constantia, Thali, Chefs Warehouse Maison in Franschhoek and Jewells in Paarl.

One reason for the excitement is that Tomlin will be supporting local producers, some of whom were hard-hit by Lockdown. Tomlin is well-known for his sense of responsibility. He is committed to training and mentoring restaurant staff, and he played a leading role during Lockdown with the Restaurant Relief Fund. Now, Local at Heritage will open doors for Cape Town’s best small farmers, makers and entrepreneurs. Tomlin’s vision is for a space that’s part market and part dining area, with stall-holders selling everything from local meat, fish and vegetables, to salt, ice cream and chocolate, to charcuterie and olive oil. Visitors who want to sit down will have “five or six” meal options to choose from, according to Tomlin. These will include a bakery and a new outlet for Tomlin’s own food. Chefs Warehouse & Canteen will remain where it is, but its retail section – the cookbooks, equipment and so on – will move to the courtyard. “We will have a much bigger space to expand all our wares into,” he says.

But Tomlin is also excited about the architectural process of “stripping back” at Heritage Square. It was his decision to reverse additions made to the building over 20 to 30 years and “return it to its original form”.

With summer approaching and no holiday plans beyond our borders, the thought of playing foodie tourist in an historic landmark is a happy prospect for this potential diner too.

Local at Heritage will occupy four interlinked spaces. In the centre space, small red bricks and very slim, wood-framed windows have been exposed. In another, the walls are made of dark, jagged rock. The walls closest to Buitengracht Street are built from regular, dark brick. One of the spaces is very squat, with extremely hefty-looking wooden beams just above head height.

Painting of Cape Town in the 1770s.

A quarter of a millennium ago, in 1771, a man named Ludwig Fichtener was issued a land grant for erf numbers 71 and 73 on Buitengracht Street in Cape Town. That’s where we heard the banging earlier.

Fichtener was the first person to take ownership of land on the square. Over time, what was originally Fichtener’s land was used as a private residence, a retail store, boarding houses and a grocery shop. In 1902 the Docks Warehouse Company built the current two-tone building.

Selling food and drinks creates a nice link to the past here. The building on 65, 67 and 69 Buitenkant was for many years Attwell Bakery, with giant ovens and chimney stacks. The grapevine in the courtyard, planted in 1781, is thought to be the oldest fruit-bearing vine in the country.

Some of the premises on Shortmarket Street have a less sunny history. The building between Chefs Warehouse & Canteen and the freshly painted Heritage Square sign was for many years an undertaker’s business, complete with mortuary. For some time, there was a funeral chapel for mourners a floor above.

There is worse. Tomlin mentions evidence of shackles on the walls. In his 2004 book, “An Unsung Heritage: Perspectives on Slavery”, Alan Mountain confirms that the traces of slave cells can still be some in some of the buildings on the square. Mountain also writes that Riebeeck Square, the open “outspan” area that is adjacent to Heritage Square, was the scene of slave auctions and floggings.

This grimmest part of the square’s history is not mentioned on the Cape Town Heritage Trust’s information board at the Shortmarket Street entrance to Heritage Square. The Cape Heritage Hotel does make brief mention of a “slave prison”.

Interestingly, the flat roofs of the buildings at Heritage Square were not just an architectural style choice, but a direct result of slavery. “A… type of rebellion manifested itself shortly after the first slaves were landed at the Cape,” Mountain says. “This took the form of arson, which represented a surreptitious, physical expression of opposition and revolt.”

Individual homes were set alight “from virtually the first days of slavery”, Mountain says. The practice was widespread enough that in 1686 the Dutch East India Company forbade the construction of houses with low eaves as they were easy to set alight. Two years later, in 1688, the first “dedicated programme to ‘burn one house after another, to ashes’” was embarked upon by a “free black”, Sante of Sante Jago (of Cape Verde) and a slave, Michiele.

The arsonists evaded arrest and the fires continued. In 1717, the Council of Policy stipulated that houses should no longer be thatched. The following year, the Council decreed that roofs should be constructed of layers of brick and non-flammable materials.

There were three great fires in the city of Cape Town in the eighteenth century, in 1736, 1790 and 1798. The fires were started on particularly windy days, in particularly flammable places, like shops that stored oils, fats and fabrics. All three fires caused extensive damage and in each case “imported male slaves” were found to be responsible.

In 1804, the town authorities placed an absolute ban on thatched roofs and all existing buildings had to be altered accordingly. “This led to the rapid disappearance of steeply pitched thatched roofs and grand front gables in urban Cape Town,” Mountain says.

Some of the buildings on Heritage Square are identified as Georgian, an architectural style that was current between 1714 and 1830. The flat roofs and relatively high walls are features of the style, but it seems a happy coincidence for colonial-era architects in Cape Town that both European fashion and local laws demanded flat roofs and high walls.

There’s a reason why grand thatched houses and Cape Dutch gables still exist in the suburbs and rural areas. Although arson attacks on farms were common, the law that insisted on houses being rebuilt did not extend beyond city limits.

Exposed original brickwork, exposed piping and exposed floorboards and beams have long been a feature of sophisticated urban restaurants. The Cape Heritage Hotel, also part of Heritage Square, boasts of its building’s solid teak roof beams and wide yellowwood planks underfoot.

It’s understandable to prize centuries-old architectural features and materials for their durability and monetary value. In Cape Town there’s a novelty value too. There are very few South African buildings from the 1700s where one can stay a night or order a meal.

But South African have been “stripped back” this year like never before. Our sense of mortality has been challenged. Our economy has been challenged. We have been isolated from one another.

In a paper published last year, Sam North says: “As a city, Cape Town sits on top of an uncomfortable history of colonialism, slavery, and formal racial segregation. This history has an uneasy relationship with depictions of the city in tourist publications as an inclusive world of adventuring, beaches, dining, and warm weather.”

When Local at Heritage opens next month, we’ll be sharing the space with our fellow South Africans – and very few, if any, foreign visitors. Let’s support our local suppliers and connect with each other again, educated with real knowledge of the city’s history.

  • Daisy Jones has been writing reviews of Cape Town restaurants for ten years. She won The Sunday Times Cookbook of the Year for Starfish in 2014. She was shortlisted for the same prize in 2015 for Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children. Daisy has been a professional writer since 1995, when she started work at The Star newspaper as a court reporter. She is currently completing a novel.

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1 comment(s)

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    Eamon McLoughlin | 7 October 2020

    Medical history was made in Heritage Square in 1826 when the first caesarean operation in the English speaking world was performed by Dr James Barry, an Irish regimental surgeon in the British army and Medical Inspector for the Cape Colony. In 1865 Dr. Barry died, and when the body was being washed prior to burial it was discovered that ‘he’ was a ‘she’. Dr.Barry had a torrid affair with Lord Somerset while he was Governor of the Cape Colony. Liam Tomlin has some hectic shoes to fill in Heritage Square.

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