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Durban’s Grand Old Dames (Part One)

By 31st December 2019February 20th, 2020Articles

Relative to many other parts of the world, South Africa is still a very young country, and as such we don’t have nearly as many historic buildings as say, for example, somewhere like the United Kingdom. To give you an idea, in terms of South Africa’s National Heritage Resources Act “no person may alter or demolish any structure or part of a structure which is older than 60 years without a permit issued by the relevant provincial heritage resources authority”. Whereas in England the general principle is that all buildings built before 1700 are likely to be listed, and thus protected, as are most buildings built between 1700 and 1850. So, we’re looking at buildings that are literally centuries apart in terms of their age! That said, South Africa, and indeed Durban, does have some wonderful examples of 19th and early 20th century architecture, some of which are detailed below:

The Old Court House Museum

Designed by Peter Paterson and completed in 1866, our very own Old Court House Museum happens to be the oldest surviving government building in Durban! Over the past 150 years this two-storey building has served as a post office, municipal offices, a library, and even as a canteen serving food during the first and second world wars. But, as its name suggests, it’s original function was as a courthouse.

Visit the Durban Local History Museums’ blog to read more about the fascinating history of our city’s oldest public building.

Queen’s Tavern

Built as a gentleman’s club in 1894, Queen’s Tavern is the oldest licenced premises in Durban. This grand dame originally boasted a billiard room and a smoking room, complete with pressed steel ceilings, along with a staff room and several out-buildings. In 1903, the billiard room was enlarged and a committee room and kitchen were added. In the 1980s there were plans to demolish the building, but thanks to a petition the tavern was saved, and in December 1983, Queen’s Tavern was declared a national monument. It was also during the ’80s that the tavern was converted into a restaurant, the popular British Middle-East Indian Sporting and Dining Club.

While today the building has rather sadly been converted into a retail premises, the unusual facade remains unchanged. The original plans for Queens Tavern included a feature peculiar to South African Victorian architecture, a ‘dakkamer’. A ‘roof room’ or attic, dakkamers are traditionally found in Cape Dutch houses, and consist of a small room, typically accessed via an external stairway, and built on top of a flat roof at the centre of the facade. The function of dakkakmers is up for debate, with some people proposing that the rooms were used as a drying space for meats or fruits, and others – perhaps more romantically – believing that the dakkakmer was used as a look-out for spotting ships.

Elephant House

Hidden behind a brick wall on Peter Mokaba Road lies what is thought to be Durban’s oldest remaining suburban dwelling. Reputedly the first house to be built on the Berea, the home was constructed from materials shipped all the way from England in November 1845, arriving in Durban in February 1846. The house was eventually completed in 1849 and in 1978 was declared a national monument.

Fondly known as ‘Elephant House’ as when it was first constructed, elephants still roamed around the Berea bush, the story goes that the animals enjoyed using the verandah posts to rub their hides! The house is currently up for sale and comes complete with a cannon that was salvaged in 1854 when the pepper ship, Ariosto, was shipwrecked off the coast of Durban!

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