The two historic buildings which house guests at The Taj Hotel Cape Town in luxurious style date back to the 1890’s.
After the discovery of diamonds and gold, the fledgeling South African economy grew rapidly – which necessitated the need for commercial banks.
After the 1919 Gold Conference, it was decided that a government institution needed to assume responsibility for banknotes and gold conversions, since soaring overseas gold prices were driving local banks out of business. The Reserve Bank was founded in 1921, and needed a home in Cape Town – so the plot opposite the Company’s Garden was purchased and architect James Morris was commissioned to design an imposing edifice, befitting of the bank’s status.
Morris modelled his design on Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, to signify strength, creating the building’s façade with Paarl Granite to reinforce his point. His obsession with detail caused many arguments with suppliers.
He obsessively hounded the Royal Astronomer to measure the angle of the sun – daily, for a year – so that he could ensure optimal illumination through the barrel-vaulted skylight in the banking hall and had a stand-up argument with sculptor Ivan Mitford Barberton for omitting genitalia from the sculptures of lions commissioned for the bank’s badge.
Today, visitors strolling through the lobby can still see the outline of the barrel-vaulted skylight the Astronomer Royal calculated so carefully, supported by three Portuguese Skyros marble columns – though the skylight itself is no longer present, due to the presence of the Towers section of the hotel above it.
The chandeliers are the same pieces used in the original building, as are the heavy grills and doors at the pedestrian entrance, which still bear the Reserve Bank’s lion heraldry. The clock above the doors that exit onto St George’s Mall started keeping banking hours when the building opened in 1932 and has been polished and repaired, keeping time into the 21st century.
The other building which is home to Taj Cape Town at the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets dates back to 1896 and was formerly known as the Temple Chambers, thanks to the Barristers of the Supreme Court who had offices in the building.
The building is today home to The Reserve – Taj Cape Town’s exclusive events space – and the Vault deep beneath the surface where the city’s fortunes were once stored now acts as an intimate, opulent venue for parties and events.
On the corner above what is today The Twankey Bar, stands one of the most controversial statues in all of the City of Cape Town.
Commissioned in 1894 by architect George Murray Alexander as a symbol of the benevolence of the Board of Executors, who occupied the building, the execution – which the locals deemed ‘poor’, to put it lightly – was widely mocked.
Instead of the shepherdess which it was supposed to represent, the locals named it ‘Widow Twankey’ after a popular comical pantomime character of the day.
The hotel buildings have many other stories to tell – for example, the Mint restaurant where guests today enjoy sumptuous buffet breakfasts and locally-inspired contemporary fare, takes its name not from the fragrant herb, but rather from the original room’s function for the Reserve Bank – it was where South Africa’s currency was once minted.
While Taj Cape Town is a thoroughly modern hotel, replete with all the 5-star amenities synonymous with the brand, its history can be felt not only within its walls and passages but in the prime location, it occupies within the old city.