By Guy Willoughby
So there we were, the socialite magazine editor and I, sipping cocktails in the grandiloquent board room of the august Old Mutual Building, Darling Street, peering through fluted windows to the rain-washed Grand Parade.
The occasion was the launch in March of the World Art Deco
Congress. "Amazing room, amazing building! Who'd have thought?" the socialite magazine editor said.
"They're turning the entire building into residential apartments," I murmured. "A hundred and 75 units."
"Residential apartments? The whole building?" The socialite magazine editor gasped over her Gin Fizz. "Who on earth would want to live on the Grand Parade?"
Who indeed? Plenty of people, it seems. Since that evening, when many of us were first introduced to the glories of the flagship HQ of South Africa's venerable insurance giant, buyers of every description have been positively tripping over themselves to invest in this bold inner-city redevelopment - a joint venture between Old Mutual, Pam Golding Properties and Louis Karol Architects.
"And why not?" says an ebullient Louis Karol, principal architect for the venture. "This is the finest Art Deco building in the world outside New York."
That's a bold claim, but one massively endorsed by Deco delegates, who gazed in wonder at the soaring dimensions, delectable details, and magnificent African-orientated finishes of what, when completed in 1940, was undoubtedly a designer's pearl without price.
Robert Silke is the bright-as-a-button project architect on Mutual Heights - the name of the redevelopment - and through his eyes I've had the chance to gaze afresh at a building that is as familiar to Capetonians as the Noon Gun or Table Mountain.
If Art Deco, the technology- inspired design movement of the 1920s and '30s, favoured uplifting lines, vast assemblages and delicate detail, the Old Mutual Building had it all.
Behind its magnificent façade, the sweeping entrance and banking hall - to be turned now into choice retail outlets, restaurant and spa - is a unique swirl of gold-veined marble with a sumptuous ceiling of steel and gold leaf, with a gorgeous connecting Travertine marble stair.
The peculiarly African stone detailing outside includes abstracted animals and sub-Saharan tribes, and merely hints at inner glories.
There are the burnished panels of the Boardroom, and the extraordinary Diego Rivera-like mural in the Shareholders Hall, both to be reinvented now as swish penthouses.
Having looked over the representative "show flat" on the ninth floor with Louis and Robert, I can attest: they've suavely combined the old with the new.
A sweeping ensemble of stinkwood and teak with gleaming steel kitchen-nook fittings, this "bachelor pad" (price: around about R400 000) has unrivalled lines and fabulous views.
"If I invited you up for a drink in this apartment," quips Louis, "don't tell me you wouldn't come!"
The Deco Congress undoubtedly gave the refurbishment project a turbo-charge. Cape Art Deco Society chairman Brent Meersman, prime mover behind this glittering event, says the Congress was launched at the Old Mutual Building because "it's the finest Art Deco example in Africa - the biggest, the most magnificent, the most resplendent".
Has the Deco Society been happy with the redevelopment?
"Absolutely," says Meersman. "It's a living building again. That's great for the CBD, but even better for the building! It won't be allowed to fall into rack and ruin as so many of these piles have.
"We have concerns. Why not valet parking, creating employment, instead of an ugly tunnel connecting residents to the parking block (in Adderley Street?)
"Are the modest levies being charged enough to maintain this entire building? Surely Old Mutual should change that tacky and anachronistic skyline logo? But on the whole we endorse the development, and were consulted in the process."
About 80 units have already been sold - 70 went by June. Out of a potential R110 million sales value, units worth R88 million have been sold, leaving only a few units on offer at prices up to R10 million before the development was officially launched. Building is set to begin in earnest by October and Old Mutual Heights looks set to foster a new era for the inner city, with other buildings nearby set to follow.
Now, it seems, is a better time than ever for cocktails over the Grand Parade.