Cape Town - Sea Point’s modern-day miles of beautiful sea-front promenade appeared vastly different in the 1800s from its profile today.
Mounds of beach sand dipped gradually down to the edge of the Atlantic’s funnelled ridges of dark volcanic rock before the sea wall was established. Its few coastal structures included the historic and elegant grand-lady of a hotel that existed as a sea-side apartment block, Winchester Mansions.
Originally built in 1922, the block shared space with a row of residential establishments that faced the sea directly, mostly in the architectural splendour of the Victorian style. When the block of apartments was purchased by Mrs Harvey in 1958, it was converted into a hotel which is run today by a company called Francon Investments, owned by the late Mrs Harvey’s family, the Wainfords.
Under the guidance of Managing Director, Murray Nell, Winchester Mansions is today an iconic Cape Town landmark.
The hotel has undergone numerous renovations while maintaining its history and charismatic charm.
Today, the hotel is a vestibule of historic interest bearing silent witness to some curious facets of Sea Point’s hidden past, offering interesting viewing for visitors to the establishment. To discover the area’s secrets though, one has to look no further than the hotel itself and its vicinity.
A further story in the area flourishes as steady as the legendary gaze of the ‘Lady of Bordeaux’ herself. In 1898, a villa named Bordeaux was built on Sea Point’s Beach Road by Mr Pieter Marais, a wealthy businessman who had ties to the wine industry. His wife, the ‘Lady of Bordeaux’, was wheelchair bound, and would watch passers-by from the top windows of the Villa Bordeaux.
During the 1920s social stigmas about disability abounded and as such, Mr Marais constructed a pathway from the villa straight over the rocks to a private pool with a wall erected in front of it for private wheelchair access for his wife.
There she would bathe, concealed behind the wall, away from prying eyes. When the family fell on hard times, they sold the villa to Mr Jacobus Graaff. The Graaff family would walk from their palatial villa to the pool in their silks, without having to interact with common society, and so the pool was named Graaff’s Pool.
The story of the ‘Lady of Bordeaux’ has been attached to a mysterious, inaccessible tunnel for years where it is supposed that family members accessed the pool via the tunnel.
One can still view the remnants of the blocked tunnel and view the old path to the demolished pool. Eventually the bathing area was opened to the public in 1929 but its slow demise started in 1995 when the gates were shut at sunset, to control anti-social activities there. Its final demolition in 2005 had a powerfully positive impact on the general upliftment of the area.
The Villa Bordeaux was converted into a hotel and in 1959, just one year after Winchester Mansions inception, it was demolished to make way for what is today Sea Point’s largest block of beachfront flats, aptly named, Bordeaux.
Because of its beautiful sea views, Sea Point has always been the ideal recreation destination. The original swimming baths, built in 1895 and located at the foot of Church Road, were destroyed by a storm in 1911 that flooded Beach Road, tearing the ballast from the railway line. These baths were never rebuilt, but the Sea Point Pavilion was constructed in 1913 providing an outdoor cinema, tea-room and stage that is still fondly remembered.
The tremendous green belt that frames Winchester Mansions view is ex-railway land. A passenger railway line was extended from Cape Town to Sea Point in 1905, closing again in 1929. This became public property and thankfully could not be built upon. After the lines were lifted, the land was left open. A short walk from Winchester Mansions hotel along the promenade leads to remnants of the old line close to the sea wall.
Today the promenade bustles with life, offering something for everyone. Walks along the seafront offer visual art installations, cycling, an outdoor gym, picnic areas, sea kayaking, ocean strolls and playparks.
Adapted from a press release for IOL