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Historical Buildings in Cape Town: Koopmans-de Wet House

Updated on March 27, 2011

A family connection

Cape Town is full of historical buildings, and since my family were connected to the city for many years, many of these buildings have personal interest to me, including this beautiful old house.

My great-great-grandfather Dr William Robertson moved, in 1872, from Swellendam to Cape Town to minister in the Grootte Kerk in Adderley Street (known until 1849 as the Heerengracht), where he ministered until his death in 1879. During that time he and his family lived in a house in Strand Street, at number 74.

After his death, Robertson's second wife Aletta Matilda lived in the house for the next 29 years of her life.

“She kept open house, and was always pleased to see any of the members of the Robertson and Blackall (widow Robertson had been married to General Blackall of the Indian Army and married Robertson after the General's death) families, as well as her Cape Town friends,” wrote Isobel Robertson, in her biography of the Robertson family called From Aberdeen to Overberg.

“Among these were the Koopman de Wets – Lily Huskisson (a granddaughter of William Robertson) told her children that she was frequently in and out of the house which is now a museum in Strand Street.”

The facade of the Koopmans-de Wet House Museum in 2009
The facade of the Koopmans-de Wet House Museum in 2009
Looking up at the front door of the house
Looking up at the front door of the house

The story of the house

The first house on the stand was probably built by a Hollander by the name of Reijnier Smedinga, who was an official silver assayer at the Cape, in the early years of the 18th Century.

The owner of the house who had the most influence on its present appearance as one Pieter Malet from Amsterdam, who acquired it in 1771. He enlarged the house considerably to accommodate his large family of 16 children and numerous slaves and servants.

Malet added the imposing facade in around 1790. There is still speculation about who designed the facade, but many believe it could have been either the French-born Louis Michel Thibault or the German-born sculptor Anton Anreith, both of whom worked extensively in the Cape at that time.

Whoever it was did a fine job of it. On the official website of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, of which Koopmans-de Wet house is one, describes the facade in words better than I could:

“The facade of the house possibly dates from 1790 and is characterised by its four fluted pilasters, some of which are made of wood, others of plaster. The pediment spans three windows instead of the usual one. An architrave crowns the entrance and a triglyph and metope frieze lies directly underneath. There is a lantern in the fanlight of the entrance door. A candle in the lantern was lit every evening as soon as it grew dark. Rectangular panels with plaster garlands fill the spaces between the windows of the ground floor and those of the first floor.”

The last private person to live in the house was Maria Koopmans de Wet, the person visited by the Robertsons. On her death the house was sold to the nation and opened its doors as a museum in 1914.

Maria Koopmans-de Wet, last owner and occupant of the house
Maria Koopmans-de Wet, last owner and occupant of the house
Dr William Frederick Purcell (1866-1919)
Dr William Frederick Purcell (1866-1919)

The museum

It is the oldest house museum in South Africa and regularly hosts exhibitions and lunchtime musical entertainments, notable by the popular Ace Quartet, made up of Gabriele von Durckheim (flute), Este Pienaar (violin), Annemi van der Merwe (viola) and Ariella Caira (cello), who play a pot-pourri of well-known and light classical music - including favourites by Mozart and Vivaldi - interspersed with contemporary tunes.

The museum was put on the map, as it were, by the enthusiastic efforts of Dr William Frederick Purcell (1866-1919) a zoologist who joined the South African Museum in 1896. He had received his D.Phil in Berlin in 1895.

A plaque in the entrance hall of the museum commemorates Dr Purcell's efforts.

Plan of the ground floor of the house.
Plan of the ground floor of the house.
A 1907 painting of the house by Leonard A Brimble
A 1907 painting of the house by Leonard A Brimble

Comments

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    • Wollie Wolfaardt profile image

      Andre Wolfaardt 

      5 years ago from Durban South Africa

      Hallo Tony - Since our last little chat I have done more research in the Robertson area to try and trace my male lineage. Seems that the Wolfaardts have been around that area since the early 1700's maybe even longer. To "pick up" a direct link I have to find out when my great grandfather was born or passed away. Not as easy as it sounds ! Another way is to try and get the details of my great grandmothers passing. Have you perhaps checked out Johanna Robertson yet ? (Not sure if it was her full names).

    • Wollie Wolfaardt profile image

      Andre Wolfaardt 

      5 years ago from Durban South Africa

      Thanks Tony.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      5 years ago from South Africa

      Hi Wollie - yes, the very same Dr William Robertson! I will have to look up the name Johanna Robertson to make sure that she was a daughter of the Doctor! Will let you know when I find out. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Wollie Wolfaardt profile image

      Andre Wolfaardt 

      5 years ago from Durban South Africa

      I don't know if my post above gave the link for a reply - wasn't fully set up yet .

    • profile image

      Wollie Wolfaardt 

      5 years ago

      Is your great-great grandfather the same Dr William Robertson who was a minister in the Scottish Dutch Reformed Church in the Langeberg area around 1853, after whom the town of Robertson was named ?

      I am busy trying to trace my male lineage and discovered that my great grandfather , Christoffel Wolfaardt was married to Johanna Robertson and they lived in the area. My grandfather was born in Montegu in 1909. Would be interesting to know if my great grand mother was related to Dr. William Robertson.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      She was indeed one powerful lady with very decided ideas and opinions! She was very instrumental though in saving many Cape Town buildings from destruction, and also for saving many Boer War orphans from starvation, so she can't have been all bad! There were so many interesting people in Cape Town then, as there are today. It is a place of great architectural and human character.

      Thanks for the comments

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 

      9 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Wow -- that Maria looks like a minx with a temper, doesn't she?

    • Vladimir Uhri profile image

      Vladimir Uhri 

      9 years ago from HubPages, FB

      Very nice hubs

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks so much for your comments - much appreciated!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Hawkesdream profile image

      Hawkesdream 

      9 years ago from Cornwall

      I look forward to your hubs, they are history with a twist , and I like that.

    • bevy400 profile image

      bev 

      9 years ago from scarborough

      I like your hub..my parents married in south africa in Johanseburg over forty yrs ago and my oldest brother was born there.

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