Iziko’s Koopmans-de Wet House almost 100 years old
Nearly one hundred years ago, on Tuesday, 10 March 1914, Koopmans-de Wet House opened its doors as a museum for the first time. The next day the Cape Times reported that each room in this “charming domestic and artistic museum” had been restored “as nearly as possible to its original condition at the end of the eighteenth century,” signifying the birth of South Africa’s first, and therefore oldest, house museum. Although centenary celebrations will focus mainly on Women’s month (August), a special centenary event is also planned for this Provincial Heritage Site on 10 March 2014.
Building of this charming old late 18th century town-house in Cape Town began as early as 1699, and over the next century the house changed and grew according to the needs of its various owners. Between 1699 and 1748, ownership of the property was transferred several times. In 1748 it was bought by a wealthy man, Johann Böttiger who enlarged the property and probably altered the house in the 1750s and 1760s. In 1771, Pieter Malet, from Amsterdam, bought the house from Böttiger. By the 1780s, almost all the old houses in the area had disappeared. Larger Strand Street dwellings were being rebuilt in the town style of symmetrical, double-storey, flat-roofed houses. The original house consisted of a row of rooms set back from the street, with a low thatched roof, small windows and little symmetry in its design. Although the house had been altered over the years by its various owners, the old walls of the original house still remained strong and functional. So the Malet family kept the old walls, and built a completely new façade on the street side – the visible part of the house – for visitors to admire.
In the 1800sthe bastion of Cape Town was its Castle. Strand Street runs upwards from the Castle and follows the shoreline behind the buildings alongside the harbour. Koopmans-de Wet House is situated close to the Castle and the Parade ground – no doubt within hearing distance of marching boots, shouted commands and bugle calls. When ships approached, loud signal guns were fired. Opposite Koopmans-de Wet house, and in between larger houses, numerous lanes and alleys lead down to the bay – with its vibrant harbour life and fishing industry. Strand Street was also the main thoroughfare from outlying farms to the markets of Cape Town, and Strand Street also led from the Castle and jail to the execution ground at Gallows Hill, and towards the burial grounds of Green Point.
There were more slaves than free people in Cape Town. Some of the slaves came from East Africa and the East Indies – but about half were born at the Cape in the 1800s. Only by 1838 were slaves at the Cape finally freed, and many stayed on as servants in the same households where they had been slaves. While we have no first-hand stories or written memories from the family and servants of the Koopmans-de Wet household, we invite visitors to remember these people, and to recognise and respect their contributions to the history and culture of our city.
Today, things are much different for this grande old building in the middle of the bustling Cape Town CBD. Visitors to this charming, old-worldly museum in the heart of Cape Town are treated to life in a bygone era. The furniture, fittings, objects and fabrics have been retained or collected so that the things you see either did belong, or could have belonged to the house. We invite you to take a step back in time and to come and imagine what life was like in this household 200 years ago.