An index to this series appears in the header of the first post.
To see the Feather Palaces in and around Oudtshoorn is to be transported back to another time. The end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth transformed the Klein Karoo into a bustling economic powerhouse for the ostrich feather booms. The arrival of World War I, on the other hand, forced the residents of this area to reassess how they would make their livelihoods. The international trade in ostrich feathers built this city, and the trade’s collapse threatened its existence.
The trade in feathers brought a flood of people to the area. The Baltic regions of the Russian Empire had become an uneasy home for its Jewish community, and many of its young men moved to South Africa as a place where they could go into business with fewer restrictions. The vast majority of registered feather merchants in the Cape were Jewish, and this community continued to grow until Oudtshoorn gained the nickname “Jerusalem of Africa,” later popularized in a 1940 Yiddish manuscript by Leibl Feldman.
What constitutes a Feather Palace?
Even a casual traveler in Oudtshoorn will notice the exceptional architecture of Feather Palaces along roads like the main drag, Baron Van Reede Street. It can be a bit harder to find concrete information about them, though the C.P. Nel Museum has a good gallery of photos for a starting point. Tour guides may offer the advice that you can discern Feather Palaces because they all feature towers [not actually true]. Sue van Waart wrote a fascinating book about the Feather Barons and their descendants, but she released it only in Afrikaans, and I am unaware of an English translation. I would try to explain Feather Palaces this way:
- They all date from the second ostrich feather boom. The period for their construction runs from 1902 to 1914. You will sometimes see their design called “Victorian,” though all were built after the death of Queen Victoria.
- They were constructed as private villas. Architects like Charles Bullock designed both public buildings (such as the C.P. Nel Museum building) and Feather Palaces, but these obviously have different purposes.
- The houses were designed with very high-end finishes, such as custom Art Nouveau glasswork and encaustic tiles.
- Only some of them are found in Oudtshoorn. Several feather families built both town houses and farm houses. You will need to drive the highway from Ladismith to De Rust to see the broader collection.
In my research for this post, I encountered an article that stated definitively that there were nine Feather Palaces, all designed by either Charles Bullock or Johannes E. Vixseboxse. This description seems too exclusive to me, though. This table seeks to amalgamate all the information I found for the Klein Karoo’s Feather Palaces:
|1900||La Hermosa||Green||Simpson & Bridgeman||unknown||-33.587765, 22.208189|
|1903||Gottland House||Lind||Bullock||nursing home||-33.58709,22.20424|
|1903||Rus in Urbe||Foster||Bullock||boarding house||-33.5929055,22.2035313|
|1903||Pelham House||Pelham||unknown||boarding house||-33.58566,22.20591|
|1904||Volstruis Paleis||Mann||unknown||boarding house||-33.492699, 21.267130|
|1906||Lategan Farmhouse||Lategan||Bullock||unknown||-33.570027, 22.068801|
|1907||Mimosa Lodge||Sladowski||Bullock||boarding house||-33.584801, 22.203449|
|1907||Die Denne Farmhouse||Fourie||Bullock||unknown||-33.630580, 22.280049|
|1908||Montague House||Lipschitz||Wiener||coffee shop||-33.591516, 22.202836|
|1908||Schoeman House||Schoeman||Bullock||research farm||-33.632881, 22.257561|
|1908||Le Roux House||Le Roux||Bullock||museum||-33.587630, 22.206130|
|1908||Hazenjacht Farmhouse||Lategan||unknown||guest farm||-33.561153, 22.419115|
|1908||Israelsohn House||Israelsohn||Simpson & Bridgeman||unknown||-33.59478, 22.20705|
|1909||Rietfontein Farmhouse||Potgieter||Freeman & Bridgeman||guest farm||-33.545942, 21.874052|
|1909||Onverwacht Farmhouse||Le Roux||Freeman & Bridgeman||unknown||-33.615426, 22.215431|
|1911||Marincowitz House||Marincowitz||unknown||estate accountants||-33.581748, 22.204277|
|1911||Welgeluk Farmhouse||Olivier||Freeman & Bridgeman||show farm||-33.638935, 22.174123|
|1911||Greylands Farmhouse||Gavin||unknown||nature reserve||-33.600351, 22.058751|
|1911||Pinehurst||Edmeades||Vixseboxse||high school||-33.590238, 22.195187|
|1912||Nochamson House||Nochamson||unknown||unknown||-33.594596, 22.204570|
|1913||Bakenskraal Farmhouse||Le Roux||unknown||guest farm||-33.636331, 22.212588|
|1914||Doornkraal Farmhouse||Le Roux||Steenhuizen||working farm||-33.500151, 22.584369|
I hope to extend this list with the help of local historians. I’ve created a public Google Map location list for these Feather Palaces. I could not find enough information about the “Rooiloop” house at De Rust to determine whether or not it qualified as a feather palace. Is the house photographed by Andre Pretorius in 1993 another Feather Palace? Shouldn’t the Adley House be listed? I would also point to a couple of intentional omissions. Albert Manor in Ladismith (1892) and Welgevonden (1880) come from an earlier building boom. Klipheuwel Country House was constructed for the Coetzee family in the early 1900s. It has beautiful trelliswork, but I an uncertain whether or not its design qualifies as a feather palace. With those ambiguities up front, just what do these feather palaces look like?
|The Towers||Gottland House||Rus in Urbe|
|Pelham House||Volstruis Paleis||Mimosa Lodge|
|Montague House||Schoeman House||Le Roux House|
|Hazenjacht Farmhouse||Rietfontein Farmhouse||Welgeluk Farmhouse|
|Greylands Farmhouse||Bakenskraal Farmhouse||Marincowitz House|
|La Hermosa||Lazarus House||Israelsohn House|
|Onverwacht Farmhouse||Pinehurst||Doornkraal Farmhouse|
By all means, open the thumbnails in a separate window to see more detail! For those who are keeping score, I would note that Rus in Urbe (Foster’s Folly), Onverwacht, and Greylands all lack towers, but Foster’s Folly and Greylands are two of the most frequently named Feather Palaces.
Note: The image of TheTowers was downloaded from Artefacts. Photos of Pelham House, Volstruis Paleis, and Bakenskraal are from TripAdvisor (usually supplied by the lodgings company in question). The photo for Schoeman House was provided by Stefan Engelbrecht. The photo for Hazenjacht came from Sotheby‘s. The Marincowitz House image is from blogger WritingMuscle. The image of La Hermosa was retrieved from Pinterest user WeekendGetaways. The image of Israelsohn House was located in CP Nel Museum archives by Lelani Boonzaaier. The final three black-and-white images were adapted from the Andre Pretorius digital collection at Stellenbosch University Library.
The Critic’s Choice: Gottland House
Two architecture books I used to prepare this post were indifferent to some feather palaces, but both became exuberant as they describe 72 van Reede Street. Picton-Seymour reported “this extravaganza of a house has a central veranda shading the front door; to the right and left the house juts out, forming a gabled end on one side and a towered section on the other; the gable is timbered and the wide window below is Art Nouveau in character, whereas the tower is Victorian, decorated with the laciest of iron-work.” Fransen and Cook write “Together with 146 High St. [Le Roux Town House], this is perhaps the best example of the High Victorian style… A decorative cast-iron veranda is wrapped round the turret and runs into another bay section at the side. The eaves, too, carry cast-ion decoration.”
Two things about this house really interest me. The first is that it was constructed for a Swedish lawyer, C.M. Lind, rather than an ostrich farmer, and it was one of the very earliest of the feather palaces, built at essentially the same time as the long-lost Olivier Towers. The second is that the house continues to do good service; it forms a nursing home complex with the “Tuishuis” across the street. What lovely surroundings!
The Entertainers: Montague House
Of the sixteen homes pictured, I was able to see the insides of just three while I was in the area. The full set of my photos is available at a public Google Photos album (along with two from Stefan Engelbrecht); you may use any of my images without cost, but please do credit “David Tabb” as the photographer! Sadly, I passed up my chance to see the insides of Montague House with Jeremy van Wyk, mistakenly thinking that it was included in the C.P. Nel Museum (the house is across the street from the museum, which is why I made the wrong assumption)!
Morris [Lipschitz]’ Montague House was the most beautiful Jewish ostrich palace. It was called by experts “a symphony in stone.” Everywhere beautiful sculptures were carved on the exterior walls, and the cast iron frame was the most intricate of all the feather palaces.Paleise van di Pluime, page 74. inexpert translation from Afrikaans
Montague House was the gathering place of cultural people in the village. Jews who came from England and Germany loved theater and musical performances. Morris’ house had a built-in theater with a porch where one hundred people could comfortably sit. It was also used regularly as a ballroom. Frieda Baron, a refined German Jew with an excellent fashion store in De Rust, was one of the people who led the musical life and was a regular guest at Montague House. (The well-known Afrikaans composer, Arnold van Wyk, testified that he learned his love for Beethoven there.)
High Society at Le Roux Townhouse
Entering the Le Roux Townhouse is easy, and every visitor to Oudtshoorn should take the opportunity. The inexpensive ticket to the C.P. Nel museum has a map to the Le Roux Townhouse on its back, and it’s an easy ten minute stroll. I was, however, less than enthusiastic about the car guards in the street shouting directions at me, a pedestrian!
In the table above, the family name Le Roux appears multiple times. John Le Roux and his wife Adie built a pair of houses, Bakenskraal on his farm (plaashuis) and another in town (tuishuis). As Sue van Waart explained, “Their townhouse was very useful when John and Adie attended receptions, weddings, banquets or other social functions” [page 43].
Adie’s tea table was usually nicely covered with silver and fine porcelain, and the food was as fine and tasty as only the talented baker and her staff could prepare. On more than one occasion, Prime Minister Cecil John Rhodes was entertained. The tea ceremony was a special one. A female guest’s wife was usually invited to “pour.” Rhodes was an old-fashioned guy. It was his custom to stand next to Adie until she poured the last cup.Paleise van di Pluime, page 43. inexpert translation from Afrikaans
The town house was not the only site for hospitality, though. The Prince of Wales was once entertained at the farm house! I appreciated that the house was equipped with period furniture, albeit not from the Le Roux family. The curator wrote a really interesting article about the process of restoring this private home for use as a museum in a 1980 issue of Restorica. I was sad that some of the design elements of the house and furnishings looked a bit bedraggled after the passage of a century, though.
Rietfontein: the Potgieter Farm
I telephoned Elmaré Potgieter the night before I hoped to photograph the Rietfontein house, and I was delighted that she agreed I could come. The drive took me about a half hour west of Oudtshoorn, taking me close to Calitzdorp. I had hoped to capture some photographs of the outside, but instead I was welcomed into the house itself. How comfortable would you feel, allowing an anonymous blogger into your residence with just twelve hours’ notice? I was delighted to discover that the Potgieter family living in the home are the fifth generation of this family to occupy it. Their ancestor, Koos Potgieter, and his two brothers amassed a farm of 6000 ostriches in 1910, making this the largest ostrich farm on earth at that time!
I was curious to see a sprig of Karoo thorn here and there around the main door frame. Elmaré explained that birds had been persistent about creating their nests there, but the spiny branches were a very effective strategy for natural pest control!
Koos [Potgieter] built his ostrich palace at Rietfontein in 1909 for his mother. The spacious and comfortable house was well-built and sturdy, but Koos refused to import any baubles. For example, where other ostrich farmers imported their steel ceilings, Koos made his own with the help of farm labor. He designed the molds himself for his plaster ceilings. The house is still an ornament.Paleise van di Pluime, page 41. inexpert translation from Afrikaans
When the ostrich feather market collapsed in 1914, the Potgieters’ farm was completely diversified. They were great landowners – not only of excellent agricultural land, but also of village property, especially around the church and in the business center. Their fortune was preserved because they did not store all their (ostrich?) eggs in one basket.
I swiftly made friends with their yellow dog named Emma, but she was quite jealous when I also scratched the other dog on the property. I learned that prolific Austrian Actress Senta Berger had stayed at Rietfontein while filming a movie. Her character name, “Emma,” had transferred to both a visitors’ cottage and the dog!
Having weathered a substantial drought in Cape Town, I was discouraged to hear that the water shortages at Oudtshoorn continue to be quite serious. Apparently the situation is putting a lot of pressure on ostrich farmers. I am sure a 2012 bird flu outbreak didn’t help! Ostrich farming is not for the faint-hearted.
I loved my wander at Rietfontein. The interior has been maintained beautifully, and essentially every room featured at least one piece of gorgeous antique furniture. As I passed through one hallway, I glanced through a doorway into a sizable bathroom clad up to chest height in pink ceramic glazed tiles. It gave me a giggle. It was an idiosyncrasy in a house that essentially any family would be happy to occupy.
Greylands: Restoring Natural Habitat
After being so lucky in my visit to Rietfontein, I hoped my luck would endure a drop-in visit at Greylands, another farm Feather Palace a few kilometers closer to Oudtshoorn than Rietfontein. I took the turning toward the house itself at first, but I found myself traveling down a tunnel of foliage, interspersed with ancient, gnarled trees. At the end of the tunnel was a gate bearing the name “Greylands,” and it was closed, with no bell for the visitor to ring. I had come the wrong way.
After a 7-point reversal of course, I navigated up a rutted dirt road to a little church and large shed, and a farm worker pointed me over to an access control point. The people at security gave me a look and instructed me to pull to the lower gate and hoot my car horn. Happily, the gatekeeper allowed me in, and I was given permission to walk around the Greylands house to take exterior photos.
Once again I found myself accompanied by a pair of dogs who seemed very curious about the other doggy smells I had gained at Rietfontein. A lovely black-and-white dog (border collie?) accompanied my every step. She seemed awfully happy for the company.
I would stress that Greylands is no longer positioned as a guest farm, so simply showing up as I did is not the polite strategy. I’ve appreciated that Hazel Jonker, who lives at Greylands, has supplied more details about the house. She has an avid interest in the heritage of the Klein Karoo. She explained that the farmhouse is actually much older than the other homes featured here; it was originally constructed for the Lategan family in the mid-nineteenth century. The building was substantially overhauled for the Gavin family in 1911. It seems likely that it gained a new single-story sandstone extension and its prominent gable and verandas at that time, as well.
The density of ostriches on a working farm is quite different than what one might find in their natural habitat. It seems that human use of the Klein Karoo has already degraded some of the natural biome. Greylands is an example of apronveld, a type of low-lying dwarf, succulent shrubland. A UCT Master’s thesis by Petra De Abreu (Now Dr. Holden) investigated whether active habitat recovery efforts made a difference in returning these areas to their original biodiversity. Happily, the efforts at Greylands and other sites are improving water flow and diminishing erosion.
Stern gazes from ostriches at Welgeluk
When the Welgeluk farm is advertised, it is called the “Safari Ostrich Farm.” I would wager that only a small fraction of the visitors to the farm are aware that the farm features one of the most outstanding Feather Palaces of all! When I arrived at Safari Ostrich Farm, I learned that the next tour would be more than half an hour’s delay, so I decided to use that time for a run over to the palace. It wasn’t far, just a kilometer or so east on Safari Pad from the R328 and then a kilometer or so south on a gravel road. It’s quite clear that the farm is a busy ranch. I counted cattle, ostriches, and antelopes (including a disgruntled-looking wildebeest). I reached a line of four massive blue gum trees, and then I had arrived in front of the house.
Pieter Olivier, who built the feather palace at Welgeluk farm, was bankrupted by the 1914 collapse of the feather market, and the farm fell unoccupied for several years. Nathan Lipschitz, a jewelry store owner, received a loan of £8,000 from a friend who had won a horse race in India (see Antoinette Le Roux thesis, p140) that enabled him to purchase the farm in 1932. In 1956, his daughter-in-law Ida teamed with farmer Derek Fisch to create a show farm, since tourists frequently sought to visit the mansion.
Today, the ostriches seem the major draw, and visits to the Welgeluk mansion are not particularly promoted. The large electric fence surrounding the house leaves little confusion on that score. I was grateful to acquire some photographs of the mansion frontage and salute some beautiful architecture. Interestingly, the architectural diagram on display on the Safari Ostrich tour had some big differences with the building it produced!
Foster’s Folly and the Escape from Demolition
J.A. Foster was a prominent attorney for Oudtshoorn. In 1903, he was one of the first in the Klein Karoo to commission a two-story mansion within the town (Olivier’s The Towers was also constructed in 1903, but it was on the west side of the Grobbelaars River, then farming country). He named the house “Rus in Urbe,” suggesting it was his oasis of countryside in the midst of the city. His critics, however, soon dubbed it “Foster’s Folly.” Fransen and Cook didn’t even list it. There’s a likely reason; Picton-Seymour reported in 1977 that “Ready for demolition, this house with its surrounding garden has a look of romantic decay!” A heroic effort was required to return it to habitable status!
A casual tourist hoping to gaze at Foster’s Folly from the sidewalk is going to be disappointed. The property is enclosed inside a high wall, and the college that owns it seems content to run it as a high-end bed and breakfast. I could only cross my fingers and telephone the inn to see if I could photograph it. I was delighted when Willemien, the assistant manager, allowed me onto the property.
The restoration of Foster’s Manor has recreated something very special. From the roaring lions on the newel posts of the stairway to the subtle flower designs in the stained glass and entry tiles, Rus in Urbe speaks opulence as a native language. I loved the tile work of the entry, particularly. The designers used “encaustic” tiles in which the colors are built into the tile, not just a product of the glaze.
Willemien offered me a sheet with an abbreviated history of J.A. Foster. It included stories I would consider “lore” rather than history, such as the claim that he had faked his own death in the aftermath of the ostrich feather bust.
Ladismith: The story of Joel Isidore Mann (1874-1936)
In telling the story of these unique homes, I’ve been glad to learn the stories of the people who built them. Since I enjoy an entrepreneur’s story as much as anyone else, the tale of J.I. Mann is one that I find inspiring. The town house he created in 1903 is the western-most of all the Feather Palaces, in the town of Ladismith (not to be confused with Ladysmith, which is in KwaZulu-Natal). J.I. Mann’s story, however, began in Lithuania, when he was born on Feb. 24, 1874. He came to South Africa as a young man, moving from Johannesburg to Ladismith, where he was able to purchase the old Royal Hotel and his own ostrich farm, Mann’s Hoop. He applied to naturalize as a South African in 1899 or 1900 [National Archives of South Africa CO 8575 22]. Only three years later he was able to construct his own feather palace, now called “Volstruispaleis” (Afrikaans for “ostrich palace”).
J.I. Mann emerged from the world of private wealth to become a key part of his religious and political community. In 1913, he funded the construction of a synagogue at Ladismith in the style of the synagogues he had known in Lithuania as a child.
Electricity reached Ladismith in 1913, and the following year a hospital was erected on Kruithuis Kopje. World War I started in that year and the feather boom collapsed– wealthy farmers became paupers overnight. The end of the war brought the postwar depression, as well as a change in Mayors– J.I. Mann was elected in 1920 and remained Mayor until 1934. Mann also became a member of the Provincial Council and later a member of its Executive Council. It was probably due to his influence that Ladismith at last got its railway.The Little Karoo, by Jose Burman, page 63.
After a very full life, J.I. Mann passed away in 1936 [National Archives of South Africa MOOC 6/9/4841 52387]. Twenty-two years after his death, the “Zionist Record,” a magazine published by the South African Zionist Federation, still felt his memory merited his inclusion in an article titled “The Oudtshoorn Story: Popular Men:”
The late Mr. J.I. Mann, of Ladismith, Cape [Province], who for a number of years was an executive member of the Cape Provincial Council, was also a much respected friend and political opponent of [C. J.] Langenhoven.Supplement to the Zionist Record, November 21, 1958 (page 53)
Stylish Surrounds for Saayman and Kie
I am very grateful for the help of Lelani Boonzaaier at the CP Nel Museum Archives. She was able to find the records showing the 1911 construction of a house for N.J. Marincowitz (child of the Gerome Marincowitz who co-founded the bridle path along the Grootriver) at the corner of Hoop (Hope) and Baron van Reede in Oudtshoorn. I was interested to see that 43 years earlier, Marincowitz was associated with the construction of a hotel at Klaarstroom, northeast across a pass in the Swartberg Mountains.
Tourists in the northern part of Oudtshoorn are likely to pass by this lovely home many times. Just across the street, the Black Swan Restaurant has opened its doors. For a while, the property was operated as the “Century Manor” boarding house. Today, though, it is home to an accounting firm. These stately houses have more than enough room for businesses to operate in comfort!
Boom and Bust
There’s no question that the collapse of the feather market had powerful repercussions for many families.
The feather crash, coupled with a devastating drought that lasted from 1914 to 1916, left count-less Cape ostrich farmers destitute. In Oudtshoorn, thirty-four farmers and twenty-nine merchants claimed insolvency in 1915, compared with five and seven, respectively, who had filed similar claims four years earlier. There were Boer farmers who committed suicide rather than suffer the humiliation of losing their farms, while the fabulous feather mansions of Oudtshoorn were auctioned off for little more than the price of their doors and windows. By 1916, the municipality was on the brink of bankruptcy, crime was rampant, especially by youths, infant mortality had risen dramatically, and poverty had become ubiquitous.Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce, by Sarah A. Stein, p. 51
Farmers and feather buyers who had been millionaires one day found themselves poverty stricken the next, including the now bankrupt Gillis family. According to one story, an ostrich merchant framed two checks as a record of the speed with which he had been ruined. The first, a 1914 check for £100,000, his bank had honoured. The second, dated a year later for £1, had been refused.From “Oudtshoorn – Ostrich Capital of The World” at http://www.seligman.org.il
The former feather professionals had to make difficult choices. Some, like Max Rose, scrambled to ensure every debt was repaid. Others declared bankruptcy. In her graduate work, Antoinette Le Roux painted a vibrant portrait of farmer ingenuity:
Louis Lategan of Hazenjacht, district of Oudtshoorn, began farming with rabbits in 1934, when the drought and the aftermath of the Great Depression were at their worst. The rabbits were shaved for their wool, and the wool was sold. When it was no longer paying, he switched to chicken farming, mainly for egg production. He received an average of 1,000 eggs per day from his laying hens, which had to be swept and packed by his very young children for shipping to Cape Town, among other destinations. As part of the drought relief program of the government, there were subsidies for the purchase of maize which helped Lategan. By 1937, however, this subsidy was abolished, and it was no longer worthwhile to continue.Antoinette Le Roux Master’s Thesis p. 135 (the translation errors from Afrikaans are mine)
Again, Lategan had to think anew to survive on his small farm. He then purchased a very complete book on beekeeping from the USA and in 1939 began farming on a large scale with bees. He made 400 beehives and placed them at seven different stations near Lucerne. During World War II, sugar was very scarce, and its great outcome came in 1943 when he earned £6,700 for a consignment of honey destined for British troops. A large number of British pilots were stationed at Oudtshoorn where they practiced daily with bombers. To realize the value of the money, it must be taken into account that a brand new Ford car cost £320 at the time. Lategan was therefore able to buy a large farm next to his smaller farm and move on to his farm with more ease.
I am sure I am not alone in feeling grateful to the families that have maintained and restored these beautiful homes, despite the financial pressures of the last several decades. These homes are a precious part of South Africa’s architectural heritage!