The Feather Palaces of the Klein Karoo

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 homes. 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.
  • 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:

YearNameSurnameArchitectStatusLocation
1903The TowersOlivierBullockdemolished-33.5927639,22.1950972
1903Gottland HouseLindBullocknursing home-33.58709,22.20424
1903Rus in UrbeFosterBullockboarding house-33.5929055,22.2035313
1903Pelham HousePelhamunknownboarding house-33.58566,22.20591
1904Volstruis PaleisMannunknownboarding house-33.492699, 21.267130
1906Lategan FarmhouseLateganBullockunknownnorth of Greylands
1907Mimosa LodgeSladowskiBullockboarding house-33.584801, 22.203449
1907Die Denne FarmhouseFourieBullockunknownRoodeheuwel
1908Lazarus HouseLazarusBullock?demolishedunknown
1908Montague HouseLipschitzWienercoffee shop-33.591516, 22.202836
1908Schoeman HouseSchoemanBullockresearch farm-33.632881, 22.257561
1908Le Roux HouseLe RouxBullockmuseum-33.587630, 22.206130
1908Hazenjacht Farmhouseunknownunknownguest farm-33.561153, 22.419115
1908-1911Israelsohn HouseIsraelsohn Simpson & Bridgeman unknown-33.59478, 22.20705
1909Rietfontein FarmhousePotgieterFreeman & Bridgemanguest farm-33.545942, 21.874052
1909Onverwacht FarmhouseLe RouxFreeman & Bridgemanunknown-33.615426, 22.215431
1911Welgeluk FarmhouseOlivierFreeman & Bridgemanshow farm-33.638935, 22.174123
1911Greylands FarmhouseGavinunknownnature reserve-33.600351, 22.058751
1911PinehurstEdmeadesVixseboxsehigh school-33.590238, 22.195187
1913Bakenskraal FarmhouseLe Rouxunknownguest farm-33.636331, 22.212588
1914Doornkraal FarmhouseLe 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. In a few cases, matching a description from an old article to a contemporary structure was quite ambiguous; is “Die Denne” by Bullock the same thing as today’s De Denne guest house? 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) comes 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?

Gottland HouseRus in UrbePelham HouseVolstruis Paleis
Mimosa LodgeMontague HouseSchoeman HouseLe Roux House
Hazenjacht FarmhouseRietfontein FarmhouseBakenskraal FarmhouseWelgeluk Farmhouse
Greylands FarmhouseDoornkraal FarmHouseOnverwacht FarmhousePinehurst

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: 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 De Rust Heritage. The three black-and-white images were adapted from the Andre Pretorius digital collection at Stellenbosch University Library.

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)!

Montague House: Most Feather Palace towers either cap high ceilings or contain inaccessible areas.

Sue van Waart explains in her book that Montague House was an entertainment center for the Jewish community:

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.

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.)

Paleise van di Pluime, page 74. inexpert translation from Afrikaans

Le Roux Townhouse: September 18, 2019

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!

Le Roux townhouse: I will never pass up a stained-glass window!

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
Le Roux dining room: Being invited for tea is quite a high honor. How exclusive would the invites for dinner be?

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 Farmhouse: September 19, 2019

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!

The Rietfontein front door is a favorite spot for bird nests.

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!

Homes like Rietfontein are oases in a very dry area!

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.

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.

Paleise van di Pluime, page 41. inexpert translation from Afrikaans
Rietfontein’s furnishings feature beautiful woodwork in every room!

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 Farmhouse: September 19, 2019

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.

The foliage on the drive to Greylands offers some serious fairy-tale atmosphere!

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.

If Greylands was remodeled rather than built in 1911, and if it lacks a tower on its roof, and it’s on a farm rather than in the city, is it still a Feather Palace? Tradition says, “yes!”

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.

Welgeluk Farmhouse: September 19, 2019

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.

If you compare this architectural rendering of Welgeluk to the building that resulted (it’s in the grid of images at the top), I think you’ll see some substantial differences!

I would again point out that the Welgeluk mansion is not promoted as a tourist attraction. The large electric fence surrounding the property 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 / Rus in Urbe: September 20, 2019

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.”

The iron work on roof lines and balconies at Foster’s Manor made me want to linger, just staring.

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 stately staircase of Foster’s Manor bears lovely carved lions.

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.

Even the outdoor step for Foster’s Manor brings a palette of colors to play!

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. There’s no question that the collapse of the feather market had powerful repercussions for many families.

1913, the very year the feather reached its highest price was the year that fashion started changing, due in part to the popularity of open motor cars, whose speed was not conducive to wearing clothes or hats adorned with feathers. The start of World War I put the final nail in the coffin. Both in South Africa and in London there were warehouses full of feathers, with no buyers. The feathers were worth next to nothing and the feather buyers were left with debts owed them by the dealers and therefore could not pay the farmers, who started growing tobacco and raising livestock to counter the effects of the collapse of the feather market. 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

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!

Postscript: 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”).

Image provided by Mariëtte Bakker Braaf, Volstruispaleis B&B.

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)

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3 thoughts on “The Feather Palaces of the Klein Karoo

  1. beatrixp2

    Very interesting! My uncle Danie Meiring stayed at Gottland House for many years after he sold his farm and retired. He had a “bad ankle” – probably because he played rugby for Calitzdorp until he was about 40. He was well looked after at Gottland House. The rooms (a later addition?) are small, but the dining room and sitting room are lovely.

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  2. dtabb1973 Post author

    I appreciate your sharing a personal memory! The book by Picton-Seymour that I linked in the page has a fair bit to say about Gottland: “…this extravaganza of a house has a central verandah 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. Lacy, too, is the design of the verandah ironwork- this verandah continues around the corner of the house beyond the tower and follows round a deep bay window at the farther end. The walls are partly of stonework and partly of neat plasterwork.”

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