Stoep Stories No 15
Thursday, 15th May 2014
THE HOUSES OF GRAAFF – REINET
STOEP STORIES - TALES FROM THE KAROO
Published by the Graaff-Reinet Heritage Society
BY John Parsons
Visitors to Graaff – Reinet become immediately aware of the quite distinctive character of most of the old houses in the town. Over a long period subsequent to the establishment fo the village some grand houses were built but in the first few decades a particular karoo type of dweling was popular and common. This was the single storey flat roofed type of house of which examples can still be seen. It seems that this type of architecture was originally influenced by and modelled upon what existed at the Cape Naturally modifications and adaptations followed but the ground plans were very similar.
The building style which evolved was eminently suited to the Graaff – Reinetter’s material and environmental conditions. Most of them owned small vineyards in the town and notwithstanding the quality and popularity of their karoo brandy they were not well off. Since the village was so far from Cape Town where skilled artisans were available or where semi-skilled slaves could build with not much supervision the inhabitants of Graaff – Reinet had largely to plan and fend for themselves. Timber forests did not exist in the Karoo and reeds suitable for thatching were scarce. Burchell recorded in 1812 that all planks and the larger beams were fetched from a long distance. These were cut in the Baviaanskloof south –east of WIllowmore and in the Bosberg at Somerset East. The pitched and thatched roof construction familiar at the Cape was an impossibility for the ordinary citizen of Graaff – Reinet. Consequently for the greater part houses were of the single storey flat roofed type. Nevertheless in the town these symmetrical square designed and flat roofed constructions retain their old world charm and contribute considerably to the uniqueness of the town’s atmosphere.
A feature of the houses even then was thick walls plastered and whitewashed with high ceilings inside and solid shutters on the windows to shut out the summer heat. The ceilings were made o fa mud layer of about 150mm thick supported on a reed or slat base floors were mostly” misvloer” a mixture of cow dung and clay or “perkepit “made by embedding peach stones in the” misvloer” and colouring and polishing this with ox – blood.
While it is not possible to determine with accuracy the date of all flat roofed houses in town probably only the best constructed have survived. Some of the older dwellings were very poorly built. It is true however that the architecture was climatically adaptable even though only crude materials and relatively primitive building techniques were used.
It is also true that here was a definite and determined attempt (albeit probably an unconscious one) to achieve a stylistic and aesthetic unity in a local style in an isolated part of the country. As can still be seen today rich and poor alike were able to adapt the basic plan to their own requirements. Some years ago in the oldest streets in town Church and Cradock Street rows of cottages could still be seen bordering on the street water furrow (some still exist now) a probable reason for this clustering was the fear of an attack by hostile tribes. The last of these attacks which did not reach Graaff – Reinet took place in 1825 but the fear and the memory is long lived.