There was a fire here: a brief sketch of Cape Town’s Bree Street

Gwendoline Elizabeth Fagan will tell you: “there was a fire here”. Her architectural firm – co-owned with her husband – Gabriel Fagan Architects, occupies one of the oldest buildings on Bree Street: No 156. “The place is still in its original condition,” she says when I visit her to speak about the History of Bree Street. “We bought it 30 years or so ago. It was up for demolition because it burnt.”

Gwen, as her husband affectionately calls her, was born on 25 September 1924. She married Gabriel in 1949. At 91 years old she and her husband still commute to No. 156 on Bree Street every single day. And he has plans for a new building on the way, just around the corner from their offices. 156 used to be a warehouse in its former life in the Cape Colony. Like a conduit to that time and place, its design is explicitly Cape Dutch and the building still retains its original form: the large round windows and the steel beam that protrudes from the top of the building, which was used to hoist up the large wooden beams that hold the structure together. Every bit of bolt and wood is still intact. A wooden blue door greets the visitor downstairs. Next to it, a modern boutique in the form of Alexander Hojer by the Swedish designer of the same name, also finds its place along this street that carries the old and the new in one hand.

“The warehouse was used to store offloaded stuff from the ships until the next round of boats took them to their destination. The whole of Cape Town was full of warehouses,” Gwen says. “And in Bree Street there were quite a number of warehouses as well.”

Down Bree, across Wale Street, one finds reincarnates of former warehouses, which have been transformed, over time, into modern spaces. Clarke’s Bar and Birds on 127 embody the quintessence of the life of a modern Capetonian. The former being famous for its chilled vibe, its cheese burger and quart beers; the latter for its free range dishes and exceptional coffee. Across the street at 122 is Nauty40, an upmarket adult venue. Brothels have been a lifeblood of this city, since the Van Riebeek days. A thirty minute session at Nauty40 is R 800.00; an hour, R1000.00. Elsewhere I’ve read that Jan Van Riebeek once wrote to the VOC’s Council of Seventeen about the alarming ubiquity of places of pleasure in the city. And it’s a pleasant discovery to find that this tradition and trade has not become extinct. That, in fact, Bree Street, hosts at least two of such bars where one can treat oneself – the other one being up at 207 and visible to the keen traveller by its blue light bulb that invites you by the entrance.

A stone’s throw from Nauty40 is St Stephen’s NGK Dutch Reformed Church; attached to the back of the church is Weinhaus + Biergarten (Wine house + Beer garden, which serves craft beer for aficionados). The genealogy of the Dutch Reformed Church or Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerek (NGK) in Cape Town can be traced back to 1663 when Johan Van Arckel arrived in the Cape Colony to become its first minister. Since its founding, different strands of the church have mushroomed throughout the country, owing to Die Groot Trek of the1830s and 1840s. The St Stephen’s building was originally a theatre built for Sir George Yonge and opened in 1801. In 1839 the building was sold to the Dutch Reformed Church to be used as a church for recently freed slaves. The church is in Riebeek’s Square.

The city walker will find Paul du Toit sculpture, titled “Into tomorrow.” The sculpture is of two figures standing arm in arm, like friends or soldiers leaving battle; one of the figures taking a title defining step “into tomorrow.” Across Shortmarket and Bree Street is Heritage Square.

Before we scurry along, across the street, dear reader, there’s a piece of very important architecture I nearly forgot to mention –The Christiaan Barnard Hospital – found opposite St Stephen’s NGK Dutch Reformed Church. Christian Neethling Barnard was a South African cardiac surgeon who performed the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant. The operation occurred on the morning of 3 December 1967 and lasted 9 hours. It is reported that in his team was a black surgeon, Hamilton Naki, who played an integral role in the procedure. However, it is said, his name was removed from the history books to erase the black spot in what was meant to Apartheid’s great contribution to medicine. The irony. Naki’s name was later included only after 1994, a little too late, perhaps. If a just history could be written, a history that takes cognisance of the contributions of both victor and victim, I imagine that this impressive edifice of medical healthcare would be called The Hamilton Naki Christiaan Barnard Hospital, today.

Now, back to Heritage Square. This is a block of Dutch and Georgian architecture. In the 18th century it was famous among gunsmiths and bakers, bootleggers and cigarette makers. In the 1980s it became the largest conservation project in the city and was restored to its former glory. Today it houses The Cape Heritage Hotel, Simply Asia, HQ and Chefs warehouse among other businesses. I’ve lost a leg or two, downing one too many shots at HQ, if I may add. Going down Bree Street towards Hout Street, one ought to find the sea, I believe. Instead, one is invited by the beauty of art and culinary distinction at Young Blood and Beautiful Food on 70-72nd, the grave permanence of the edifice on corner Castle and Bree, the gentlemen’s hideout at The Embassy, the tallness of the Terraces building, which seems to hover above you like a lonesome sentinel and B@1 urban café, hidden underneath the weight of BG Bowman Gilfillan. Orinoco’s specialises in Latin American Cuisine and I LOVE MY LAUNDRY on Bree and Prestwich is where one can drop laundry and pick up Dimsum. The Vaudeville Supper Club is not too far and to be quite frank, I don’t know what people do there. A new structure, guarded by cranes and scaffolding, shoots up to the Cape Town sky on Bree and Mechau Street and Active Sushi stands next to Hard Pressed Café – a quaint, modern café on the modest side of Bree Street. In the 17th Century Freres Bistro would have been definitely submerged under water and Tsogo Sun would have been a reef.

Back at No 156, Gwen tells me, “No 156 Bree Street was one of the last remaining warehouses. All the warehouses have the same format. They’re narrow, long. Going from one street to the next street, usually.” She continues, “All these beams were so thick with charcoal and soot. We got a builder friend in who sharpened some spades and took out all the charcoal and cleaned up all the beams. The original beams were hoisted up and shoved through the windows. Because the building was originally a warehouse, the beams had to be placed very near to each other because they had to take a huge weight on top. So when we made them thinner it didn’t matter because they were still thick enough to carry a floor.”

As new buildings go up along this strip of Cape Town and other are taken down, it is important to remember Bree’s history and her people – like architects Gwen and Gabriel Fagan or the slaves who were freed into St Stephen’s NGK Church; the people who make their living in the square and the side street; the buskers and the bergies who make it their home and those enterprising souls who build their businesses or the bullhorn-moustached hipster in industrially torn tight denim jeans and an oversized sweater, who swings by for a double flat white and free Wifi at Jasons.


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