Sea Point and its surrounds looked very different in the 1800s and 1900s. Before the promenade wall was built there was nothing separating residents from the ocean but undulating sand and jagged outcrops of black, volcanic rock. Today, Beach Road is dominated by tall apartment blocks commanding enviable views of the shipping lines and Signal Hill, but back in the day this was a row of charming Victorian homesteads which offered their lucky owners direct access to the beach.
One of these residences — now a large block of flats — was a gorgeous villa called ‘Bordeaux’ built in 1865 by a wealthy businessman named Pieter Marais. The property extended all they way from the Main Road to Beach Road. He had ties to the wine industry, hence the French name, and his wife was known as the ‘Lady of Bordeaux.’ Bound by a wheelchair, she could be seen gazing longingly out of the top windows of the Villa Bordeaux at the world outside. In those days, disability of any kind was stigmatized. To free her from the prison of her home, Mr Marais had a pathway built leading from the Villa Bordeaux, over the rocks, directly to a private pool with a wall to conceal her while she bathed.
In 1893 the property was bought by a Mr Graaff from Villiersdorp who added a second story, making it ‘one of the most arresting edifices on the Sea Point Beach Road.’ This successful businessman was elected senator when the Union of South Africa was formed, and he was a minister in Louis Botha’s cabinet and in Jan Smut’s second ministry. An enormous donation made by him and his brother in 1907 led to the construction of the De Villers Graaff High School in Villiersdorp. The wealthy Graaff family were notorious for strolling down to the pool in their ‘silks’ without having to interact with ‘common members of society.’ It became known as ‘Graaff’s Pool.’
A true eccentric, Mr Graaff was regarded as an expert on animals and earned himself the nickname ‘Mal Jan.’ He insisted on being buried in a coffin with a glass lid and a working telephone in case he woke up from the dead. Some claim that a secret tunnel was also built which connected the Villa Bordeaux to the pool. In 1929 the pool was opened to the public. The old path and parts of the pool remain, though in a dilapidated state. In 1959 the mansion was converted into an hotel. The hotels along Beach Road were a big part of the area’s social scene. Many, such as Bordeaux, had dance-halls and restaurants, and Bordeaux’s lovely tea garden was a popular destination for young mothers. Tucked between the hotels were pretty houses with white picket fences. Many of the flats kept the names of the hotels, the last reminders of another era.
The long and welcoming stretch of grass which flanks the promenade now has playgrounds for children and exercise areas for dogs, while providing a good landing spot for the frequent paragliders that drift over Lion’s Head. This land was once owned by the railways. In the years 1905 – 1929, a passenger train ran from Cape Town to Sea Point, bringing bathers with their families and picnic baskets to enjoy some fresh sea air. The train line was electrified in 1927, making it the first train to be driven by electricity in the Cape Province. Sadly, due to competition from the tram, it stopped making a profit and the railway track was pulled up. The last train left Monument station (at the foot of Adderley Street) for Sea Point on 16 April 1929. Happily, the land was declared public ground, never to be developed. While much of the landscape has changed, it’s not hard to imagine the old steam train chugging its way past the Villa Bordeaux, or the Graaffs in their pyjamas traipsing down the path on a hot summer’s morning. It’s always been an interesting and quirky place to live.
Lance Real Estate is based in Fresnaye, Cape Town and covers the Atlantic Seaboard from the Waterfront to Camps Bay. With over 23 years’ experience in the most sought-after residential areas in Africa, Lance Real Estate has sold over R 1 billion worth of properties in the last 3 years.
It is this hands-on knowledge that sets Lance Real Estate apart from our competition. We have built an extensive database of buyers and sellers over the last 2 decades who have grown to trust our market knowledge and depend on us to negotiate the best possible deal in any property negotiation.
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Photocredits: Berylmd https://flic.kr/p/84mARL, Wikipedia and Graham Sonnenberg