Somewhat of a landmark on the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak, Zonnebloem House (Picture 1), on the border of Woodstock and the Zonnebloem suburb, has witnessed the expansion of Cape Town, the tragic forced removals and demolitions of District Six and the slow rebirth of the area that took its name. It was also one of three estates in Woodstock that were named after flowers, Roodebloem and Leliebloem being the other two.
Zonnebloem’s beginnings date back to 1707 when a small farm (or market garden) was granted to Pieter Christiaans. There were numerous farms and market gardens on the slopes of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak, and their original purpose was to supply the ships anchored at Table Bay with scurvy-preventing fresh fruit and vegetables for their long ocean trips. After a succession of owners, Zonnebloem (meaning sunflower in Dutch) came into the hands of Rudolph Siegfried Allemann in 1739. A man of some means – he was the leader of the Cape Garrison – he increased the property’s size two-fold and probably built the first house on Zonnebloem to accommodate his growing family, after relocating from the Castle. He died at Zonnebloem in 1762 and his son passed the farm over to Jan Hendrik Munnik in 1774.
Munnik is said to have improved the house, (possibly adding a wing or two to create an H-shape, a traditional Cape Dutch architectural plan) and to have added beautiful baroque gables to the front and back. It was around this time that artist Johannes Schumacher produced a panorama of Cape Town, where Zonnebloem house can clearly be seen on the slopes of
Devil’s Peak, with extensive farmlands and outbuildings (Picture 2). Incidentally, Zonnebloem is the only remaining H-shaped Cape Dutch house between the city bowl and Observatory. Observatory boasts two H-shaped Cape Dutch houses, namely Wrensch House and Westoe.
Although the land wasn’t particularly fertile, Munnik may have wanted to use the Zonnebloem farm and house as a showplace, a symbol of his status as Captain of the Cape Cavalry – status being highly important. The homestead also boasted one of the best views in Cape Town, of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head with vistas of the sweeping expanse of Table Bay, laden with sailing ships as it was in those days. At some point in its history, Zonnebloem was also owned by a slave trader, and the West African slaves were reputedly kept at the farm until being taken by ship to the Americas, where many would have died from disease and inhumane conditions en route.
Alexander Tennant took ownership in 1800 and made his own alterations to the house and farm. With the British occupation of the Cape in the early 19th century, the more restrained Georgian style of architecture became prevalent, slowly replacing the Cape Dutch style in popularity. And so Zonnebloem House was given Georgian sash windows and was sadly shorn of its fine gables (the gables that can be seen today have been cut of all their elaborate trimmings), while the farm was expanded from around 24 morgen (20 hectares) to 200 morgen (171 hectares). Tennant Street in Zonnebloem serves as a reminder of this owner.
During the first half of the 19th century, several artists including George French Angas (Picture 3) captured Zonnebloem in its various guises, but only after a succession of alterations. Later, the house was altered further, losing its thatch and gaining a corrugated iron roof. Dormer windows were added (to make the most of the stunning views no doubt!) and various additions were undertaken. A side door was also added to become the new front entrance.
District Six, the vibrant area where different races lived amicably, sprung up on some of Zonnebloem’s old farmlands in the last half of the 19th century. The remaining grounds and house were taken over to become the Zonnebloem College.
Zonnebloem College (originally given the unfortunate name – the ‘Kaffir College’) had the distinction of being the first ‘African School’ in the Cape Peninsula, founded by Sir George Grey and Bishop Grey in 1858. The aim was to educate the sons of black chiefs (including Sandili, Moshesh and Lobengula), who were on the Eastern frontier, and to train young black men from privileged families to become missionaries for the Anglican Church (Picture 4). This education was also used to try and find ways of easing conflict between white and black people at the time. A teacher training college was opened in 1865 and in 1913 the Zonnebloem Teacher Training College was built, opening its doors to female students for the first time, while coloured students became the prime population of the school. Some of the old farm buildings were used to house the growing number of students, while an attractive chapel was built on the property – pic 2. Today, two primary schools occupy the historic Zonnebloem buildings of the original school, and the grounds were used as a voting station during the last municipal elections in 2011.
Though much altered and in need of a restoration job, Zonnebloem still presides over Table Bay as it did in the 18th century (pic 3), but instead of looking out over farmlands, the current tenants look out over vast tracts of vacant, bulldozed land, the scars that must remind them of District Six’s tragic past. It would be wonderful to see Zonnebloem’s thatch reinstated and the baroque gables restored. Any takers?
The Old Buildings of the Cape by Hans Fransen (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2004);
Woodstock – A selection of articles from The Woodstock Whisperer, edited by Gabriel and Louise Athiros (Historical Media CC);
Wagon Road to Wynberg by C.Pama (Tafelberg Publishers);
Note to researchers:
The Manuscripts & Archives department of the University of Cape Town libraries has a file called the Zonnebloem papers (catalogue number: BC 636), with extensive research on the Zonnebloem College.
Jim Hislop is the current Senior Copy Editor and Wine Writer for Pick n Pay’s Fresh Living magazine.
A long-time resident of Observatory, he is also a member of the Vernacular Society and is currently researching the history of the old farms of the Observatory and Woodstock area.