What happens when historical buildings go up in flames

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Rubble, soot and charred remains. That is the UCT’s Jagger Reading Room today. A week ago it was still the reading room of the African Studies Library. A place where curiosity got stirred, a starting point of careers and a home for academics.

On a practical level, architecture exists to cater to one of our most basic human needs for survival: shelter.

But in doing so, it goes much deeper.

It tells stories. Anchor memories. And it interprets national identity and helps us to understand history.

As the flames gutted several buildings on the UCT campus and spread across the mountain, we were in the thick of finalising our latest SLOW video, a historical look into Cape Dutch architecture.  Something that we believe is still largely an untold story: the hands who put it together. A story more South African than we could have ever imagined.

This video features a slew of buildings and gables, but one of the greatest examples of Cape Dutch architecture is Groot Constantia, and in 1925 a fire wreaked havoc on the 130-year-old (at that time) manor house. “A more complete burn out could scarcely be imagined,” said the architect, responsible for the restoration, Franklin Kendall in his book The Restoration of Groot Constantia.

But it was this fire that put the preservation of Cape Dutch architecture and the importance of turning the building into a museum in the spotlight.

And the UCT’s Jagger Reading Room understood exactly this, the importance of preservation – long before the fire and long before the installation of its fire shutters. It became a custodian, an African treasure trove of original African literature and studies. Many of which have now turned into rubble, soot and charred remains.

We can say, “why not go digital with old material” and eliminate damage and loss but a book in your hand or a building you can walk through equate connection. It becomes a human story. It gives a voice. It involves you. It speaks to your senses.

Dr Martha Evans, a senior lecturer in media studies at UCT talks about her time spent in the library in an article on TimesLIVE, “Nobody would speak, unless in hushed tones, but we might smile at one another, taking comfort in knowing that we were all there for the same purpose: the pursuit of knowledge.”

The Jagger Reading Room joins many other historical buildings across the world forming part of national heritage, a home for irreplaceable objects echoing unquantifiable value, that got affected by fires. The Windsor Castle, Slane Castle and National Museum of Rio de Janeiro all burnt down and got restored, while the restoration of the Notre Dame to its original design is on its way with the plan to reopen by 2024 for the summer Olympics which will be held in Paris.

The recent fire is still a raw wound for those who had to evacuate their homes and student residences and those who could not return to the university on Monday. The total loss of the damage should still be tallied up, the heritage that is no more will still linger around for a long time, and the uncertainty and long-term impact remains. But there is a sense of comfort in the words of UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

“We cannot replace the treasures of scholarship we have lost, but we can create new treasures out of our own scholarship. In the same way, each of us can rebuild our own sense of purpose out of this tragedy. Our colleagues in the libraries have a long road ahead of them and many of us feel the devastation of the loss of this significant institutional asset, but we will walk this road to rebuild our facilities together.”



Winchester Mansions, a prime example of Cape Dutch Revival architecture, is the grand old dame of the Atlantic Seaboard. Her timeless elegance and contemporary charm have welcomed guests from all over the world. This Sea Point hotel, with the promenade, ocean breeze and a world to explore on its doorstep, will soon reopen. Plan your summer holidays ahead, and stay in the timeless rooms, relax by the pool and experience Saturday high teas, Sunday Jazz Brunches, 3G evenings, spa treatments, sundowners at Harveys Restaurant and much more. www.winchester.co.za

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