In 2012 the UCT campus was shortlisted by The Daily Telegraph as one of the most beautiful in the world. It echoes the sentiments of its principal designer JM Solomon in 1919 when he said “The new university which architecturally is to come into being at Groote Schuur has natural advantages in the beauty off its site unsurpassed by any similar institutions in the world”. Part of the Estate assembled by Cecil John Rhodes as an incalculably valuable and far-reaching environmental conservation, was intended as a “national” university and chosen after the enactment of the UCT Act in 1916.
Herbert Baker, who first met Rhodes at dinner in Glenara (today the official residence of the Vice-Chancellor) and who had rebuilt Groote Schuur after the fire, was the architect of choice but was by then overwhelmed by the grand imperial project of New Delhi. JM Solomon, an inexperienced South African protégé in his Cape Town office also had the support of influential trustees of the Rhodes Estate and Wernher-Beit Bequest. He embarked on an extensive study tour of Europe and North America, soaking up designs of university architecture.
His genius concept referencing the summit of Devil’s Peak and the pivot of the old Rustenburg Summer House below won favour but early estimates of a Million Pounds for the core of 7 buildings, in addition to a site to be prepared without today’s heavy machinery, immediately began to trim his vision. The one aspect that was never subject to compromise was the cloister and quadrangle Oxbridge model for the two residences.
A depressed Solomon was a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic and frustrated by endless tinkering by design committees. Only two months after the turning of the first sod on 2 July 1920, he committed suicide in The Woolsack. CP Walgate had only recently been engaged to assist him and with two well-established Cape Town architects Hawke and McKinlay inherited the mantle and a site finally ready for building in 1926.
When the Prince of Wales toured the Empire in 1925, he was installed as UCT Chancellor of UCT and laid the foundation stone of Men’s Residence on 1 May in “the presence of students bursting their throats with their college song”. Nearing completion in 1927, the bleak cement plaster and plain roof tiles drew criticism. They are now the palette for all university buildings! In 1928 Beattie proudly showed off Men’s Residence to the Mayor and Council who praised its “Old World culture in perfect keeping with the charm and dignity of the Mother City”. Teak panelling, honest brickwork and brass electroliers would allow students “to live in elegant luxury congenial to learning”.
The Common Rooms
There was generous provision by the architects for public and recreational space.
On the Ground Floor, the charmingly appointed and furnished Visitors’ Room harks back to the days when it was only here that female visitors could be entertained after having “signed in”.
Next to it, the Lower Common Room, although also generously panelled, always seems to have drawn the short straw as pock-marked records of dartboards testify. Venue of bawdy sing-songs around the old upright piano, afternoon tea and the daily newspapers, it assumed the alien function of television lounge, ripping out the soul of a room in search of an appropriated role.The precious Visitors’ Book containing the signatures of monarchs and University worthies among others, is now in safer hands at the Warden’s Lodge.
The neighbouring House Committee Room has served as the seat of student government in Smuts Hall since 1928 and each new committee serves under the watchful eyes of a complete photographic record of its predecessors.
The Upper Common Room on the first floor is of grand proportions and possessed of a generous balcony taking in both the rugby fields and the Cape Flats. Hosting everything from the raucous House gramophone of the Twenties to the musical genius of the day at the keyboard of the baby grand, it has seen House meetings, debates and literally hundreds of functions sometimes warmed at its two baronial hearths. For more than 50 years it contained many fine paintings since redistributed within the University for reasons of safety. Latterly it has come to host various Honours Bards but pride of place goes to the Roll of Honour for the Fallen of Men’s Residence unveiled in the House’s 25th anniversary year.
Below stairs and once accessed off Rugby Road, the garage for the privileged few in the Thirties, enjoyed various schemes to convert it into a billiard room. This was finally achieved in 1970 and in 1976 the “Beer Club” was formalised as The George in honour of Professor George Menzies who had been Warden for 21 years. The venue is once again the focus of major refurbishment.