The contrast of the big blue South African skies with vibrant green vineyards and gleaming white buildings are a totem of this area. Visitors to the Cape winelands often remark on the distinct architecture, the story of which is a slice of South Africa’s kaleidoscope history.
The architectural style known as Cape Dutch has developedin South Africa over the centuries since the first European settlers arrived. Initially these gracious old houses were havens of familiarity in a strange land, providing cool shaded interiors and a respite from the blazing sun, for the small groups of Dutch farmers who came to colonise the Cape and grow vineyards. The de Wet family first came to South Africa with in 1693; Jacobus de Wet, the son of an artist, was an official in the Dutch East India Company and, aged 20, made the journey from Amsterdam to the Western Cape on board the vessel ‘Nigtevegt’. He was favoured by the first Governor of the Cape Colony, Simon van der Stel, to the extent that it was rumoured he was his illegitimate son. True or not, Jacobus was appointed cellar master for the Dutch East India Company in 1697 thus starting the de Wet family’s long association with oenology.
Despite many great houses being built by the Huguenots, who fled to the Cape from France in the 1680s, the style of architecture is thought of as northern European, hence the name Cape Dutch. Architect Gabriél Fagan, author of Twenty Cape Houses, highlights the northern European roots which gave the style it’s sturdy lime washed walls and thatched roofs; “Despite the Huguenots, I don’t think there is French influence in our typical gabled farm houses, which were derived from Dutch and probably also low German vernacular,” he says. But despite the influence from the Netherlands and north-west Germany, the style is not a carbon copy of its far away cousin; over time and in geographic isolation it assumed a character of its own.
Gables, rare in Europe, became the Cape Dutch style’s defining element and the basic two- or three-roomed cell evolved into larger structures. Experiments with a T or U shape culminated in what we now think of as the ‘classic’ Cape Dutch H-shaped house with a large, central room connecting two parallel wings.
The de Wet family have farmed at Excelsior since 1859 when Koos de Wet settled here and began clearing the veld of the Little Karoo. The youngest brother, Jacobus Stephanus (known Kowie) inherited Excelsior and soon became one of the most successful ostrich breeders in the Robertson district.
Ostrich plumes, the essence of haute couture in the early 20th century, were big business and the new found affluence of ostrich breeders began to be reflected in the ‘feather palace’ architectural style. Kowie de Wet built Excelsior Manor at this time in a style known as Cape Revival; an enormous farmhouse with the characteristic elegance of the Victorian era, embellished with Cape Dutch gables.
The original home has been extensively restored to its former glory and is now used as a Guest House with nine luxury en suite bedrooms. Luckily the spacious rooms provided adequate internal space for renovation without altering the external façade so it has been possible to retain the tranquil proportions of the exterior with the original wooden window frames and century old gables while bringing the interior up to date.