In November 2018, the Belmond Mount Nelson celebrates 100 years since this iconic Cape Town hotel was first painted pink. We trace the history of the graceful “Nellie” through six of its familiar spaces and objects.
The year 1917 is one forever remembered. After four years, the bloodiest war in human history was thankfully concluded and to celebrate Armistice Day and the end of the conflict, the Mount Nelson was painted pink.
At least that’s one version of the story… the most official of all of them, anyway.
Other versions suggest that it may have had more to do with the Mount Nelson’s manager, an Italian by the name of Aldo Renato, who was more likely giving the Nellie a fresh coat of a light rouge popular among European hotels back then. Whatever the intent, the hue has become synonymous with the hotel and, frankly, it would be unthinkable to paint it anything other.
THE MAIN BUILDING
The hotel may have first opened its doors on Monday, 6 March 1899, but its history goes back a good 150 years prior to that. One has to travel back to 1743 to trace the origins of Cape Town’s grand hotel; to when the tract of land was first granted to one Baron Pieter Van Rheede van Oudtshoorn.
It was another 63 years before the familiar title was first recorded – in August of 1806, theSouth African Gazette listed the property as being let to auctioneer William Maude. The newspaper referred to it as “Mount Nelson”, a name that was both homage to war hero Lord Horatio Nelson who had perished a year earlier and the fledgling port’s Table Mountain.
It was shipping magnate Sir Donald Currie who had the vision to transform the graceful Cape home into a fully fledged hotel. As the owner of the Union-Castle Shipping Line, he was looking for “a ship ashore” – essentially a luxury hotel that could accommodate his first-class passengers once they had arrived in the Mother City. Currie purchased the gracious house from the Ross family in 1890 and five years later, once refurbished and modified to accept guests, the Mount Nelson opened its doors on 6 March 1899.
THE GREAT TREES
Two huge trees dominate the front lawn of the hotel – a European Oak and a Norfolk Island Pine – and both are at least 300 years old. Famous British landscape painter Thomas Bowler lived in the Cape for a while and his water colour of the hotel dated 1866 shows both trees already well established. It’s likely the trees were planted by the Baron mentioned earlier and the oak did have a companion tree that unfortunately died.
Quercus roburis the oak’s botanical classification and it’s known as an exceptionally dense and heavy wood,making it a prime choice for wine casks – wine making was already an established industry in the Cape at that time. The Norfolk Pine – araucaria heterophylla– is a conifer native to Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. Interestingly, this type of tree is one of the earliest plant species on Earth – a gymnosperm surviving from the Triassic-Jurassic periods of around 220 million years ago. They can grow up to 60m and exceed 1 000 years in age.
UNION-CASTLE LINE MEMORABILIA
Along the hotels many corridors and dotted among the modern art that adorns the walls, are old Union-Castle photographs, oil paintings, original posters and display cabinets of memorabilia that hark back to the hotel’s nautical origins.
Until the arrival of the jet age, the Union-Castle Line was the main link between the United Kingdom and South Africa, with its lavender-hulled liners with red funnels topped in black ferrying passengers and mail between Southhampton and Cape Town. Every Thursday at 4pm, a Union-Castle liner would leave the Southampton docks and, at the same time, another would depart Table Bay, heading north.
Even though a voyage from Southampton took a mere 10 days (and continued on to Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban), the big passenger jet and economy air travel rapidly made the travel by sea obsolete. By the early 70s, that ship had truly sailed and the Union-Castle line began to phase out its service. In October of 1977, the Windsor Castle made its final passage to Cape Town, signalling the end of an era that connected Europe and Africa since 1900.
THE LION MOTIF
On the main building and in the garden, is the sculpted head of a lion used as part of the architectural design. The lion was the family motif of the Ross family who owned the property between 1843 and 1899. Sir Hamilton Ross – prosperous financier and member of the Cape’s legislative council – tasked his nephew, John Ross, a keen landscape gardener to transform the surrounding farmland into a park with trees, an orchard and vineyard… it even had deer roaming around.
Look closely at the main fountain on the lawns below the hotel’s sweeping veranda and you’ll see 10 water-spouting lion motifs atop the centre column. Unlike today, water was plentiful in the Western Cape back then and the grounds had some 28 fountains, fed by a stream that still runs though the property.
PRINCE OF WALES GATE
Prior to 1924, the Mount Nelson had a somewhat non-descript entrance – a small iron gate on adjacent Hof street. However, with Cape Town and the hotel gaining stature as a place to visit, the hotel’s owners deemed it necessary to build a portal appropriately grander. So impressed with their new Greek-columned entrance were its owners that they wanted to call it the Gateway to the Cape. The city elders, however, firmly declined the idea.
As luck would have it, the following year, as part of his royal duties representing his father George V of England, the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VII) paid a visit to Cape Town. What better way to honour its esteemed visitor and attach some royal patronage to the hotel than name the new entrance in his honour.
Along with the towering, Greek-columned structure, 83 knee-high Canary Island date palms were planted to line the entrance avenue and most still stand today.
Following South Africa’s emergence on the world stage after our democratic elections in 1994, and with tourism numbers on the up, the Mount Nelson needed to expand to accommodate this demand. The solution was to purchase three historic buildings and another old hotel situated next to its palm-lined driveway.
In 1996, Green Park, Hof Villa, Taunton House Cottage and the Helmsley Hotel were fully restored and converted to guest accommodation that would increase the hotel’s total number of rooms and suites to 201. Like Green Park and the Helmsley, Taunton House is home to the Mount Nelson’s Studio Suites that feature an open plan design, each with a spacious bedroom and lounge area, and suitably luxurious marble bathroom.
From November 2018, the Mount Nelson will celebrate its Pink Centenary with pink events, pink drinks and pink bites. For whatever the motives were that saw the hotel first painted its familiar shade, the colour remains one of hope, compassion and love… all excellent reasons to pay the “Nellie” a visit this month.
WORDS Steve Smith
IMAGES Shavan Rahim