Ugly as a wet mop, intriguing as a snake


Ugly as a wet mop, intriguing as a snake

One of Cape Town's best-known buildings, the Gardens Centre, turned 50 last year. HERMAN LATEGAN shares his memories of a monolithic concrete block that towers 22 storeys over the neighbourhood.


BEFORE I look back to the year when the Gardens Centre made its appearance in 1973, let me recall my memories of the place before that time.

The spot where the centre towers was occupied by the International Hotel. It was a large, lovely place where you could enjoy bar meals on Sunday afternoons with big plates of meat, rice and potatoes.

You were not allowed to buy alcohol on Sundays, but if you ate copiously the NG Church and pious Nats were pleased that you would at least be ready to count some sheep. Many residents of Vredehoek and Gardens let me know what they could remember.

Arts journalist Amanda Botha said the Springboks always stayed there when they were playing in the Cape. Gerd Stern, a friend who is 85, said he and his wife Renée held their wedding reception there in their early 20s.

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On Saturday evenings there were bands and the young people of the neighbourhood kicked up their heels on the dance floor. There were snooker tables.

Next door was a flea market, hairdresser, fishery and butcher. People greeted each other in the streets and the shop owners were like friends. They knew their customers by their first names.

From 1968 on, at four years old, I also recall the Avalon Hotel opposite the International. It was the year in which my mother and I visited her friend Esmé there. The Avalon was a residential hotel which meant people could live there, like in a boarding house.

Esmé's husband Douggy had left her for another woman who was younger and looked like a sleazy Dusty Springfield. She had a rebellious teenage son who had a ducktail and went jolling until late at night.

When she wasn't complaining about him, she was grumbling about Douggy having left her. She applied lots of cheap make-up to her face and like Aunt Stienie always had a cigarette in her hand.

I remember endless corridors with heavy, thick carpets and a kettle outside every room. If you wanted to make tea or coffee you had to boil the water in the corridor.

The visits to Esmé stopped, she had gone back to Liverpool, but the smell of cabbage, cigarette smoke and rooms full of lonely people at the Avalon Hotel, now an office building, will always stay with me.


The Gardens Centre consists of 18 floors.
The Gardens Centre consists of 18 floors.

Then the developers came and the International made way for the ugly and morbid Gardens Centre. Today the shopping centre below the apartments is attractive and popular but the building above resembles dead cement, in the style of unimaginative East German brutalist architecture.

The architect Robert Silke describes the look as “late-modern Seventies brutalism, of which concrete is the main feature". The mood is callous, sullen, hostile, rough and cold.

Just next to the Gardens Centre they knocked down a string of beautiful Victorian homes to build an ugly amorphous block of flats without any charisma. One old home remained standing, an Edwardian house where an elderly widow refused to move out.

I remember her as neat and tidy, always wearing a hairnet. At night, someone started throwing stones at her windows to scare her. One can only guess who was behind this nasty behaviour.

She then died, but let me tell you something. After all these decades, that house is still standing while almost every business has had to close. In the late Eighties there was a mysterious fire and only the facade, with its embellishments, remains.

The gossip on the street is that her ghost roams there and that she has cursed the place. Today a tattoo parlour there does well, apparently. On the front door a sticker greets you with the words: “This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address."

I can hear the hairnet lady cackling in her grave.

The old International hotel where the Gardens Center stands today.
The old International hotel where the Gardens Center stands today.

My first memory of the Gardens Centre was of the popular Zerban's Cake & Coffee Shop, owned by strict Germans who ran the place with precision. The cakes were theatrical, the coffee the best in Cape Town and the ample menu was top-drawer.

In 1973, my mates and I sometimes walked there from school in Kloof Street just to look at the people and shops, all very fancy and tempting. On the way we sometimes popped in at a certain Auntie Rossouw's in Gardens for her Oros and Marie biscuits.

She was elderly and liked the company of young people; looking back I realise, of course, that she was lonely. Later I found out she was the mother of Elize Botha, wife of PW. You could have hit me in the face with a snoek, I was so amazed.

Image: Above: The Avalon Hotel in the old days. Below: The Avalon Hotel today.

As I got older, I often stopped at Zerban's. It attracted the crowds: foodies, social butterflies, the avant garde, writers like Sheila Cussons and Ina Rousseau.

The apartment block above later became notorious for people who jumped to their deaths and a judge's daughter was murdered there. Dark above, light below, yin and yang.

Standing out for me was one of my first journalistic interviews, which I did there. I was  19 and doing my compulsory military service as a reporter.

One of the war correspondents for the South African Army during World War 2 was Uys Krige. I heard he was staying at his daughter's home in Tamboerskloof.

Doing some detective work, I tracked down her number, called, and he picked up. I wanted to talk to him for an article about his days as a defence force correspondent.

He agreed and I went to meet him at his daughter's house. A friend of mine picked us up in an old Volla and took us to Zerban's. I couldn't believe how many people recognised him.

The actors Trix Pienaar and Johan Botha came up to greet him. There I sat, 19 years old, in my uniform, like a kippie.

Naturally, I was nervous, but I shakily wrote down everything in the notebook in front of me on the table. We returned in the Volla.

The interview appeared and because he was a great storyteller, the copy was entertaining. Thank you Uys, thank you Zerban's.

It was 2004 and my relationship of 20 years was on the rocks. Depression drove me and I decided I needed to move to a new place, preferably one where I could jump off and end it all.

Of course, I thought of the Gardens Centre. I called to ask if an apartment was available. There was, and way up on the 18th floor, facing front, with a view of the sea and city. How fortuitous.

The first night was dark and lonely so high up in the sky. I gazed over the sparkling city. If I jumped it would be the end. While I was trying to muster my courage, something unforgettable happened.

I was still peering down when a car crashed into the bridge at high speed. The occupants' death screams echoed. Then the flames. Later the fire brigade and ambulance.

I backed off in a daze. The realisation that life can end just like that shocked me. I changed my mind there and then.


My relationship with the upper part of the Gardens Centre was short-lived (I moved back to my old place) but eventful. Inside were long, silent corridors, almost eerie.

At night I could hear homeless children screaming in the street. They imitated the sound of an ambulance's siren. Together, the signal and its chorus used to rip open the night.

In the lift there were often residents who looked like they had just received bad news. No one spoke. One day a man and dog I had encountered frequently got in with me. Silence. The noise of the lift going down.

The dog was a small, black Scottish terrier. “What's his name?" I asked. Both glared at me as if I had asked them for money. “Koos!" barked the man.

The door opened and they quickly left. Neither he nor the dog ever looked me in the eye again.


The last house opposite the Gardens Centre.
The last house opposite the Gardens Centre.

I was sitting at the Long Street Café and started chatting with the manager. He told me he had a pet python. I asked if I could interview him and come to his place to meet the snake. Again, coincidence did its trick.

Turned out he lived in the Gardens Centre on the eighth floor. Pen in hand, I was there the next day. The door opened and there Satan's child lay, happily curled up on its own duvet.

It was a big snake that took little notice of me. There was a pet store at the bottom of the centre. The snake's food came from it — live mice.

The editor let us know we should have a photo taken of the manager and his snake outside the Long Street Café. We met there and the snake had draped itself like a necklace around its father.

A small crowd of awestruck people gathered on the sidewalk and the photographer clicked away like mad. The snake hissed at the camera.

The manager had to stay at work that day. He put the snake in a bag in one of the store rooms. When he went to collect his pet after his shift, it was gone.

The snake had wriggled out of the bag and absconded, through a hole somewhere in the floor, into the dark tunnels of Long Street.

I have often thought, what if the snake slithered back and ended up under a table. You are drinking another coffee when a snake peeks at you and flicks the tongue that tickles your heels.

The manager's heart was broken, and even though I offered to buy him a new snake, he too never spoke to me again.


Also often in the lift with me were a couple and their floppy baby. The parents looked neglected and poor. Sometimes they were barefoot. It looked like the woman was cutting her own hair.

A friend of mine, a music journalist, told me they were in some type of alternative rock band and were down at heel. I wanted to buy them some canned food but thought it would be humiliating.

The day arrived that my relationship with the place with the long and lonely corridors had come to an end. I moved back to my previous abode.

The TV was on one night and I recognised the couple. Oh damn, what had they got up to now, I wondered. No, they had just returned from a  tour in America where hordes of people had pitched up to listen to them.

The band's name? Die Antwoord. As before, you could have hit me three times in the face with a wet snoek right there.

Today when I drive past the Gardens Centre I look with fresh eyes at this ugly place with its strange stories and people. Ja nee, never judge a banana by its peel.

♦ VWB ♦

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