Kruger House: the legends live on

Kruger House: the legends live on

By Mauritz Naudé, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

Even though museums are normally associated with the collection of movable objects such as art, household items, textiles, ceramics, glass and a variety of exclusive manmade things, the opening and reopening of a house museum and a historic building represents something special. What makes such a place special? Buildings and historic sites cannot be obscured from the public by storing it in a storage facility and it cannot be presented occasionally as part of a formal display. The enjoyment of historic sites and buildings are not incidental events and they are not occasionally exposed to the public eye. They are part of the urban fabric of a city or town. They form part of the historic manmade landscape.

To celebrate a historic site and historic building often signifies the rediscovery of something special: because the place is of cultural significance associated with an event – good or bad, a person of outstanding character or who has contributed to its neighbourhood, city or region and may have represented its community or cultural group in their cause.

The aura of the Kruger house revolves mostly around Paul Kruger the person. Irrespective of the many publications recording the life and times of Kruger, he is still associated with many unrecorded events, myths and legendary moments associated with situations exposing his character and intriguing personal beliefs. These vary from the adventurous (hunting and war stories), to the religious (dogmatic expressions) and from the very personal to events associated with him as statesman (opposing British imperialism). His residence has become a location with a strong sense-of-place, attracting visitors from all over the world.

The dwelling does not reflect the character of a ‘presidency’ but that of a ‘dorpshuis’. Many questions relating to this seeming dichotomy have been asked. We have become used to a perception that the leader of a country would live in a mansion or stately dwelling and the Kruger House does not reflect this perception. During the early part of the 1880s, while Kruger was overseas, plans were proposed for a new ‘presidency’. This was proposed by Alois Nellmapius, an immigrant from Hungary who have negotiated several business concessions with Kruger. He had architectural drawings drafted for the future dwelling for Kruger by an English architect Tom Claridge. The proposed dwelling resembled the architectural style of Europe at the time – a double story Victorian villa with a variety of hipped roofs, an asymmetrical façade with small verandas wrapping around various sides of the building, several turrets along the roof line and elaborate quoining around the doors and windows. The proposal was not approved and the current dwelling is the result of what was decided by Kruger.

Figure 1: Skin-bag bellows, used for blowing air into a fire. (Photograph by author).

One of the unique aspects of the Kruger house relates to its location west of Church Square. The location does not reflect the preference of residences of the well-to-do and influential individuals during the time of President Kruger. Other prominent villa-type residences of this period (1880-1889) were characterized by similar architectural characteristics (as first proposed by the Claridge design) such as turrets, multiple storeys and with richly decorated interiors. The most significant of these were all located east of Church Square in Jacob Maré Street (defining the southern boundary of Burghers Park) in an area noted for its more stylish proprietors such as Barton Keep (the residence of Thomas Bourke), Hollard House, Melrose House (of George Heyes) and Parkzicht (owned by Advocate Kleyn). Local residents of Pretoria often wonder why Kruger selected this location. Several reasons for selecting this property come to mind. Kruger owned several properties at this location which he sold. The last of these is the site where his residence is located. These were his personal properties and were not purchased for the erection of a presidency. The use of the site and the dwelling at this location, for the presidency, was almost incidental, but is also an indication of Kruger’s personality probably seeing no need for the existence of a personal abode and a separate presidency.

Figure 2: Kruger on the southern side of the dwelling between the two lion statues.

Another unique aspect of the dwelling is its orientation with its principal façade and entrance towards the south. This elevation eventually became the most photographed side of the dwelling, often with Kruger sitting in a chair conversing with someone. The front or southern veranda became a place where Kruger extended his official duties and it is suggested by several authors that many negotiations of a political and business nature happened here. The orientation of the dwelling was probably not a decision influenced by Kruger but by the simple fact that the house had to be arranged on the erf in such a way that it faced toward Church Street. Church Street was the principal arterial linking the dwelling with Church Square and the old Raadzaal on the Square. Dwellings and businesses were oriented towards the street irrespective of the north-south orientation.

Figure 3: Church across the street from the Kruger residence

One of the myths surrounding the presidency was that the house was connected to the church across the street via an underground tunnel. The property of the church had two church buildings, the first church erected ca 1880 and a second church erected ca 1898. The older church was located deep onto the church property and when the second church was erected it was placed in between the presidency and the original small church. No one knew which of the churches were allegedly connected to the Kruger residence. The existence of such a tunnel has never been substantiated with any documentary nor archaeological evidence.

Figure 4: Fixing the water furrow and ramp in front of the Kruger residence..

Another less well-known aspect of the site and early Pretoria’s history was the presence of a water furrow passing in front of the dwelling outside the front gate. Church Street was still a dirt road when Kruger resided in the dwelling, but few historical photographs indicate the presence of a deep water furrow passing in front of the dwelling just outside the boundary wall. Only when some of the pictures are scrutinised in detail, the lined water furrow becomes visible. The depth of the furrow is indicated in one of the old photographs taken in 1900. A cement walkway also led from the front gate to the church across the street. President Kruger had an office in the Old Raadzaal on Church Square and when he was picked up in the morning, or at any other occasion by his state coach, he had to cross the furrow. In order to cross the furrow a concrete platform had to be constructed across the furrow. After complaining that the steps of the coach were too high to get inside, the platform crossing the water furrow had to be lifted directly in front of the gate to the property. With the coach parked in the dirt road the elevated surface allowed him to reach the lowest step of the coach with less effort.

Two significant features in front of the dwelling are two lions. They seem odd as the lion as a mythical and symbolic animal lion conjures associations and perceptions of colonialism, the British Empire and several other association surrounding statues of lions. In most cultures the lion is regarded as the king of beasts and to symbolise strength, courage, pride fortitude and majesty. In Islamic and Egyptian myth, the lion is believed to protect households or families against evil, and lion sculptures were used to keep watch at doorways or steps. According to Christian legend, the lions sleeps with its eyes open promoting the perception of vigilance and spiritual watchfulness. The significance of the lion made it a favourite emblem of imperial regimes as it also symbolised victory. It was a preferred animal frequently used as decorative animal on objects but also installed in front of buildings associated with the period of Queen Victoria’s Empire. For this reason, the presence of the two lions in front of Kruger’s residence remains dubious. The two lion statues in front of Kruger house were donated to Kruger by Barney Barnato in 1896. The statues were not the choice of Kruger and the real motivation, meaning and appropriateness of the lions in front of the Kruger residence remain a mystery.

One of the lesser–known facts about the Kruger residence is that it also served as a hospital. Kruger lived in the house until 29 May 1900 when he had to leave Pretoria before the approaching British forces. His wife continued to live in the house and died here on 20 July 1901. After Kruger’s death it was used by the British police. In 1904, after the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902), relatives of the Kruger family moved into the dwelling. It was occupied by F.C. Eloff, a son in-law of the president. It remained a dwelling until 1908 when it became the first premises of the maternity home of the ‘Bond van Afrikaanse Moeders’ (Later the ‘Moedersbond’).

Figure 5: Kruger’s residence when it was used as a maternity hospital (Source: Küsel postcard collection, Pretoria).

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