Sunday, December 31, 2023 - 00:00

On 30 December 2018 at the height of summer, a disastrous fire broke out at the base of the pass entering Wupperthal after some local residents tried to smoke out a beehive for honey. The hive was in a tree surrounded by tinder dry underbrush while a strong wind was prevailing. The fire, assisted by the wind and dry leaves soon became uncontrollable. It spread, splitting in two directions where it gutted a substantial number of buildings in the town centre and turned 52 houses within the residential area into blackened shells.

Various private and public bodies were quick to react despite the disaster having occurred during the festive season holidays. Amongst those were Gift of the Givers who donated a substantial amount towards the reconstruction of the settlement's gutted houses; Heritage Western Cape who dispatched a team to assess the damage that included some of its Council members; the Vernacular Architecture Society of South Africa, Cape Institute for Architecture (CIfA) and various individual donors. CIfA set up a team of volunteer members to assist, free of charge, in preparing the drawings required for the reconstruction of the gutted houses. The Provincial Department of Human Settlements arranged for temporary housing to be erected on the town’s sports field for those now rendered homeless, although that took much longer to implement.

By far the most significant contribution was from the Rupert Foundation. That transpired after the industrialist Johann Rupert, son of the late Dr Anton Rupert who had been largely instrumental in the restoration of Church Street, Tulbagh, in the wake of the 1969 earthquake, offered to assist. The Rupert Foundation (hereafter ‘the Foundation’) was ultimately to fund almost the entire rescue restoration works within the town centre and, thereafter, much of the reconstruction work to the fire damaged houses. This was especially significant as approximately 80% of the residents are reliant on one or other form of state welfare grant.

A Stellenbosch firm of architects and planners was engaged to prepare the documentation for the rescue restoration work to the town centre and I was brought in to assist as the architectural heritage consultant. A Cape Town based firm of structural engineers was specially selected for the project based on their experience in working on historic buildings to ensure that as much historic fabric as possible would be retained without compromising public safety. A Worcester based building contractor won the tender to undertake the work. Site handover occurred in early July 2019 despite delays caused by the COVID epidemic and after heritage and local authority approvals were in place.

Click here or below to download the full report on restoring Wupperthal's Historic Town Centre.

Graham Jacobs, ARCON Specialist Architectural & Spatial Heritage Consultants, June 2023


The fire gutted ‘Winkelhuis’ (Shopkeeper’s House) after the fire. The building had been the administration headquarters for the town before the fire. This image is typical of the degree of damage sustained. (ARCON, 24 January 2019).


Main image: Aerial view showing the gutted state of some of the buildings in the town centre after the fire (Drone image: Goal Zero Consulting).

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Monday, June 12, 2023 - 18:14

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