Banking vault now a city playground

(This article was published in the Cape Argus, a regional daily newspaper in the Western Cape province of South Africa, on May 22 2014)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

A vault that once housed gold, diamonds and cash beneath Adderley Street is being converted into a spot to host exclusive and intimate gatherings.

The defunct African Banking Corporation used the vault during the early 1900s. With the Taj Cape Town hotel acquiring the right to use it, the vault is set to become a hidden treasure for those seeking alternative playgrounds.

The old vault under renovation to become The Reserve. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

The old vault under renovation to become The Reserve. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Michael Pownall, general manager at the Taj, says the underground section of the heritage building currently being converted intends to be a “super cool place for special events”. It is part of the three separate spaces where private functions can be held in a renovated bank now called The Reserve.

“Its name is a play on words. This is an area where the old SA Reserve Bank used to be. Reserve also indicates something private. When you reserve a table at a restaurant for dinner it would be for you only,” says Pownall.

The Reserve houses a transformed banking hall that has previously served as a nightclub and restaurant. Its original interiors – made of teak, brass and marble walls – remain intact.

The old elevator leads to the vault. Pic Yazeed Kamaldien

The old elevator leads to the vault. Pic Yazeed Kamaldien

The vault has never been accessible to the general public though. A launch date has not yet been made known to the public either as construction is underway.
Pownall says they had to be “sensitive about making any changes to the heritage buildings we are in”.

There are three ways to access the vault. An entrance on Adderley Street takes one through the banking hall and either down a steep staircase or old elevator to the vault. One can also access it via an entrance on St George’s Mall and take the stairs or elevator underground.

A more interesting entrance though is via the hotel’s restaurant kitchen. Pownall says this will be used when the banking hall or the entertainment area at the St George’s Mall entrance are in use.

“This gives it an even greater feel of being hidden away,” he says.

A walk through the kitchen does give an evening of socialising in an underground vault a sense of bizarre adventure. It feels naughty to trespass into the chef’s headquarters.

Once downstairs, one walks through narrow passageways that Pownall says they want to line with candles and lanterns to give it a “rustic feel”. One then enters into a space with burglar bars that once secured South Africa’s wealth.

Pownall recalls that this former Dutch and English colony was “developed around gold and diamonds”.

“All that came here to Cape Town to be shipped to Europe. When it was transported here, it would have been held in bank vaults. Three-quarters of the country’s diamond and gold output would have been housed in this area,” he says.

“A lot of SA’s wealth would have passed through Cape Town. I want people to understand the history of the building as well. We might put memorabilia of the old bank on the walls.”

An intriguing history exists on the former financial corner that housed the Board of Executors (BOE), the Reserve Bank and also the Cape of Good Hope Bank in decadent buildings.

This well-known pedestrian precinct in the city centre was a playground for the rich, famous and notorious, including former colonial era figure Cecil John Rhodes. With a bit of underground digging, this history will be rediscovered.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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