The Winchester Hotel

WORDS Robyn Alexander PHOTOS DOOK PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes

Celebrating its centenary this year, The Winchester Hotel has undergone a careful renovation that’s brought the iconic Cape Town Grande Dame back to her sparkling best.

The Winchester Hotel didn’t start out as a hotel. This landmark on the Sea Point beachfront was built in 1922 as an apartment block – and back then it was actually on the beach, too, rather than situated across Beach Road from the Sea Point Promenade as it is today. What’s more, at the time, the building’s inner courtyard was used as parking space for vehicles, which drove through the current front door to access it.

In 1958, the building was purchased by Mr and Mrs Harvey, who converted the apartments into a hotel. Their descendants, the Wainford family, still own The Winchester Hotel today – and it was Mrs Wainford, the Harveys’ daughter, who briefed Cape Town architecture practice GAPP a few years back about the need to explore a possible expansion and renovation. GAPP director and architect Andrew Flint, who worked on the project with architect Lisa Doucha, reveals the practical problems with the ageing building – the plumbing was all exposed, for example, and much of it was at the end of its life. The only way to solve this was to strip out, hide away and streamline the structural essentials. “Maintenance was no longer enough: we had to gut and replace,” says Andrew.

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The challenges of the refurbishment grew as the project progressed. Achieving fire and electrical compliance was complex, says Andrew, and creating space for standard contemporary hotel conveniences such as air conditioning was not simple either. On the front facade, the salty sea air had corroded the concrete slabs, requiring carbon patching underneath and the addition of new beams to provide proper support. This meant that the majority of the work done during the refurbishment was structural, and is largely invisible to the non-professional eye. From here, the project moved on to the reworking and redecoration of the 76 guest rooms, and into the hotel’s public spaces – with additional input on this coming from creative director Mardré Meyer and his team at Source IBA. The principle underlying this part of the process, says Mardré, was the need to ensure that everything that was done would enhance and make legible the unique story of The Winchester, while simultaneously bringing a fresh, contemporary feel to the hotel.

Winchester Hotel
“My mother asked me before she passed away not to put flowers on her grave but to rather honour her memory by looking after the courtyard,” says Mrs Wainford. “To see how it looks now and how much the guests love the space brings me immense joy and pride.”

“Everyone in Cape Town knows the building,” observes Lisa, “from members of the public to the heritage people – and everyone is attached to it.” Over the years, so many have attended a celebration or an event here, or spent a Sunday relishing brunch in the courtyard. “It dawned on us as we worked, this sense of ownership by Capetonians”, says Andrew, adding that the hotel has long had repeat guests, too. “People all over the world have an attachment to it.”

Together with Source IBA, the architects sensitively reworked the placement of the hotel’s finest rooms – the sea-facing suites on its front facade – and, in order to allow its arched loveliness to shine, removed the porte-cochere that had been added to the front doorway. Cleverly, this has sharpened the focus on the archways that lead from the street into the reworked lobby, where dark wood panelling and sleek lines combine to create an elegant yet cosy feel.

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Throughout the public spaces and in the rooms, a smart black-and-white palette – offset by vintage furniture, layered textiles and artworks collected by the Wainfords over the years – creates an atmosphere that is both sleek and welcoming. The chic monochrome, says Mrs Wainford, “has brought out the best in her features… In the courtyard, it has really framed the bougainvillea.” And as the matriarch of the hotel’s owning family (The Winchester Hotel has been part of Mrs Wainford’s life since 1950, when she was seven years old), she’s probably better placed to comment than just about anyone else!

When The Winchester reopened in late 2021, the renovations team were gratified by the positive response of the Wainford family, and by the enthusiasm with which the upgrade was greeted by the public and the hotel’s regular guests. As Andrew puts it, the focus on the building’s “uniqueness, sense of place, nostalgia and memories” means that it feels perfectly “anchored in its place”. Everything that is beloved about this Sea Point landmark feels even more present than before, from the epic bougainvillea in Cape Town’s favourite courtyard to the sea-facing terrace that remains one of the chicest places to enjoy sundowners. Here’s to the next 100 years in the story of this unique hotel.

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