An Architectural Oddity

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Tuesday, 28th January 2014

The Heritage Portal

Tue, 28/01/2014 - 06:10

When we posted a few pictures of the Observatory Museum in Grahamstown during December we didn't realise the response would be so dramatic. People were absolutely fascinated by the building and wanted to find out more. Thankfully Désirée Picton-Seymour wrote a fantastic piece on 'Galpin's Tower House' which appeared in her epic Historical Buildings of South Africa. The building is even more significant than one would imagine...

"High up on the wall of the Tower House is written, in freehand, 'The Observatory, established 1850'. This building is an architectural oddity that only the Victorians could devise. It also had the distinction of being the first multi-storeyed building in the Eastern Province; three storeys high with the later addition of the towers rising a further two-and-a-half storeys above the roofline. The builder of the house was Henry Carter Galpin, born in England in 1820, who decided to come to Cape Town owing to bad health. Unable to carry on with his original profession of surveying, he became a jeweller and watchmaker and after his marriage to Georgina Marie Luck, moved to the Eastern Cape.

Galpin set up his new business in Grahamstown in 1850, building the strange edifice that was to be both home and business premises. The front portion of the building was his shop; it seems that he was a good craftsmen and had varied scientific interests including geology, meteorology and astronomy. A camera obscura was housed in the little knobbed tower above the square turret - a powerful lens in the ceiling, directly above a table, cast a miniature reproduction of the surrounding landscape upon the table, which could be viewed in the darkened room: so popular did this device prove that after a while an entrance charge of 1s was made.

On the opposite side of the building was the clock tower, with a typical 'official-looking' face. This was sold in 1935 to the Dutch Reformed Church for about £250, in a bad state: the pendulum painted by F T I'Ons with the figure of Father Time had been lost. Galpin kept his telescope, sextant and other instruments in the little round tower. This instrument tower rises above the double front door in Scottish Baronial manner. Watches and clocks were set daily by observatory time.

In the basement was Galpin's cupboard-like wine cellar with its quaint door leading out into the garden. Three-tiered 'Chinese Chippendale' wooden verandahs shelter the specious interior with the curving teak stairway that winds up, ever narrowing, towards the turret housing the camera obscura. Moulded plaster ceilings, cast-iron fireplaces and other details such as butterflies on the brass door furniture, all contribute to the overall rich effect of this outstanding house now restored as a museum by De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. It was Galpin who helped identify the first diamond discovered in South Africa - Eureka - now on display at the Kimberley Museum."