HASA – Gold Medal Nominations: Erwin & Alta Coetzee

Heritage SA – Gold Medal Nomination
Nominees: Erwin & Alta Coetzee
PO Box 34
Northern Cape
It would not be wrong to suggest that Erwin and Alta Coetzee have done as much for conservation in the western Karoo and in particular, Calvinia and Sutherland, as Dr Anton Rupert did in Graaff-Reinet. Their knowledge of and appreciation for history, aesthetics, the challenges and practicalities of restoration and sustainable “small town economics” have made the Coetzee’s a formidable force for conservation. In their quest to preserve and put to good use old, sometimes run-down or horribly deformed “Karoo architectural treasures”, they have saved many properties from destruction and have restored several to their former glory. Their influence has been significant and their efforts and evident success have encouraged others to do likewise.
Erwin and Alta Coetzee came to Calvinia in the early 1980’s. Erwin was from the “north” but Alta a “local girl” who grew up on a farm near Sutherland about 120 km south of Calvinia. Erwin opened a medical practice. He is still the local doctor. They soon acquired a run-down “town-house” in Hoop Street in Calvinia that faced onto what had remained of the former large open “outspan” area behind the Dutch Reformed Church. Although shorn of its gables and with a slightly raised iron roof, the interior of the mid- 19th century property was largely intact with the original floors, ceilings and doors, mostly of Clanwilliam cedar wood, still in place. Over a period of more than 10 years the Coetzee’s lovingly restored what was to become known as the “Hantamhuis”. Their work was based on thorough research and they tried to remain true to the tools, materials and building methods of years gone by.
In keeping with what was shown on old photographs and paintings that the Coetzee’s unearthed during their research, the imposing front gable Hantamhuis was replaced and the roof was returned to thatch.
Today the Hantamhuis and its adjacent flat-roofed annex (incorporating the remains of the old stone walled kraal) serve as a restaurant and shop, including for local arts and crafts, and remains the focal point of Calvinia’ s well-preserved 19th century architecture.
When more dilapidated 19th century properties (mostly “town houses”) became available in Hoop Street and later also Water Street that runs parallel and to the south of Hoop Street, the Coetzee’s also acquired and restored these. To put these to good and sustainable use, they started a “bed and breakfast” guesthouse business with the restored buildings, carefully furnished, serving as accommodation. Breakfast is served in the Hantamhuis which is also the Guesthouse “reception”. To
discerning guests and friends there are sumptuous dinners based on local cuisine and recipes, in the Hantamhuis. Here Erwin often moonlights not only the “wine steward” (or perhaps more fairly, the sommelier), but also regales guests with lively tales as raconteur of note. Often the discussions would turn to the cultural heritage, both buildings and furniture, of the Western Karoo and the Coetzee’s involvement in the preservation of these. Over the years Erwin and Alta had assembled a fine collection of Cape country furniture and in particular cedar wood furniture that are so typical of the areas around the Cedar Berg to the south of Calvinia.
More recently they have also required a significant period property in Sutherland, Alta’s home town which is now beautifully restored and serves as the much desired “Sterland” guesthouse.
Another noteworthy conservation project of the Coetzee’s, this time with the assistance of like-minded friends, was the acquisition and restoration of a large 19th century townhouse at the western end of Water Street which was turned into a haven for writers and a repository of a fine collection of Karoo books. Known as the “Karoo Boekehuis” and started in 1993, this project has endured for more than 20 years and remains a favourite amongst writers of all walks who enjoy the simple “platteland” life and modest amenities (no TV) on offer, an atmosphere that evidently greatly enhances creativity.
The Coetzee’s do not hesitate to speak up when what is dear to them, is under threat. A few years ago the historical Church “outspan” in Calvinia, referred to above, was to have been sold by a cash-strap congregation to a developer who was set to erect a spanning new iron clad-store for a national retailer in the historical centre of Calvinia. The Coetzee’s led the chorus of opposition and the intended sale, already signed and waiting to be implemented, was thwarted – a great victory for “conservation” on the Platteland if ever there was one.
In 1993 the Coetzee’s were the worthy recipients of the Cape Times Centenary Medal for “outstanding achievements in the field of preservation of Cape buildings, historic precincts and the natural environment.”
There is little doubt that Erwin and Alta Coetzee will be deserving recipients of the Heritage SA Gold Medal.
Proposed and motivated by:
Francois van der Merwe
Ph. 027 341 2807

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