Lanzerac Hotel and Spa CEO Winston Cowie stands disconsolately, his hands in his pockets as he looks around what used to be the Taphuis Bar. Light filtering through holes in the shattered ceiling, picks out the detritus of the fire that litters the floor, the charred but still standing bar counter a stark reminder of the fierce heat that gutted most of the central building of the much-loved “grand old lady of Stellenbosch”, in the early hours of Sunday morning, May 28.
“Of course we will be able to rebuild, but it will never really be the Taphuis Bar that it used to be,” says Mr Cowie. The floor is littered with the charred remains of chairs and tables, mostly reduced to cinders and ash, but inexplicably, near the back of the room, two riempie chairs, and a bench with an ornate cushion, are largely unscathed. “How does that happen?” he asks, almost rhetorically, shaking his head.
We pick our way across the room, and step out onto the patio overlooking the spacious lawns of the property, and turn to survey the now roofless building, which is a hive of activity as workmen rush frantically to cover the still standing walls and plasterwork with black plastic sheeting. “We are expecting rain over the weekend,” he says, “and we can’t afford for the exposed brickwork and plaster to get wet.
Building methods and materials back in the day when significant parts of the structure were built, were quite different to what they are today, and water could do a great deal of damage.”
The fire started around 2.30am, and the security staff were very quick to raise the alarm, according to Mr Cowie. “By five to three, I was here, because immediately after raising the alarm, they came to wake me – I live in a cottage on the property. There were still some staff cleaning up after a wedding, and they immediately set about waking our guests and getting them out of their rooms. Luckily, and I think that this is of greatest importance, nobody was injured,” Mr Cowie says, adding “the fire brigade responded very quickly and I’m really impressed. I thought they were really good.”
Aside from the Taphuis Bar, the magnificent reception area, the Governors Restaurant, Craven Lounge and staff administration offices were also destroyed in the fire, but the hotel’s central kitchen was unscathed.
“We are fortunate that the fire burned upwards, and while it destroyed the administration offices which were on the mezzanine level, it appears to have done less damage than it would have at ground level,” says Mr Cowie.
The damage however is still grievous, with many old and valuable paintings, carpets, cupboards and chests having been destroyed in the fire.
“I think it would be amazing if we can keep the walls and the façade, because then we can actually put it back almost as it was. You’ll never have another bar like that but we’ll get as close as we can to what it used to be,” he says.
Outside the blackened Taphuis Bar on the patio, lies a forlorn collection of items removed from the burned out building after the fire.
Twisted metal ashtrays; fire-bronzed stainless steel ice buckets; charred picture frames, the protective glass shattered and melted, the original pictures destroyed; a complete mortise lock including the two original securing screws, the door in it which was fitted presumably burnt to ash; and fire blackened and twisted cutlery, retrieved from the ash piles in the form of the tables where it had been carefully laid the night before in time for breakfast service the next day. A frozen moment in time in the life of the hotel, captured in ash by the fire.
Asked whether the extent of damage sustained had been determined, Mr Cowie explained that the assessment process was still under way. “There is a great deal of work to do to establish precisely what was destroyed, and that will take time,” he said. “The more concerning aspect of this, is how long we’re going to be out of action.
“Even if the process moves very quickly, if we get our plans passed, we get heritage approval, in say three months, we could have construction crews on site, but by then we will be in season. Also, the rains will come, and that can interrupt building for days at a time, so in truth, we are looking at probably a year down the line before we are back up and running operationally.”
Mr Cowie added that although all of the hotel rooms are undamaged, it would be impossible to have guests while construction is under way. “Besides, this is the central core of the hotel,” he says pointing at the blackened building, “and we simply can’t run the hotel without it.”
He went on to say that the tasting room, delicatessen and spa would also probably not be operational until the hotel reopens. “We’ve yet to make a final decision in this regard,” he says, “but these three facilities draw most of their custom from hotel guests. The other problem is that while construction is under way there are too many risks in having people on the hotel grounds.”
Despite the hotel being closed for probably a year, Mr Cowie confirmed that no staff would be laid-off, as the hotel had adequate business interruption insurance.
“Every one of our staff must know that their jobs are secure,” he says. “We will have to keep them occupied, so will do some staff training, and we will also approach other hospitality institutions and ask them if they’d like to use them free of charge.”
One of the most heartening things for Mr Cowie was the way in which the community responded to the tragedy. “It has been a most humbling experience to see the number of calls that all of us took. We were flooded.
“I took about 190 calls in total from people who just wanted to say how sad they were to hear what had happened, and offering whatever help they could. The sense of ownership people in Stellenbosch and further afield have about the hotel is quite remarkable.”
Although the final forensic report is not yet available, Mr Cowie was able to confirm that arson is not suspected and that contrary to a report in the press on the day following the fire, there was no bomb or explosion.
“What I do find amazing is how the staff have come together. How they have pulled together as a team has been quite incredible to feel and see. Yes, this loss is a great sadness and it will be with us for a long time, but everybody is prepared to do whatever it takes to get done. It’s really been quite amazing,” Mr Cowie says.