The Walter Battiss Art Museum - the building
THE BUILDING - THE OLD OFFICER'S MESS
In 1814, Governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset, asked botanist Dr Joeph Mackrill to travel through the Cape Colony, to find a suitable place to grow crops for export, as well as food and fodder for the Military force holding the Frontier. On reaching the area known as Agter Bruintjieshoogte, under the Boschberg Mountain, Mackrill reported very favourably on the prospects of the area for growing crops and tobacco, and the ground was purchased from trekboers Tregaart and Bester. Early in 1815, Mackrill and his party moved in, and not long after Mackrill suggested that Captain Robert Hart be the one to run the farm. The farm operated very sucessfully until 1825, when it was closed down, and divided into erven which were sold by public auction.
Most sources date the building of the Officer's mess, which now houses the Walter Battiss At Museum at Ca 1818. In the opinion of Heritage architect Peter Whitlock of Graaff Reinet, who was consulted when the building was renovated, the original building was shorter than the present building, and was single storied.
Property records for Paulet Street show that on 1st September, 1825, 1820 Settler John Austin was granted Freehold Title of Erf 57. Through the years, various people took transfer of the property, and finally a local farmer named Sawtell purchased it in 1906.
From 1914 until 1917, the Battiss family hired the building, and ran it as the Battiss Private Hotel. It closed when they left Somerse East for Koffiefontein in 1917.
In 1973, two of the ex mayors of Somerset East, Dr J C Vosloo, and Ben Erasmus, purchased, from the Sawtell family, a building in rather poor shape, and donated it to become the Walter Battiss At Museum. Dr Volsoo is still closely connected with the Museum, and keeps an eye on its well being, and what a gift these two forward thinking and generous men gave our town.
THE RESTORATION OF THE BUILDING
In October 1987, six years after the opening of the Museum, Dr Melanie Hildebrand, Director of the King George VI Art Gallery in Port Elizabeth, wrote to Ben Erasmus stating that she and her colleagues were "exremely perturbed by the physical state of the art collection. We were disappointed to hear that Walter's public-spirited gesture of establishing this museum has not been followed up with the kind of financial support from Somerset East that would enable you to conserve and promote this very important and valuable collection." She suggested that the collection should be re-located. Battiss's sister Doreen Eaton refused to consider this as she felt that her brother had previously been slighted by the Port Elizabeth art community.
In February 1999, the Sunday Times carried an article "Shrine to Decay". It begins "The Eastern Cape house in which one of South Arica's foremost artists grew up is falling to pieces - because of a lack of money".
Supported in his efforts by Prof. Jakes Gerwel, the curator of the Somerset East Museum, Emile Badenhorst, began sourcing funding to restore the building, and eventually received R400 000 to repair the structure of the building from DSRAC, and a further R400 000 to repair the Victorian verandah. The Battiss Museum was closed from 1999 until 2004, while repairs were carrried out under the supervsion of heritage architect Peter Whitlock, and in 2004 the Walter Battiss Art Musum was able to reopen its doors.
From 2004 until October 2011 the Battiss was only opened sporadically; visitors had to go to the Somerset East Museum to ask for it to be opened. Since October 2011, when the local Tourism office was moved into the Battiss, it has been opened full time, and weekend visitors have been able to organise for it to be opened for them.