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A special place to visit: The Sammy Marks Museum

Worldwide, the travel portal TripAdvisor gives a ‘Certificate of Excellence’ to accommodations, attractions and restaurants that consistently earn great reviews from travellers. One of South Africa’s grandest colonial mansions, Zwartkoppies Hall, 23 kilometres outside Pretoria, is one such TripAdvisor attraction. This fascinating museum, which falls within the DITSONG amalgamation of eight museums, pays tribute to the genius of its original owner, Sammy Marks. Zwartkoppies Hall provides a fascinating destination for family outings, a relaxing afternoon amid the most beautiful gardens, or a wonderful wedding destination.

DITSONG Sammy Marks Museum travel accommodation family outing

The Sammy Marks Museum, Zwartkoppies Hall, is set among acres of unspoiled Highveld scenery just outside Pretoria and shows all the original elegance of prosperous households during the latter decades of the last century. 
     The magnificent rooms are filled with the offerings of refined Victorian living. The exquisite furniture, porcelain, paintings and silver make it a home truly worthy of Sammy Marks’ status as one of the leading industrialists of his day.
     The businessman and entrepreneur lived here with his wife Bertha and their children from 1885 to 1909, after which it became a weekend retreat. Following his death in 1920, Marks’ widow and children inhabited it until the death of the last one in 1978. No members of the remaining family wanted to live at Zwartkoppies – by then an ageing, deteriorating structure – permanently. 
     In 1980, the National Cultural History and Open-air Museum asked the Marks Trust whether it could purchase 40 hectares of Zwartkoppies as a site for an open-air museum. The eldest grandson and chairperson of the Trust explained the conditions of the will in which Sammy Marks had declared that the house and its contents were to be preserved for four generations from the day Marks died. He suggested instead that the Museum lease the house and surrounding ground and purchase the contents. 
     The Museum did not have enough money to do that but Mendel Kaplan, a Johannesburg businessman who planned to transfer Marks’ private papers to the University of Cape Town, heard about the Museum project. He offered to donate half the money to the museum through his family foundation so that negotiations could continue. Eventually, the Sammy Marks Museum was opened in November 1986. In March 1989, Zwartkoppies Hall was declared a national monument. In 1995, roughly 73 hectares surrounding the house and upon which all of the historical buildings are situated, was cut from the rest of the farm and expropriated for sale to the National Cultural History Museum.
     The Sammy Marks Museum is unique in that it’s the only Victorian mansion in the country whose interior is preserved intact and wholly authentic. With the help of the National Cultural History Museum, and later the DITSONG Museums, the house was successfully preserved and turned into a very special museum.

DITSONG Sammy Marks Museum travel accommodation family outing

Sammy Marks was born in Lithuania and moved to South Africa in 1868, aged 24. At first, Marks spent his time peddling jewellery before teaming up with his cousin Isaac Lewis to start a business selling supplies to mines and diggers in South Africa’s quickly growing mining towns. The business was a great success and the duo then expanded their interests and opened a distillery, canning factory, glass factory, brick and tile works, maize mill and steelworks. The pair was also still very much involved in mining and made a great fortune in the coal mines that lined the banks of the Vaal River. By the end of the 19th century, the pair were both millionaires and their company was ranked among the top ten richest businesses on the Witwatersrand. 
     ‘If you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself’ was one of Sammy Marks’ favourite expressions, and when the time came to build his own home, he became clerk of works, personally supervising the ordering of materials, which were transported from Durban by ox-wagon.
     Samuel Marks married Bertha, 19 years his junior, in his early 40s, and together they had nine children, of which only six grew up, all of whom were educated at home until they were old enough to be privately schooled in England. Sammy Marks and Bertha were married in England and when they arrived at Zwartkoppies in March 1885, he immediately started with the design and construction of Zwartkoppies Hall. The 48-room house had a staff of 14 and the family was said to entertain lavishly; the tennis courts, gardens and surrounds catering for up to 30 guests at a time.
     Endowed with the same unflagging energy that had made her husband so successful in business, Bertha managed the house and its staff while still finding time to raise her children, indulge in her hobbies of keeping chickens, and gardening, and entertain on an extravagant scale.
     Of her visit to the Sammy Marks Museum, Kathy Munro wrote for The Heritage Portal that ‘it was set amid a rose garden, formal flower beds, tall evergreen conifers (but not bluegums) an orchard of fruit trees and a vegetable garden. Avenues were flanked by pruned hedges. There were once a tennis court and a swimming pool. Croquet was played on the front lawn. The right kind of animals were part of the lifestyle – a flock of guinea fowl, blesbok and stables for 14 horses and a coach house for five carriages. There was a cowshed and dairy. Water came from a well operated by a steam-operated pump. A lake was the home to imported English swans. Guests could punt on the canal that fed the lake. Electricity, from 1896, was generated on the estate by a small hydro-electrical plant fuelled by water from the river.’

DITSONG Sammy Marks Museum travel accommodation family outing

In order to view the interior of the house and its possessions, visitors need to join an hour-long tour, which takes place every hour, on the hour, during operating hours.
     Munro continues: ‘What is so remarkable about the home is that 98 per cent of the household contents that you see today, originally belonged to the Marks family: the silver, crockery, ornaments, furniture, furnishings, fittings, kitchen utensils, musical instruments were all newly purchased from the best stores in England (or Germany) and were imported before the turn of the 20th century. Today these items are prized antiques but imagine them when they were regarded as the latest in style, fashion and technology. Sammy Marks was not a great collector of fine art but instead there are a huge number of family photographs, framed certificates, personal mementoes and memorabilia, studio photos of historical figures of note across the political spectrum of the pre- and post-Boer War period who Marks sought to influence and who figured as important people in his world view.
     ‘The interior that is on a far grander scale than the exterior, with a fine teak staircase and an enormous number of rooms leading off the long central corridors. One really comes to see inside the house and it was definitely worth the journey.’
     Touring this remarkable museum, one still feels that the Marks family has just temporarily left the building and will be back soon. This is the real charm of the Sammy Marks Museum – it has preserved the feeling of a wonderful family home that one is just visiting. After the tour, relax for a while under the trees or on the wide trellised veranda that runs the length of the house, affording splendid views of Bertha’s rose garden. Take a walk through this wonderful property and contemplate how advanced Sammy Marks was to provide water, electricity and other amenities to his family and to ensure that it was preserved for future generations.

Address: Old Bronkhorstspruit Road, Donkerhoek, Pretoria, 0127
Contact number:  012 492 5800 
Directions: From Pretoria, take the N4 towards Witbank/Emalahleni. Take the Hans Strijdom off-ramp, continue until you reach a T-junction where the road joins the old Bronkhorstspruit Road (R104). Follow the signposts to the museum.
Operating hours: Weekdays 10:00 – 16:00 (Excluding Mondays, Good Friday and Christmas Day)
Entrance fees are (subject to changes): 
     Adults (Local): R50.00
     Adults (International): R65.00
     Pensioners: R35.00
     Students: R30.00
     Learners/School group learners: R25.00

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