Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Leopoldville 1940s - A Quintet of Small Hotels

With the establishment of the Gare Centrale at the end of the Boulevard in the 1940s, a number of small hotels began to open within a kilometer radius of the railway station.  These typically catered to less affluent business travelers, in particular Belgians and Portuguese who operated small plantations, industrial and retail operations in the western part of the colony.  In 1943, as well, the first Congolese-owned hotel, the Jokol, opened in Dendale, now Commune Kasavubu.

Hotel de Belgique
The Hotel de Belgique opened in December 1941, two blocks south of the Gare at the beginning of Ave. Olsen, offering bar, restaurant and “fritture”.  In the early 1950s the Hotel became the Astrid and in 1958 offered its clientele 13 B Rooms and 6 C Rooms at between Fr.200 and 250 a day.  Air conditioning was an additional Fr.60.  The Hotel is now known as the Estoril, managed by long-term Portuguese residents of Kinshasa.

Hotel Astrid 1953

Hotel Estoril - 2006


Interior courtyard of the Hotel Residence

The Hotel Residence is an art-deco structure built in the 1940s on Ave. de Gaulle one block west of the Astoria.  Given its location, it was likely built by Portuguese entrepreneurs.  The interior courtyard featured fine wrought iron work.  It is now a District office of SNEL, the national electricity company.

Hotel Residence late 1940s

SNEL District Office - 2006


Hotel Astoria - 1954

The Hotel Astoria was built in the late 1940s at the end of Ave. de Gaulle (Commerce) near the Gare Centrale.  After Mobutu recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1973, the hotel became the Embassy.  The Chinese later moved to a larger building on Ave. des Aviateurs.  When China began building the Stade Kamanyola (now Martyrs) in Lingwala Commune in the 1980s,  the Cultrana (See.Feb. 20, 2011), which housed the Institut National des Arts was demolished.  The Institut National des Arts was relocated from the Cultrana to the Astoria building.

Institut National des Arts, Ave. Commerce - 2006

The Hotel Terminus was built in the mid-1950s on Ave. Bousin on the northern side of the street from the Gare.  It was conveniently located to the ferry to Brazzaville.  In 1958 it offered 18 B rooms at Fr.200-275 a day.  In 2006, it was a retail establishment near the ferry landing.

Ex-Hotel Terminus - 2006. Brazzaville ferry landing at end of the street on left.

Hotel Mailleur - 1949
Hotel Mailleur was established in 1942 by Joseph Mailleur, who first came to Congo in 1928 as an accountant for the Cominex trading firm (See Mar. 24, 2011).  He returned to Belgium during the Depression, but came back to the colony in February 1938 this time as an accountant with the cotton parastatal, Cotonco.  In 1942, he established his own business, engaging in real estate, construction, furniture manufacture and the Hotel Mailleur.  The two-story hotel was located on Ave. Cerckel (de la Paix) near the intersection with Ave. Beernaert (Equateur).  In October 1960, guests were subjected to a bit of drama when the Congolese Army (ANC) surrounded the hotel looking for weapons.

A promotional card from the Hotel Mailleur - 1957

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Leopoldville 1937 - Hotel Memling and Sabena Guest House

The Memling
Hotel Memling - ca. 1960
The Hotel’s website ( states that the hotel was built by Sabena Airlines in three phases over a 27 year period beginning in 1937 to serve its air crews and passengers.  Each successive phase enlarged the facility with longer and taller wings at the intersection of Aves. Moulaert (Tchad) and Stanley (Bas-Congo).  Interestingly, there are no images (such as post cards) of the hotel prior to the 1955 expansion of the second wing, nor any mention of the Memling in the tourist guides prior to this time.  The Memling, which was one of the few businesses to avoid the wholesale change of foreign-named places in the country during Mobutu’s “Authenticity” and “Zairianization” campaign in 1973, is named for the Flemish painter Hans Memling.

Hotel Memling (center) 1954 - new wing running left along Ave. Bas-Congo
In 1959, a company called the Société Immobilière, Commerciale et Agricole du Congo Belge (SICA) merged with the Crédit Foncier Africain (CFA) to form the Compagnie des Grands Hotels Africains.  The CFA brought to the merger the Hotel Métropole in Matadi and the Hotel des Chutes in Stanleyville and SICA contributed the Memling.  A fourth property was the Sabena Guest House in Leopoldville. 

The SICAO building under construction

The SICA is an intriguing player.  Around 1920 the Societa Industriale, Commerciale per Africa Occidentale (SICAO), with headquarters in Rome, erected a two-story brick structure in Kinshasa.  Later photos show the whitewashed building as the SICA Hotel.  A 1935 report listed the SICA as an Italian firm operating a hotel, restaurant, café, selling foodstuffs for Europeans and renting property. At the beginning of WWII, the SICA was listed along with the ABC, Belgique, Paula and Sabena Guest House among hotels in Leopoldville.  After the war, Tom Marvel, the Press Attaché at the US Consulate during WWII, returned to write a book about the “New Congo”.  He described a hypothetical day in Leopoldville where he “saw a friend at the Sica, then had lunch at Sabena, and met the four o’clock FIMA (ferry) from Brazza”.

SICA Hotel
Hotel Memling luggage tag - Ave. Stanley wing prior to 1954
A Sabena publication in 1949 directed passengers to the SICA as a “Hotel de premier ordre” with a bar.  The 1951 “Guide du Voyageur du Congo Belge et Ruanda Urundi” included the SICA among Leopoldville hotels. Five years later, SICA was listed at the 3 Ave. Moulaert address of the Memling.  Breakfast was included in the price of the room, but there was no restaurant.  The entry for the Memling in 1958, which listed 12 A rooms and 102 B rooms, showed SICA in parenthesis.  When the merger with CFA occurred following year, SICA’s director was King Baudouin’s former Cabinet Secretary. Somewhere along the way the Italians had been supplanted.

Hotel Memling interior prior to Independence in 1960

The final expansion of the hotel was completed in 1963, adding 38 rooms.  In 1983, Sabena agreed to invest $25 million in ticket sales in the hotel.  Two years later, the firm decided to raise the hotel to 5-star status, which would include a 140-person restaurant, the “Mangoustan”.  In 1989, the company contracted Montois Partners of Brussels for a major rehab of the facility.  Under this contract in 1991, wing A was demolished and the “Papageno” Restaurant was introduced.  The “pillage” changed everything from a business standpoint but the hotel continued the rehab program, completing the work in 1993 and organizing a “soft” opening in June 1994.  By April 1998, the hotel had a vacancy rate of 50%, and outstanding debts of 70 million Belgian Francs incurred by members of the new government when it ousted Mobutu.  It remains one of the premier hotels in the city.

Entrance to the hotel - 2008
Sabena Guest House
The entrance to the Sabena Guest House on Ave. Olsen
The first Sabena flight from Brussels landed near Kalina Point in Leopoldville in April 1925.  The tri-motor Handley Page completed the journey in 75 hours flying time in 13 stages spread over 50 days. When Kalina was selected as the site for the new capital, an airstrip was created at Ndolo (See Jan. 6, 2011).  The first regular Brussels-Leopoldville flights began at the end of 1930. During the 1930s, Sabena built a Guest House about ten minutes drive from the airport on Ave. Olsen (Kabasele).  Passengers arriving from Belgium en route to destinations in the interior would spend a night or two before connection to a flight in Sabena's domestic route.  By 1958, the complex of cottages contained about 65 rooms.  In 1959 the Guest House became part of the Compagnie des Grands Hotels Africains, but was later sold.
The cottages on the grounds of the Sabena Guest House
The Sabena Guest House 2006 - now a private hotel
·        Geerinckx, J. 1922. Guide Commerciale du Congo Belge. Imprim. A. Lesigne.
·       Joye, Pierre et Rosine Lewin, 1961. Les Trusts au Congo, Bruxelles: Société Populaire d’Editions.
·        Marvel, Tom. 1948. The New Congo, Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
·        Memling Hotel website:  

Leopoldville 1942 - Hotel Le Regina

The Pension Paula on Place Braconnier
The Hotel Regina was built by Paul Storey-Day on the Boulevard in the 1940s on the site of the original train station (See Jan. 23, 2011).  The antecedent of the hotel was the Pension Paula established before WWII and located across the Boulevard on the Place Braconnier where the Galleries Albert was built in the 1950s.  Paula Colman was Storey-Day’s mother in law.  Storey-Day received approval from the Comité Urbain to build a hotel on the Boulevard in June 1942 and additional authorization to rehabilitate a 20-room building the following November. 

The original hotel facing Boulevard Albert
The original structure was a rambling two-story building with a varied façade incorporating an inverted semi-circle at the corner of the Boulevard and Bangala. In the early 1950s, Storey-day expanded the hotel, adding a third story and squaring the corner. Flashing neon “Pepsi-cola” and “Martini” signs could be seen from the Stanley Monument on Mt. Ngaliema.  Pan American Airways maintained a ticket agency in the hotel, and the Japanese Consulate had an office there as well.  By the late 1950s, the hotel boasted 165 rooms, air conditions and telephones.  A sidewalk café, “Le Bruxelles “, and a night club, the “Manhattan”, were popular destinations for Kinois.
The Regina late 1940s
The Regina after expansion mid 1950s - note Otraco Building under construction (L)

The Regina in the late 1960s
With the coming of Independence June 30, 1960, the hotel was a frequent meeting point for politicians, diplomats and journalists.  In mid-September 1960, Brian Urquhart, a senior member of UN Secretary General Hammarskjold’s staff, was working in his room at the Regina.  Joseph Mobutu came in and urged them to listen to the radio, which was announcing his coup neutralizing Kasavubu and Lumumba.  Mobutu then went to the bar and gave a press conference to the journalists gathered there.  Storey-Day continued the business, catering the first Kinshasa International Fair (FiKin) in 1969.

During the 1980s, the hotel was demolished and construction of a new hotel to be called Novotel or Ibis started on the site.  Construction was largely completed on the six-story concrete structure when the “pillage” swept through Kinshasa in September 1991.  Work was suspended and never resumed.  In December 1997, the new Kabila government sought to interest the Accor Hotel group in the project, but without success.  The 4th Battalion of the National Police established itself in the shell and enterprising advertising agencies hung billboards from the sides of the building.  Storey-Day’s son Patrick remained in Kinshasa and operated a restaurant called “Chez Patrick” in an old villa on Ave. du Port for a number of years. The restaurant specialized in game and was decorated with old photos and documents from the “Pension Paula” and the “Regina”. In 2005, his landlord raised the rent, which forced him to vacate.  
The uncompleted hotel on the Boulevard

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Kinshasa 1914 - Hotel A.B.C. Opens its Doors

Even before Kinshasa became the capital of the Congo in the 1920s, travelers going up or down river by steamer or rail needed a place to stay.  In Leopoldville, it was customary for passengers in the early days to board their steamer on arrival by rail, even if it was not leaving for a several days.  As Marcus Dorman observed in his Tour in the Congo Free State in 1905, “Indeed it is very necessary, for there are no hotels in the town, and no accommodation for visitors except a few rooms in the commercial houses…”  Another option was to lodge with the British and American missionaries.  Dr. Aaron Sims of the American Baptist Missionary Union in Leopoldville was frequently called upon to host visitors, who also sought medical treatment from him.

Hotel A.B.C.

The Hotel under construction - 1912

Consequently, it was major news in 1910 that CCCI (the holding company which built the Matadi-Leopoldville railroad) had formed the Compagnie Commerciale et Agricole d’Alimentation du Bas-Congo (ABC) to acquire land near Boma and in Kinshasa for a series of hotels.  The following year the company announced the opening of the Grand Hotel and Factorerie in Kinshasa (See Mar. 13, 2011).  The 4-story pre-fabricated, cast-iron Art Nouveau-influenced structure was completed in 1914.  Commanding a prominent spot on a bluff above the river, this “high-rise” with its glittering tin roof would have been the first sighting of Kinshasa for passengers coming down the river.     

The construction site from the river - 1912
The Hotel Terrace - 1920s
In the 1920s, the hotel announced plans to double its capacity to 120 rooms. The Grand Hotel ABC was the social center of Kinshasa.  A bus line linking the train station with the hotel was launched in 1928 (see Jan. 6, 2011).  Ave. du Hotel, which runs north from the Boulevard at the Sozacom Building, is a vestige of the importance of the Hotel A.B.C.  The hotel opened a new wing in December 1931, but the Depression forced management to draw 4 million francs from reserves to cover operating costs and in 1932 halted operations completely.  In 1937, the Compagnie A.B.C. was dissolved and a private investor, Joseph Damseaux (the founder of Orgaman), acquired an interest in the property, as well as the Stanley Hotel down the street. 

The Hotel shortly after opening

Hotel A.B.C. Luggage Tag

The Second World War was the heyday of the ABC.  When the Free French Gaullist mission arrived via British flying boat on August 19, 1940 with an aim to persuading the Vichy regime across the river in Brazzaville to join the Allies, the delegation under General de Larminat was lodged at the ABC (see Hotel du Pool below).  The following month, a British mission led by R.Wingate stayed at the hotel. The engineers association, the Balle Pelotte group, the Aero Club all held regular meetings at the hotel.  When the Pan American Airways began flights of Clipper flying boats in December 1941, the crews were lodged at the hotel.  After the U.S. Army 23rd Hospital arrived in December 1942, the American nurses stayed there until barracks were built at the Clinique Reine Elisabeth.

Joseph Damseaux was also managing a farm on the Gombe River near Petit Pont.  By 1945, the farm was doing so well, he decided to get out of the hotel business and concentrate on the farm.  No doubt, plans to expand the port along the river below the hotel influenced this decision.  A gala in April 1946 attended by the Governor General provided a proper send-off to Consuls Parminter and Ledger of South Africa and UK respectively, who had served during the war years. The hotel was also the preferred venue for the reception of the Prince Regent in July 1947.

The Hotel Annex during expansion of the port, early 1950s

Palace Hotel Dining Room Staff

OTRACO expropriated the ABC lot in 1946, under a plan to connect the public port with the upriver Citas port.  The two-story wing which extended down the bluff to the river was demolished and the hotel became the “Palace” under management by DeSmet and Trenteseaux (who built the Forescom and Royal buildings).  The lower levels of the structure were enclosed in stucco to give it a new image.  In 1948, the Canada Trade Commission, precursor to the Consulate and Embassy, maintained an office in the hotel.  The “Miss Leopoldville” pageant was held at the hotel in January 1956. 

The renovated Palace Hotel

By 1960, more modern destinations including the Memling, Stanley, Regina off the Boulevard became the primary locus for tourists, and the facility began to decline.  By 1983, the hotel was handed over to ONATRA and it became a residence for ONATRA staff, most in conditions akin to squatting. This situation maintained into the 21st century.

The Palace ONATRA
Union Mission Hostel – Centre d’Accueil Protestant
The Union Mission Hostel (UMH) was created in July 1920 by six Protestant mission groups, including the BMS, which donated the land on their compound in Kinshasa.  When the 2-story building, surrounded on all sides by expansive balconies opened two years later, each of the twelve rooms was put to use immediately, as there was “no satisfactory accommodation” in the city (probably a reference to the sale of alcohol at places like the ABC).

The Centre d'Accueil Protestant - 2005

When the Congo Protestant Council (CPC) held the Jubilee observance of mission work in the colony in January 1927, in addition to full occupancy at UMH and tents erected on the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) compound, an additional 50 delegates were lodged by Lever’s nearby Huileries du Congo Belge.  In the 1950s, UMH was the only place in the European city where blacks could find lodging.  The CPC became the Eglise du Christ au Congo in the 1970s and UMH was renamed the Centre d’Accueil Protestant (CAP).

Hotel du Pool
Two Portuguese businessmen, Coelho and Madail, established the Hotel du Pool on Ave. Cerckel (now Ave. de la Paix) in the early 1920s.  When General de Larminat first arrived in Leopoldville in 1940, he initially stayed in a suite in the hotel, but Governor General Ryckmans soon moved him to a boat anchored in the river to avoid any diplomatic complications.

The Stanley Hotels

The Stanley Hotel, Ave. Beernaert (R), Ave. Princesse Astrid (R)
The original Stanley Hotel was built above the river at the corner of Aves. Beernaert (Equateur) and Princesse Astrid (Lumpungu). Ave. Beernaert was the principal commercial street in the 1920s. The Stanley was known for its parties.  By the late 1930s, Joseph Damseaux acquired the property.  After WWII, it housed the Musée de Vie Indigene.  At Independence and through the 1960s, the “Showboat” nightclub was the main draw.  In the new millennium, it was a hardware store called Batibeau and later the “Galleries du Fleuve”.  It is currently under renovation.

The Stanley Hotel looking down Ave. Moulaert toward the Boulevard

The second Stanley Hotel was built across from the Memling on Ave. Moulaert, most likely by Damseaux.  Immediately after Independence, the UN mission set up offices there.  Ralph Bunche, Hammarskjold’s Special Representative and General Von Horn worked there, Unicef set up operations in the flower shop.  The UN moved to the Royal Building in September 1960.  The French Embassy has occupied the building since the early 1960s.

The French Embassy, rear view from the Boulevard.
·     Geerinckx, J. 1922. Guide Commerciale du Congo Belge. Imprim. A. Lesigne.
·     Heyse, Theodore, 1947. Grandes Lignes du regime des terres au Congo Belge et leurs applications.
·    Joye, Pierre et Rosine Lewin, 1961. Les Trusts au Congo, Bruxelles: Société Populaire d’Editions.
·    Lederer, Andre. 1965. Histoire de la Navigation au Congo, Tervuren: Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale.
·    Société Belge d’Etudes Coloniale, 1935. Congo: Revue Generale de la Colonie Belge.
·    Trenteseaux website:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Kinshasa 1920s - Lost Architectural Heritage

There are a number of historic structures in Kinshasa that have been lost to the development process, but whose location and the building that replaced them is known and documented.  A good example is the old Post Office in Kinshasa on the Place de la Poste which was replaced by the Union Congolaise des Banques (see Feb. 20, 2011).  Below are a few enigmatic structures whose location is unknown and the era can only be suggested by the architectural style.  Any insight or information to help identify these is appreciated.
The Compagnie Africaine, possibly Place de la Poste

The Compagnie Colonial Belge and Societe France Congo - possibly Ave. Beenaert (Equateur)

Commercial or diplomatic building - the flag is neither Belgian nor that of the Belgian Congo

Cominex - possibly Ave. Rubbens (Ave. de la Nation)

The Compagnie Maritime Belge, which provided steamer service between Belgium and Matadi

The Cafe Central, possibly on Ave. Stanley (Bas-Congo)

The Apollo Palace Cinema - mid 1920s
The Exposition Commercial Permanente - mid 1920s

A commercial street in Kinshasa, note open vista on left. Flag is neither Belgian nor Congo

Dr. Fidao was a physician in Kinshasa in the early 1920s

A villa in Kinshasa in the 1930s, possibly Kalina

Another villa from the 1930s