Port Elizabeth of Yore: Where was the Commercial Hotel located?

On the various Facebook sites related to Port Elizabeth, it is always stated that this well-known hotel from the latter half of the 19th century was situated on the corner of Russell Road yet none of the photographs of that corner actually show this hotel where it is alleged to be located.

After gnawing at him, and with his unpaid job on the line, the Technical Editor made a breakthrough at 4am this morning 18th April 2021. Unlike Archimedes’ Eureka moment, he was not lying in a bath of hot water, Blaine was lying in a hot bed. Neither did he break curfew and run naked through the streets of Plumstead disturbing everyone (and we are not talking about him shouting “EUREKA!” either. It could also have been called a lightbulb moment, but given the vagaries of Eskom, this is a rare event nowadays.

Moreover, why did this misunderstanding arise?

Main picture: Steinmann’s Commercial Hotel

In his own words

The solution lay in the 1877 Port Elizabeth Directory

Extract on Queen Street from the 1877 PE Directory

Here it confirms that while it is not on the corner exactly; it is thereabouts.   If it was to be there, then surely I would see some artefact of it in this photo unless it had been pulled down by then?  


Corner of Russell Road and Queen Street looking north – the hotel should have been on the left

There were some hints:  The iconic corner building had a partial parapet wall on the Queen Street side that had a peak in the middle just like the hotel’s.  It had three rows of five similar apertures on that side – the hotel also had five structural apertures in three rows.  However, confounding it was that the bottom row had six similar apertures.  What finally perplexed me was that the parapet wall didn’t quite make it to the far edge of the building as is the case for the hotel.  This meant that they would have had to add onto the building on the north side which seems unnecessary and would probably have crossed the building line.  Also, the peak does not seem to be centered over the middle of the five apertures.  This fact seemed to be the killer of the whole supposition.  Possibly, they had pulled it down after all.   It was only when I reviewed the elevated shot taken from the top of the Cuthbert’s building that I had my epiphany and pulled the hare out of its hide (in the hat).  What if the Queens Street facade, that we see in the more modern building, structurally replicates the original facade i.e. having 3 x 5 apertures and encloses the balconies.  When viewed from the ground, at the angle of the second photo, we would see a parapet wall that doesn’t make it to  the end.  All it needs to create that confusion is for there to be no depth perception which is what happened in the hazy second photo.  With that in mind, it now becomes obvious how the iconic ‘tower’ aspect on the Russell Road side was attached to the original hotel and the facade of the hotel brought forward to the street.  

All is revealed.    


But how did the misunderstanding arise and why is it being perpetuated. A quick glance at the caption of the photo of the hotel in JJ Redgrave’s book shows how this misunderstanding arose. There it states categorically that the hotel was on the corner of Russell Road. It might well have been for a time but no extant photo verifies that fact. Being the most sold book on the history of Port Elizabeth, this myth has been perpetuated.

The original Commercial Hotel was burnt down in 1877. So was this the original hotel or its replacement

In the excitement of his eureka moment and having vindicated his appointment as Technical Editor, my run along a tranquil river in the Cradle of Humankind area was rudely shattered by a phone call about this discovery. Certainly not earth shattering but rather intriguing and immensely interesting. Nevertheless the prowess of the T.E. needs to be applauded as another mystery in the history of Port Elizabeth is resolved as he has once again justified his appointment but as he does meet the BEE requirements, his position cannot be made permanent.

As he states in the email, and not to put too fine a point on it, the solution had been hiding in plain sight all along.

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