A Stoned History of Nairobi by Kamau Mutunga

A Stoned History of Nairobi by Kamau Mutunga

Kenya Railways Headquarters

Architecture is said to be a societal affair. And good architecture can make a building appear as if it was planted, like it just sprouted. Think of the High Court, the All Saints Cathedral, City Hall and the Kenya Railways headquarters in Nairobi.

City Hall, Nairobi

Or the iconic Parliament Building with its English-style clock tower. It was built in the 1950s, when being gender insensitive was no big deal.

The motto on the main door reads: “For a just society and the fair government of men.”

These structures not only connote another era, but also the grandeur that can be achieved with impeccable masonry — the kind one rarely sees these days. If these buildings could speak, these are the concrete tales they would tell about the “bricking of a nation”.

The Fairmont Norfolk Hotel

The Norfolk Hotel as it was

The Norfolk Hotel along Harry Thuku Road was an important cog in Nairobi’s wheel of growth. It was a port of call for visitors, including British wartime Premier, Sir Winston Churchill and American President Theodore Roosevelt.

The visitors arrived in “topees, boots, and spine-pads” aboard rickshaws from the Nairobi Railway Station of the new colony. Opposite the Norfolk is the Kenya National Theatre, which was then “a papyrus swamp chockfull of croaking frogs; and behind it a barren, open land, hippos sunning their gnarled backs at the Nairobi River”, recalls Jan Hemsing in his 2004 book, Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel: The First Hundred Years.

The Kenya National Theatre located opposite The Norfolk

Nevertheless, the place attracted lords, adventurers, and eccentric travellers who thronged it.

One eccentric was its owner, Lord Delamere, after whom the Delamere Terrace is named. He was known for practising shooting skills with the backs of Africans as targets.

A memorable stain in its history was a riot that broke out when women demonstrated against the arrest of Harry Thuku at the nearby Central Police Station on March 4, 1922. Thuku had protested against the introduction of kipande, hut tax, and women’s conscription into forced labour. Mary Nyanjiru dared the crowd to break in and release Thuku. Police shot her dead before turning on the crowd.

White settlers lounging at the Delamere Terrace opened fire too, killing 27 people. The 1960 Corfield Report on the incident said only three people died. Harry Thuku was released eight years later and detained in Kismayu for a further nine years.

The ritzy, quaint Norfolk is now part of Fairmont Hotels, owned by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. “The Warren Buffet of the Gulf” is ranked the world’s 19th richest person via his $21 billion (Sh2.2 trillion) fortune, according to Forbes magazine. Just so you know, Sh2.2 trillion is more than Kenya’s 2011 budget.

Prince Alwaleed is Norfolk’s fourth owner after Lonrho’s Tiny Rowland, Abraham Block, founder of the Block Hotels (and great grandfather of Kenyan Olympic swimmers David and Jason Dunford), and Major CGR Ringer and Aymer Winearls, who opened it on December 25, 1904.

Pan African House & Westminster House

Pan African House

There is more concrete history for excavation along Kenyatta, previously Delamere, Avenue. It is on this stretch where Pan African House and Westminster House, which was erected in 1928, stand.

They house Standard Chartered — which opened shop in 1911 — and Family banks respectively, showcasing how the archaic can be mortgaged into the modern. Westminster House initially served as the lodgings for colonial administrators.

Bank of India & Stanbic Buildings

An image showing how Bank Of India building has transformed from the day the bank opened its doors to how it looks currently

Just before Cameo is the Bank of India, which housed the Legislative Council (Legco) from 1954 to 1957. It was then known as the Memorial Hall. And just ahead of Cameo is Stanbic Building that houses, well, another bank, Stanbic.

It was Nairobi’s first ever brick affair when Ewart Grogan built it as a hotel in 1923. It has retained its abiding brick-cladding exterior.

Kipande House

Kipande House. Right opposite it is the Old PCs office

The Old PC’s Office is in good stoned company as on the opposite side of Kenyatta Avenue stands its age mate, Kipande House — originally a warehouse used by coolies.

Designed by Gurdit Singh, the one-storey affair that still sports its ubiquitous quirky tower was Kenya’s tallest building until City Hall was opened in 1935, starring a 165ft tower clock.

Kipande House now houses the Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB)… as is the case with all historical buildings on Kenyatta Avenue.

It has maintained its timeless looks, ageing gracefully since KCB — which started in Zanzibar as the National Bank of India in 1895 — commissioned its architect Derek Fialt to restore it, which accounts for its hand-dressed masonry finish. Triad Architects worked the interiors in 2003.

As its name suggests, Kipande House was where Africans acquired their ID cards (kipande) during the colonial period.

The IDs were hang around the neck, like cowbells. So were the Indian rupee coins — then Kenya’s official currency — with holes at the centre so they could be threaded on a cord and suspended around the neck since Africans mostly wore shukas.

Cameo Cinema

Cameo Cinema building

Situated opposite the Sarova Stanley, its Verandah Bar was for the longest time the only joint in Nairobi with a pool table before they flooded pub floors.

It has since hosted K’Osewe’s restaurant, a church, and now the Sunrise Casino.

Cameo was built in 1912 as the Theatre Royal when John Ainsworth was Kenya’s Chief Native Commissioner who oversaw the planting of blue gum trees in Nairobi besides musing up Nairobi City Council’s impossible bylaws.

The Old PC’s Office

An image of the Old PC’s office

Squatting forlornly at the junction of Uhuru Highway and Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi, this structure was built in 1913, the year Molonket Olokorinya ole Sempele, the first Kenyan to travel abroad for further studies, returned from an American bible college in Virginia.

Nairobi then was a supply depot and basic camp of tin and wooden dwellings for Indian coolies constructing the Kenya-Uganda railway, who called it “Mile 327”.

The settlers nicknamed the Old PC’s Office “Hatches, Matches, and Dispatches” as it was where records for births, marriages, and deaths were kept. Its colonial cobwebs were dusted off when it was spruced up in 2003, the brown coat of varnish giving it a respectable archaic look, a metaphor of its quaint past.

In January 2006, the Old PC’s Office was renamed the Nairobi Gallery that now hosts temporary public exhibitions.

To hew a historical stone, the Nairobi Gallery, now under the National Museums, is a pointer to the evolution of architecture and history of the city — Kenya too.

McMillan Memorial Library

Mac Millan Library

It was opened by the then governor, Sir Joseph Byrne, on June 15, 1931 and bequeathed to the people of Nairobi in memory of philanthropists Lord William Northrop Macmillan and wife Lucie.

Nairobi City Council took it over in 1962. Up the rail-less marble staircase and inside the church-like door are more than 270,000 volumes of books, parliamentary archives, and the Africana section that has some of the rarest books, journals, and periodicals dating back to 1906.

In his will, Lord Macmillan, who had employed nationalist Tom Mboya’s father, Leonard Ndiege as a supervisor on his Juja Ranch, desired to be buried at the top of Mt Kilimambogo.

His 32-room decrepit castle near Fourteen Falls, which hosted wife-swapping parties besides serving as a jailhouse during World War II, was gazetted as a monument in 2008.

Sarova Stanley Hotel

The first Stanley Hotel building in the late 1800s along Tom Mboya Street

This establishment represents Nairobi’s concrete cornucopia over the years.

It was named after Welsh explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley, he who tagged Africa as the “Dark Continent”. The New Stanley was initially situated on Victoria, now Tom Mboya, Street.

It was reconstructed after burning down in 1902 and reopened on Moi Avenue before owners Mayence Bent and husband Fred Tate bought a corner plot where it has stood since 1913.

The reconstructed STanley Hotel after it was burnt up

Now called The Sarova Stanley, the hotel gradually gained a reputation as a stopover for travellers who fell head over suitcases for the Thorn Tree Café when it opened in 1961. The café’s single acacia tree became a popular notice board to leave notes, letters, and messages to fellow travellers. The original acacia was cut and replaced with a replica.

Stanley Hotel at the Corner Plot where it is currently located

The Sarova Stanley also hosts the Exchange Bar, from where the Nairobi Stock Exchange operated in 1954 as shares were bought and sold in between fiery tots.

Today, the Exchange Bar sports a “Wall of Fame” where photos of CEOs of NSE’s top 20 blue chips stare down at patrons.

The Sarova Group became the third owners when it bought the hotel from the Block family in 1978.

Source: Daily Nation


  1. A lot of history in there. I take it this is the motivation you were talking about that Kenyan architects should emulate in coming up with new designs for Nairobi buildings.

    • Such buildings should be preserved both for memory and for informing future generations on the importance of remaining committed and dedicated to one’s calling. Architects and everyone else involved in the design and construction of these landmarks harbored no mediocrity and all the shortcomings of modern man!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.