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236 HURUMZI : Restoring Stone Town


visiting 236 Hurumzi

Editor's Note: 236 Hurumzi changed hands in 2013 and became 'Emerson on Hurumzi' under new management.

236 Hurumzi - Stone Town, Tanzania [2010 © greatguides.org]
The rooftop terraces and restaurant of 236 overlook Stone Town


Behind the romantic decor of 236 Hurumzi is a remarkable story. It is a well known hotel in Stone Town, Zanzibar, most famous for its popular roof-top restaurant which overlooks the towers and spires of this World Heritage Site. Stone Town was once the grand capital of the Swahili Empire. No hotel or public building in Stone Town can match 236 for its faithful re-creation of the colour and style of this Omani era. The common areas of the hotel, and each of the 24 rooms, has been meticulously refurbished with antiques. Yet, whilst other restoration projects in Stone Town are the work of the Aga Khan Cultural Foundation and other institutions, this is the remarkable achievement of Thomas Green, an American dancer.

 

236 Hurumzi - Stone Town, Tanzania [2010 © greatguides.org] - 236 Hurumzi - Restoring Stone Town - Roddy Bray's Great Guides

Thomas Green was a dancer/choerographer, working in Italian Television. An Italian-run business asked him to travel to Zanzibar and prepare a dance troupe for the opening of a new resort. What they did not tell him was that the resort was still under construction! 

Worse still, at one point there was nobody in charge and he became, de facto, the project manager. He rented an apartment at 236 Hurumzi Street, Stone Town. Like so many of the fine old buildings, it was in a derelict state and the floors and the roof beams in one section were collapsing. He began work securing and restoring his apartment, then as others in the building ceded their tenancies, he took over their leases and continued the work.

Thomas Green steadily renovated the grand homes on Hurumzi street 

 

As news spread that the house was under restoration, people came to his door offering carved door frames and other antiques. He employed skilled craftsmen to work with wood, stone and stained glass and he trained some of them in the traditions of batik. 

The building has a natural grandeur. The central section was built by Sir Tharia Topan, a rich and powerful merchant who was adviser to Sultan Bargash in the mid-19th century. In the 1880s it was used by the British authorities to administer the emancipation of slaves: 'Huru-muuze' means "let him free”, and the street became known as "Hurumzi", to mark the celebration of slaves for their liberation by the the officials working in Topan's old house. 

'236' then passed to various Catholic and Arab owners, but after the communist revolution of 1964 the house was divided among several families, and, like so many others in Stone Town, the structure was not maintained and started to disintegrate.

With the help of Emerson Skeens, Thomas Green opened a hotel at 236 in the mid-nineties; it was initially known as 'Emerson and Green'.

Steadily he expanded the hotel into adjoining houses, restoring these, and creating the wonderful Tower Top rooftop restaurant, the second highest point in the town, which has become well known for its food, sundowner drinks and musical evenings. 

236 Hurumzi - Stone Town, Tanzania [2010 © greatguides.org] - 236 Hurumzi - Restoring Stone Town - Roddy Bray's Great Guides
Thomas has re-created  the colour and style of the Omani era

 

Thomas has restored these buildings to their former grandeur, with the influences of India, Persia, and Oman as they were found in the house at the beginning of the 20th century. He has also trained up excellent artisans and a professional and courteous staff. The restoration of the buildings has gone hand in hand with an embrace of local culture.

 

236 Hurumzi - Stone Town, Tanzania [2010 © greatguides.org] - 236 Hurumzi - Restoring Stone Town - Roddy Bray's Great Guides

Every room is different at 236, but they are all simple, avoiding standard modern amenities in favour of a style that is more authentic and atmospheric, restoring the grace and character of historic Stone Town, in elegant 'old style luxury'. 

Some of the rooms are enormous, such as the ballroom suite. Others, including the South Room and North Room, have lattice work balconies and open-air stone baths. Antique fans keep the rooms cool.

Traditional skills are practised to decorate the hotel using wood, stone, stained glass and batik

 

Turn of the century clocks, bowls and plates, painted and stained glass, brass fittings and wooden carvings, crystal chandeliers, four poster beds, furniture inlaid with Dutch and Japanese tiles,and brightly coloured covers and drapes, re-create a breathtaking splendour, and give you an experience of how the exotic capital of the Swahili Empire fused Arab and Indian influences in Africa.

Much of Stone Town remains in a decrepit state. Fine, historic buildings still collapse, leaving a mass of giant Burmese beams and broken carved wood and stained glass. The work of Thomas Green has paved the way for restoration and given visitors to Stone Town an experience of its former magnificent and unique heyday. It has also saved some of the city's finest buildings that otherwise would certainly have come crashing down. His success is the product of astonishing vision and labour. Maybe the Italians were acting shrewdly when they put a dancer from the USA in charge of a building project in Zanzibar.


For other stories on Zanzibar see Marine Cultures:Conservation and DevelopmentMeeting Okala:Tourism and Conservation in ZanzibarCooking on Zanzibar: Does ‘school’ get any better? and our Great Guide to Diving in Zanzibar - Paul Shepherd


Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 25 Feb 2011
Location: East Africa | Tanzania
Themes: travel, the arts | architecture