Old Prison Building In Swakopmund Popular Among Tourists

24 Jul 2020

Brigitte Weidlich

Among the historic buildings in the coastal town of Swakopmund, a well preserved, stately double-story building is very popular among tourists coming to Swakopmund for photos. Indeed, the building literally stands out with its red sandstone foundation and yellow walls, pale green half-timbering [[Fachwerk]], gables and a small tower sticking protruding from the roof. Practically every travel guide mentions it.

“Maybe it is a villa of a wealthy person or a country hotel,” tourists often guess when admiring the many details of this architectural masterpiece.

Olga Ernst

Somewhat hidden on the left side is the building’s boundary wall with the revealing description “Swakopmund Prison” on it.

“Wow, that is surely the most beautiful prison I ever came across in my many worldwide travels”, one astonished tourist remarked and then quickly took a selfie in front of the wall.

Constructed in 1907 and still in use

Known today as “Altes Gefängnis” (Old Prison), this building is still used for its original purpose over a hundred years later. Imperial Germany colonised Namibia between 1884 and 1915 and was called South West Africa. After World War II, the country became a British mandate but administered by South Africa. Namibia became independent in 1990.


During the South African administration, a high-ranking government official from South Africa visited the country and at the end of his trip, he was taken to Swakopmund. When the delegation drove past the prison building the VIP (very important person) visitor is said to have exclaimed: “What a beautiful building, I would not mind living there.”

The faces of the hosts looked embarrassed. “Well, Sir, this is the local prison…” The visiting dignitary quickly changed the subject.

Art nouveau style popular in 1909

Swakopmund, at the coastal Namib Desert, started with a few wooden barracks in 1892, but indigenous people knew the area, where the Swakop River reaches the Atlantic Ocean a long before then. By 1895, a town plan was drafted by Dr. Max Rhode and by 1899, the first brick buildings went up. A year later, in 1900 the first brewery in the country started operations in Swakopmund, to the delight of the few hundred Europeans and crews of ships docking at the wooden jetty and the ‘Mole’.

Olga Ernst

Swakopmund developed quickly and in July 1906, the architect and construction supervisor (Baumeister) arrived from Germany and became the manager of the government’s port authority in Swakopmund and Lüderitz. It is not clear, why the colonial administration instructed him to handle the ports. During his three years in the country, Ertl definitely did not neglect his profession as architect and designed several brick buildings.

His first one was the design for the prison as duly instructed by the Governor Friedrich von Lindequist (who declared today’s Etosha National Park a protected area in 1907).

Ertl’s bold design of the Swakopmund prison submitted to Windhoek in December the same year was accepted. The well-known building company Gebrüder Bause (Bause Brothers) completed the construction work in just eleven months and handed over the keys in December 1907.

According to experts, Ertl’s designs – including the Antonius Hospital and the Lutheran Church in Swakopmund – not only reflected the architectural style “en vogue” in Berlin at that time, but also a touch of neo-baroque and art nouveau. This is reflected in the rather playful, rounded pillars marking the steps on both sides of the prison building and the roof trusses, as well as the half-timbering (Fachwerk) on the upper storey. The diverse roof gables over the top windows are maybe a bit much for the beholder but definitely add to the building’s charm.

It is quite unique that the “Alte Gefängnis” never housed prisoners (except for temporary holding cell) but for administration purposes. The ground floor was and still is used for offices of prison wardens. The top floor originally served as living quarters for the prison wards during the German colonial days. This tradition was kept for quite a few decades. The prisoners are kept behind the main building in quite ordinary cells.

Well preserved for the next century

The “Alte Gefängnis” was declared a national monument on 26 October 1973 – not because it housed prisoners, but because of its heritage value. Namibia gained independence in 1990 and a year later extensive renovations were done inside and outside. The formerly white-coated building received its yellow and green paint. More prison cells were added in the yard and a high wall was erected. The authorities respected the original design of Otto Ertl and did not attach the wall at the front of the building so as to preserve its appearance.

Swakopmund Municipality

Since 1907 Swakopmund has grown tremendously and today, the prison building is right in town at a busy street and not outside at its outskirts anymore. Street vendors have noted how popular the building is among tourists and now sell their crafts nearby.

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