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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Leopoldville 1958 – Le Plein Vent restaurant

Colonial Leopoldville was a creation by and for Europeans.  Notwithstanding the presence of numerous Congolese settlements on the Congo River at the time of Stanley’s arrival in 1881 (May 22, 2017), the choice and development of this particular location was made entirely in consideration of its utility as a late Industrial Revolution transportation nexus, linking a rail line from the coast to steamboats servicing the fan of rivers stretching into the interior of the vast colony. While the focus of this blog is the built environment of Kinshasa – then and now – it is not the intention to dwell on the accomplishments of Europeans. However, few people since Stanley (except perhaps Mobutu Sese Seko) have had as much influence on the urban development of the city as Joseph Rhodius.
Leopoldville station 1882 (Author coll.)
Joseph Dieudonné Rhodius arrived in Congo in 1912 on a six-month contract to identify limestone deposits for a cement factory.  This task quickly completed, he signed on with the Matadi-Leopoldville railway (Compagnie du Chemin de fer du Congo) which sent him to Leopoldville to complete construction of the Hotel ABC (Mar. 27, 2011).   In July 1914, he became the Director of Synkin (June 18, 2012), before starting his own business empire. As President of the Kinshasa’s Stanley Pool Chamber of Commerce and member of the Comité Urbain for several years, he was able to influence urban development on a number of levels.  Beginning with what became the largest industrial employer in the city (TEXAF and the Utexléo textile plant), this led to the construction of two dams on the Inkisi River (at Sanga and Zongo) to supply his factory and the city, a piped water distribution service, palm oil plantations and cattle ranches in Ngaliema Commune and finally real estate development, including the Rhodeby subdivision in Ngaliema which was subsumed into Mobutu’s Camp Tshatshi after Independence. Within the prism of paternalism, he was also concerned about the Congolese, advocating for adequate rations for plantation workers, developing education (St. Joseph school at Ste. Anne parish was named in recognition of his patronage), recreation facilities (Stades Astrid, Ermens and Baudouin), the Scout movement and health facilities (Kintambo Hospital which was originally built by the Utexléo Foundation). 
The TEXAF textile complex in the 1920s. Congo River at upper left (wikinshasa.org)
Leaving Synkin in April 1922, he created Rhodius Freres, an import-export firm.  To capitalize the new firm, he contributed property held in Brazzaville and a lot at Aves Villas and Jardins (now Aves. Kalemie & Kolwezi) in Leopoldville, while his brothers sold property at the intersection of Aves. Cite (now Tabu Ley) Marais and Plateau.   The new company built its main office near the port on Ave Ministre Rubbens (now Nation), in the heart of Kinshasa’s commercial district. During the Minister of the Colonies’ visit that year, Rhodius gave a speech as President of the Chamber of Commerce, urging decent treatment for workers in order to obtain maximum productivity from them. In November 1925 he obtained a 2000-hectare agricultural concession from the Colony in the Binza hills west of Leopoldville in (Ngaliema Commune), which became the Domaine de Rhodeby, a contraction of his and his wife’s names.
Rhodius Freres store on Ave. Rubbens (Life magazine, 1920s)
The TEXAF textile mill was created in 1925 with capital from the Lagache interests in Antwerp.  The site, a 45-hectare concession between Kalina and Leopoldville Ouest, was leased from the Colony (July 3, 2011).  By 1927, Rhodius had become the manager (Administrateur Délégué) in Leopoldville, and the Texaf balance sheet included Fr.4.75 million in assets from his investments in Rhodeby and a subsidiary, Rhokasai.
The first buildings under construction at TEXAF June 1927 (texaf.be)
The growing factory required a regular supply of water.  In October 1929, TEXAF and the Colony, along with minor partner Compagnie de l’Ozone in Belgium, created a municipal water distribution company, the Société de Distribution d’eau de Léopoldville (when Rhodius was Director of Synkin in 1920, that company created the first piped water supply for the city with a pumping station on the Congo River at Ndolo).  The new project called for tapping the Lukunga River in Binza to produce 1000 m3/hr of filtered water. A 12-kilometer pipeline carried the water to Leopoldville.  Several villages had to be relocated to preserve the watershed.  Rhodeby was assured to receive piped water at the same rates as the rest of the city. The following year, the capital was raised to 35 million francs. In September the Colony sold 4 hectares of land on the Binza road to the company to build an Ozone water treatment plant (giving the name “Ozone” to that neighborhood).  When Prince Leopold III and Princess Astrid visited in January 1933, Rhodeby and the water works was one of the stops on their tour of the city.
Water tower from the earlier Synkin system (Author coll.)
In March 1933, the colonial government created the Régie des Distributions d’eau de la Colonie (Regideso) to amalgamate existing water systems in Boma, Matadi, Coquilhatville and Stanleyville under a quasi-public utility. Notably Leopoldville was not included in this scheme. By this time, however, the guaranteed production rates enjoyed by the Leopoldville concessionaire were too onerous for the Depression-era Colonial budget and in September the following year company was dissolved and taken over by Regideso. The Colony bought out Texaf’s 48% holding in the water company and merged it into Regideso.  At the same time, commitments of another Texaf subsidiary, Société Hydro-électrique de Sanga, to provide electrical power to the Colony at cost were rescinded.
The water treatment plant at Ozone in the mid 1950s (Author coll.)
The Société Hydro-électrique de Sanga, was created because the machines in the expanding textile plant were powered by electricity. Since diesel generation was very costly, in June 1930, TEXAF began building the Sanga hydro-electric dam on the Inkisi River some 70 kilometers southwest of the capital.  In addition to providing power for the TEXAF factory, Sanga also concluded an agreement to deliver electricity to Colectric, the colonial utility that operated a diesel-electric generating plant serving the city.   In July 1932 the 5,550 KWH, Sanga facility came on line when Governor Tilkens flipped the switch to send power to the capital.  Colectric placed its diesel plant, located on the Leopoldville road (opposite the current Russian Embassy on Ave Justice), in back-up reserve in case of unanticipated cuts from the dam site.  While no longer directly involved in municipal water or electricity provision, Rhodius’ companies had created the basis for the new colonial capital’s urban utilities. 
Installation of the turbines at Sanga - January 1932 (Author coll.)
The Sanga complex after expansion in 1952 (Author coll.)
In March 1934, the company reorganized. TEXAF assets were transferred to create a holding company, the Société Immobilière, Agricole et Forestière du Congo (IMAFOR). IMAFOR was intended to undertake real estate investments and issue mortgage loans, engage in construction and sale of construction materials, rental and property management, and notably, development and operation of public utilities, including water and electricity. TEXAF contributed all its land holdings to the new firm, except for 11.5 hectares in Leopoldville.  This included the 2000 hectares in Binza acquired by TEXAF in 1925 and another 689 hectares obtained in Binza in July 1933.  The Credit Anversois, the original investor in TEXAF, maintained its 50% share in the new company.  At the same time, another company, Usines Textiles de Léopoldville (Utexléo), was created to operate the textile mill.  The capital was comprised of the physical plant, machines and stock as well as the 11.5 hectares withheld from IMAFOR’s property inventory. All previous commitments made to the Sanga hydro-electric dam were assumed by the new company. In 1936, IMAFOR was granted a five-year concession on 300 hectares at Kinsuka on the river below Rhodeby.
Fish ponds at Rhodeby near the rapids at Kinsuka (Author coll.) 
By this time, Rhodius Freres had vacated the property on Ave Ministre Rubbens, which was now converted to the Cinema Central. The “l’Eveil de l’AEF”, a weekly published in Brazzaville, reported on a boxing match in April 1935 held in the “Grande Salle” behind the Cinema, in space provided by Rhodius Freres.  Tickets were Fr.10 for Europeans and Fr.2 for Congolese.  In March 1938, Texaf provided space for the recently created Musée de la Vie Indigene, which included a sales office where art from around the country could be sold (Feb.20, 2011).
The original Rhodius Freres store converted to cinema (Author coll.)
The first locale of the Musee de la Vie Indigene in TEXAF property - 1938 (Raymaekers, 2017)
Utexleo produced 1.3 million meters of textiles for the domestic market in 1939, up from 6000 meters a decade earlier.  This phenomenal expansion was due in part to tariffs which discouraged importing Japanese goods. At the beginning of the war, against the advice of the Texaf board in Brussels, Rhodius travelled to the US to obtain new equipment. The existing plant was expanded to include 3 hectares of new buildings. By the end of 1943, with new machines acquired from the US, production reached 3 million meters, an accomplishment further facilitated by forced cotton production in many regions of the country (implemented by Cotonco and its subsidiaries, on which Rhodius served as Administrator).
Advertisement for Utexleo (Author coll.)
In September 1943 as well, Rhodius created USI, the Utexleo, Sanga and Imafor Association for the Improvement of the African workforce. Concerned about the extreme demands of the war effort on productivity, the big companies were engaged in “hearts and minds” initiatives toward their African workers, creating social funds, especially after bloody worker strikes at mining sites in Elisabethville and Manono in 1941.  However, when European employees of Utexleo struck in October 1945, the Africans staff did not join the action and at the Sanga hydro dam, Congolese ensured the facility continued to operate throughout the strike. 
Setting the bobbins at Utexleo in the 1950s (Author coll.)
Sanga power station control room - 1950s (Author coll.)
The first project of USI was a three-year professional school, including dormitory facilities for external students, which opened in 1945.  Tuition was free for all students who were accepted in the program.  Another project Rhodius was involved in to benefit the Congolese in Leopoldville was the Parc des Sports General Ermens, which was inaugurated on Easter day 1946.  Initiated by Father Raphael de la Kethulle (Tata Raphael) in 1941, Rhodius chaired the committee that shepherded the project to fruition throughout the resource-limited war years.  Construction of the 8-hectare complex was launched in 1943 under Public Works architect Marcel Hentenryck (who also designed the Public Market in that year and later the adjacent Stade Baudouin, now Stade Tata Raphael (Feb. 6, 2011).  The Art Deco complex included a large swimming pool, 5 football pitches, 9 tennis courts and other facilities.
The entrance to Parc des Sports General Ermens upon completion (U.Wisconsin Milwaukee digital archives)
The pool at Parc des Sports Gen. Ermens (U.Wisconsin Milwaukee digital archives)
Two years later, Governor General Jungers laid the foundation stone for Stade Baudouin.  Rhodius was there to assist as President of the Comité de Patronage of the Parc des Sports.
Earlier that year, Utexleo created a native welfare society, Fonds de Bien-être Indigene Utexleo, independent of USI.  In March 1951, the Foundation began construction a 150-bed hospital for Utexleo employees in nearby Kintambo. Designed by the architect, Ilensky, the new facility opened in 1953 (Apr. 30, 2011).
Rhodius and Governor General Jungers lay the foundation stone for Stade Baudouin - July 1948 (Author coll.)
The completed stadium mid 1950s (Author coll.)
Meanwhile, new factories were being added at the Utexleo site on Ave.Ermens, including Socotex in 1946 (blankets), Tissaco in 1948 (sacks), Bonneterie Africaine in 1952 (socks), and Blanchisserie de la Gombe in 1953 (industrial laundry).  At Kinsuka, along the river in Domaine Rhodeby, two industrial firms were created in which Imafor had substantial interests.  Bricongo in 1950 (bricks) and Carricongo in 1951 (construction stone), important inputs to the burgeoning construction sector in the capital.
Women ironing fabric at the Blanchisserie de la Gombe (Author coll.)
The Bricongo (now Brikin) manager's house at Kinsuka in 2005 (Author coll.)
In 1950, IMAFOR began planning to develop 60 hectares of its agricultural land in Rhodeby as a residential subdivision.  The company paid increased taxes on the property to allow this change in use.  By 1955, the new development, “Cent Maisons”, though still more commonly known as “Rhodeby”, was nearing completion and the lots connected to electric and water service.  In 1957, Mwana Mboka started kindergarten at the newly opened Athenée de l’Ozone.  The route covered by TCL buses (Oct. 23, 2011) started at Leo Deux (Kintambo Magasins) at the bottom of Mont Leopold (Mont Ngaliema) and meandered up the hill through Cent Maisons before reaching the school.
The kindergarten at Athenee de l'Ozone in 1958 (Author coll.)
In November 1955, Imafor announced plans to embark on its next project, a commercial-residential complex to be called “Residence Astrid” on its property at Ave. Astrid and Ave Rubbens. The company nearly doubled its capital to 63 million francs for this project which was designed by Rhodius’ architect, Ilensky. The Comité Urbain approved a building permit in May 1956 for a building with apartments, offices and shops valued at 47 million francs. The following year, however, the company noted economic conditions prevailing in Leopoldville did not favor the sale of residential lots in Rhodeby and IMAFOR was instead focused on completing “Residence Astrid”, scheduled for the second half of 1958. By then, the company had taken possession of the first wing facing Ave. Ministre Rubbens and had rented about half of the 12 apartments. The second, larger wing facing Ave. Reine Astrid, containing shops, two floors of office space and 24 apartments was still under construction. Imafor remained optimistic, despite the unfavorable economic climate.
The original Rhodius store on Ave Rubbens (r.) was demolished to make way for the new building (Author coll.)
When the building was finally completed, it became a prestigious address.  Germany moved its Embassy there after Independence, as did Switzerland.  Italy maintained a commercial attaché office and Fiat had its Congo headquarters there, too.  USAID opened an office and the US Embassy rented a number of apartments for its staff. 

On the commercial side, a Swiss entrepreneur opened a fondue restaurant called Le Plein Vent on the top floor of the building in December 1957.  Offering only classical cheese fondue initially, the venue provided a panoramic view of the river and Brazzaville through its open windows.  It quickly became a fixture of Leopoldville’s night scene.

Another Rhodius property which may have been demolished for the new building. I have not been able to locate where this might have been (Author coll.)
After Mobutu’s first coup in September 1960 in which he “neutralized” both President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, the young Colonel moved into a villa in Rhodeby (the loyalty of the troops at the main army camp at Camp Leopold/Kokolo were considered unreliable). Many of the former European residents had left the country after Independence and not returned. Dr. Bill Close, who came to Leopoldville in June 1960 with a Moral Rearmament team and eventually became Mobutu’s personal physician, described the residence as having belonged to a bank. Mobutu drew reliable army units from the Para commando battalion in Thysville around him and Rhodeby began to take on the aspect of a military camp.  When Lumumba was arrested near Port Francqui, in December 1960, he was first brought to Mobutu’s residence and locked up for the night in Security chief Victor Nendaka’s garage.


In May 1961, secessionist Katanga President Moise Tshombe and his Foreign Minister Evariste Kimba were held there after being detained for trying to leave a round table conference in Coquilhatville (Mbandaka).  The following January, Antoine Gizenga was transferred to “Camp Rhodeby” after the UN brought him from Stanleyville (Kisangani) to resume his participation as Vice-Prime Minister of the Assembly. 
Mobutu's residence in Rhodeby - 1970 (Elisofon archives)
Mobutu's residence in Rhodeby in 1965 (YouTube).
It was destroyed when L.D. Kabila's forces captured Kinshasa in May 1997 
IMAFOR created “Imbaleo” in 1961 to manage the Rhodeby concession, but the “winds of change” were not in the company’s favor. In 1964 Mobutu notified Imbaleo of his intention to expropriate the Rhodeby concession to create a military base which became Camp Tshatshi. No compensation was ever offered by the government. In 1994 Imbakin took the government to court and won a 2.5 billion Belgian Franc indemnity two years later.  No payments were ever received however, and in 2001, Imbakin ceded its claims to Texaf. In March 2005 Texaf and Congo Textile Printers (another struggling texile mill on the river downstream from Rhodeby taken over by the Chinese company CHA) merged to form Congotex, but the venture only lasted four years (July 3, 2011). With the closure of the textile plant in Kinshasa, Texaf chose to focus on real estate development.
The main gate at Utexafrica in 2016 (Author coll.)
In the 1980s the Swiss owner of Le Plein Vent decided to sell and the Janmohammed family, which also owned Patisserie Chantilly and Cosy Grill, bought the restaurant.  About the same time, the Zairian government sold the former Vice Governor’s residence on La Raquette to the Swiss government (near what is now the Hotel Fleuve Congo, Aug. 20, 2011) for use as its Embassy.  With the departure of the diplomatic tenant, the building services at the Residence des Flamboyants (as renamed under Authenticité), which included premises of the Tax Office, began to decline and the owners of the fondue restaurant felt they were being burdened with all the maintenance costs.  Certainly, a nighttime visit to the Plein Vent was a memorable experience. The parking area on Ave. Lumpungu was dark and a little dodgy.  The elevator up to the restaurant was dimly lit and shook as though it might plunge down the shaft at any moment. But the doors opened directly into the restaurant, which was bright and immaculate, the service attentive. Because it now opened at night, the views of the river were limited and a renovation in 2006 enclosed the breezy open windows.
Residence Flamboyants in 2018. Le Plein Vent on the top floor (Author coll.)
The interior of Le Plein Vent (Author coll.)
In 2018, the owners of Le Plein Vent decided the challenges of operating the fondue restaurant in the Flamboyant Building were a drag on the business.  They relocated the restaurant to the premises of the former Cosy Grill next to their Chantilly patisserie on Ave. Lukusa. 
An advert for the restaurant shortly before it closed (voila.cd)
Sources:
  • Bulletin Officiel du Congo Belge, Ministry of the Colonies, Bruxelles. (multiple years)
  • Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution (www.africa.si.edu)
  • Japan External Trade Organization, Institute of Developing Economies, “Texaf”. (www.ide.go.jp)
  • Raymaekers, Jan, 2017. “The Musée de la vie indigene in Leopoldville”,  Academie Royale des Sciences d’Outre-Mer.
  • Texaf web site (www.texaf.be/en/about-us/history.html)
  • University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Digital Photo Archive (www.collections.lib.uwm.edu)
  • Wikinshasa, Atlas de l’architecture et du paysage urbains (wikinshasa.org)
  • YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGUkWC0JBU8)




























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