Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Leopoldville 1937 - Hotel Memling and Sabena Guest House

The Memling
Hotel Memling - ca. 1960
The Hotel’s website ( states that the hotel was built by Sabena Airlines in three phases over a 27 year period beginning in 1937 to serve its air crews and passengers.  Each successive phase enlarged the facility with longer and taller wings at the intersection of Aves. Moulaert (Tchad) and Stanley (Bas-Congo).  Interestingly, there are no images (such as post cards) of the hotel prior to the 1955 expansion of the second wing, nor any mention of the Memling in the tourist guides prior to this time.  The Memling, which was one of the few businesses to avoid the wholesale change of foreign-named places in the country during Mobutu’s “Authenticity” and “Zairianization” campaign in 1973, is named for the Flemish painter Hans Memling.

Hotel Memling (center) 1954 - new wing running left along Ave. Bas-Congo
In 1959, a company called the Société Immobilière, Commerciale et Agricole du Congo Belge (SICA) merged with the Crédit Foncier Africain (CFA) to form the Compagnie des Grands Hotels Africains.  The CFA brought to the merger the Hotel Métropole in Matadi and the Hotel des Chutes in Stanleyville and SICA contributed the Memling.  A fourth property was the Sabena Guest House in Leopoldville. 

The SICAO building under construction

The SICA is an intriguing player.  Around 1920 the Societa Industriale, Commerciale per Africa Occidentale (SICAO), with headquarters in Rome, erected a two-story brick structure in Kinshasa.  Later photos show the whitewashed building as the SICA Hotel.  A 1935 report listed the SICA as an Italian firm operating a hotel, restaurant, café, selling foodstuffs for Europeans and renting property. At the beginning of WWII, the SICA was listed along with the ABC, Belgique, Paula and Sabena Guest House among hotels in Leopoldville.  After the war, Tom Marvel, the Press Attaché at the US Consulate during WWII, returned to write a book about the “New Congo”.  He described a hypothetical day in Leopoldville where he “saw a friend at the Sica, then had lunch at Sabena, and met the four o’clock FIMA (ferry) from Brazza”.

SICA Hotel
Hotel Memling luggage tag - Ave. Stanley wing prior to 1954
A Sabena publication in 1949 directed passengers to the SICA as a “Hotel de premier ordre” with a bar.  The 1951 “Guide du Voyageur du Congo Belge et Ruanda Urundi” included the SICA among Leopoldville hotels. Five years later, SICA was listed at the 3 Ave. Moulaert address of the Memling.  Breakfast was included in the price of the room, but there was no restaurant.  The entry for the Memling in 1958, which listed 12 A rooms and 102 B rooms, showed SICA in parenthesis.  When the merger with CFA occurred following year, SICA’s director was King Baudouin’s former Cabinet Secretary. Somewhere along the way the Italians had been supplanted.

Hotel Memling interior prior to Independence in 1960

The final expansion of the hotel was completed in 1963, adding 38 rooms.  In 1983, Sabena agreed to invest $25 million in ticket sales in the hotel.  Two years later, the firm decided to raise the hotel to 5-star status, which would include a 140-person restaurant, the “Mangoustan”.  In 1989, the company contracted Montois Partners of Brussels for a major rehab of the facility.  Under this contract in 1991, wing A was demolished and the “Papageno” Restaurant was introduced.  The “pillage” changed everything from a business standpoint but the hotel continued the rehab program, completing the work in 1993 and organizing a “soft” opening in June 1994.  By April 1998, the hotel had a vacancy rate of 50%, and outstanding debts of 70 million Belgian Francs incurred by members of the new government when it ousted Mobutu.  It remains one of the premier hotels in the city.

Entrance to the hotel - 2008
Sabena Guest House
The entrance to the Sabena Guest House on Ave. Olsen
The first Sabena flight from Brussels landed near Kalina Point in Leopoldville in April 1925.  The tri-motor Handley Page completed the journey in 75 hours flying time in 13 stages spread over 50 days. When Kalina was selected as the site for the new capital, an airstrip was created at Ndolo (See Jan. 6, 2011).  The first regular Brussels-Leopoldville flights began at the end of 1930. During the 1930s, Sabena built a Guest House about ten minutes drive from the airport on Ave. Olsen (Kabasele).  Passengers arriving from Belgium en route to destinations in the interior would spend a night or two before connection to a flight in Sabena's domestic route.  By 1958, the complex of cottages contained about 65 rooms.  In 1959 the Guest House became part of the Compagnie des Grands Hotels Africains, but was later sold.
The cottages on the grounds of the Sabena Guest House
The Sabena Guest House 2006 - now a private hotel
·        Geerinckx, J. 1922. Guide Commerciale du Congo Belge. Imprim. A. Lesigne.
·       Joye, Pierre et Rosine Lewin, 1961. Les Trusts au Congo, Bruxelles: Société Populaire d’Editions.
·        Marvel, Tom. 1948. The New Congo, Duell, Sloan and Pearce.
·        Memling Hotel website:  


  1. Wow those old pictures look interesting. It is amazing to see how much changed in the area during all those years. I love comparing these old pictures with what we see in the present.

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  2. Hi Mwana,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

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