Learning the history of Kenyatta Avenue

Qwani Sketch Tour took a group of youth on a path down memory lane

In Summary

• The once Delamere Avenue was so full of neo-classical buildings, it was like UK

The Qwani Sketch Team
The Qwani Sketch Team

The widest street in the Nairobi CBD happens to be Kenyatta Avenue, with eight lanes, just like Thika Superhighway.

For that reason, then, it is a major artery into the CBD, used by vehicles coming in from Valley Road, Ngong Road, Mombasa Road and even Waiyaki Way.

But how did it come to be? We set out on a quest to find that out during our latest Qwani Sketch Tour.

In 1908, an architect known as James Watson came into the country from Scotland. Thanks to the Crown Lands Ordinances of 1902, he was able to acquire 4,000 acres of land in the Embakasi area, stretching from modern-day JKIA to City Stadium.

Being a totally flat land, he set out to plant trees in the area, and imported so many Ayrshire cows from his country, Scotland. He then started a dairy farm, and named it Doon Holm. ‘Doon’ was his home area back in Scotland, while ‘Holm’ simply means the land next to a river.

Having such a huge farm, he became the biggest dairy products supplier in the city, even supplying to the Colonial Governor himself at Government House (now State House). Since there wasn’t a proper road from his farm to the Governor’s House, he set out to build one himself. Thence, he built the Doon Holm Road (now Jogoo Road) from his farm to the CBD, and then another road to the Governor’s House.

This second road became known as Sixth Avenue, but in 1931, it was renamed Delamare Avenue, after another prominent dairy supplier who had just died. With independence came the Kenyanisation policy, and so it was finally renamed Kenyatta Avenue.


Sixth Avenue connected two streets: Princess Elizabeth Way (now Uhuru Highway) and Government Road (now Moi Avenue). On the junction between Sixth Avenue and Princess Elizabeth Way was the Provincial Commissioner’s Office.

Back then, it was where the records for all the births, marriages and deaths were kept, hence it earned the name “Hatches, Matches & Dispatches.” It went on to be the PC’s Office until 1983, when it was converted to be Kanu’s Nairobi Branch office until 1997, finally having its ownership transferred to the National Museums of Kenya.

It was renovated into a gallery, and collections, as well as furniture, from Kenya’s second Vice President and subsequently Kenya’s biggest art collector, Joseph Murumbi, were moved in for exhibition. Therefore, the building is both known as The Nairobi Gallery and the Murumbi African Heritage Collections.


In 1983, the PC’s offices were moved to the new building that was raised behind it, known as the Nairobi House (now Nyayo House). Initially, it was intended to be a 14-storey building, but Moi ordered that the design be changed to make it a 23-storey building.

In addition to the PC’s office, it also housed the Special Branch offices. After being threatened by the 1982 attempted coup and revolutionary outfits such as Mwakenya, President Moi, through his PS for Internal Security Hezekiah Oyugi, sent out some police officers to Romania to be trained on the militant style of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu’s police force, the Securitate.

It was there that the officers learnt torture methods that they applied in the basement of Nyayo House, then known as the Nyayo Torture Chambers.  


Having been sent by the Bank of India, Pakistani businessman Gurdit Nayer arrived in Kenya in 1889, with the intention of starting banking operations. However, after some years, he noticed the numerous unexploited business opportunities, and so he quit his job as a banker.

Seeing the Kenya-Uganda railway passing on what is today’s Loita Street, Gurdit Nayer assembled a team of masons and carpenters from the Indian coolies, and together with English architect David Fialt, built a warehouse next to the railway in 1913.

For one year, while known as Nayer House, it served as a railway warehouse, being used to store goods coming into the city. In 1914, however, Colonial Governor Sir Henry Conway Belfield ordered that all natives should walk around with a kipande on their neck, which would act as their identity cards.

The colonial government leased out that building, and it was where the kipandes were issued. The natives began calling it ‘Kipande House’, and the name stuck.

Important to note is that it was the tallest building from the time of its construction up to 1935, when City Hall was finally built. Kipande House, with its two storeys, was so tall that its magnificent clock could be seen all over the city.


Kenya currently has many driving schools, but only one of them is older than 100 years: the Automobile Association of Kenya. It was started in 1919 by motor enthusiast Lionel Galton-Fenzi, who had been incessantly negotiating for loan cars to test them under East African conditions.

In 1926, he received his first one, a wooden Riley 12/50 from Britain. It was delivered to Nairobi by train, and he set out to drive it from Nairobi to Mombasa, a journey which took him 15 days and 1,000 kilometres, since he passed by the wilderness of Kajiado and Voi.

On the return journey, however, he followed the railway line to Nairobi, and hence took only 48 hours.

He stopped and parked his car next to the GPO, where he laid a stone to mark it. After that feat, he went on to drive to different towns in the country.

Galton-Fenzi died in 1936, and two years later, the AA erected a stone memorial, known as ‘Point Zero’, on the junction of Kenyatta Avenue and Koinange Street. It is from that point that all distances from Nairobi are measured, and most are written on the monument itself, including the distances to Murang’a, Nanyuki, Dar-es-Salaam, Juba, Khartoum, Cairo among others.


On this part, I handed over the mantle to Tim and John Njihia, who were more versed on the topic. They told us that, following the various resistances put up by different Kenyan communities, the British had identified the martial communities, or to be precise, the communities with the best warriors, to join them in fighting during the World War.

They became known as the King’s African Rifles (KAR). Besides them were the Carrier Corps; people chosen to help the military by carrying their luggage (ammunition, tents and so on). The KAR memorial comprises three people: two KAR soldiers (middle and right) and one Carrier Corp (on the left).


In 1912, a Jewish immigrant known as Simon Medicks bought an establishment on Delamere Avenue and named it ‘The Theatre Royal’, with plans of making it a hangout spot for the elite.

Between the two World Wars, then, the building would be used by the elites to hold political meetings, as well as welcome newbies to the city.

When its lease ended in 1961, Ted Clifton bought it and converted it into a cinema, naming it ‘The Cameo Cinema’. It became one of East Africa’s pioneer cinemas as well as the only one with two Zeiss Ikon projectors – the best film equipment at the time.

With advancements in the film industry sector, Cameo Cinema couldn’t keep up, and so other modern cinemas were built. With time, it was shaped out and ceased being in business. Now, it hosts a casino.


At the junction between Kenyatta Avenue and Kimathi Street, you’ll notice a tall, red-bricked building, which currently hosts CFC Stanbic Bank.

The building was built by Col Ewart Grogan in 1929 as a hotel establishment known as Torr’s Hotel. On the ground floor was a pear-shaped ballroom, with an overlooking balcony on the first floor.

The hotel was frequented by different classes of people, with popular folklore saying it was mostly for people who couldn’t afford the New Stanley Hotel across the road.

However, being the only hotel allowed to operate past 2am, it was filled with party poopers from the aristocratic Happy Valley set, who descended on the hotel after their favourite establishments such as The Norfolk, The Stanley and Muthaiga Club had closed early.

In 1958, however, Grogan sold the hotel to the Ottoman Bank, and the building changed hands twice before finally ending up in the hands of the Stanbic Bank in 1992, who still own it to date.


In 1902, Mayence Bent and her husband set up the first-ever hotel in the city, known as Victoria Hotel, since it was on Victoria Street (now Tom Mboya Street). It was a four-bed hotel on the upper floor of a general store.

After disagreements with the proprietor below in 1904, she moved out to a two-storey wooden building on the same street, and named it ‘The Stanley Hotel’, after famous Welsh explorer Hentry-Morton Stanley. This hotel was an improvement on the other as it had 15 beds.

It took less than a year before a fire ravaged most parts of Victoria Street, and her hotel wasn’t spared.

Years later, in 1913, Mayence Bent’s husband bought two plots of land on Delamere Avenue and built a three-storeyed hotel with 60 beds, and they named it 'The New Stanley Hotel.'

In 1922, the first-ever Nairobi Stock Exchange was carried out at the hotel’s premises, and this brought a lot of tenants. From then on, it became a huge attraction and was visited by notable people, such as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and even Princess Elizabeth.

In 1947, the hotel was sold to a Jewish entrepreneur known as Abraham Block, who, in 1958, expanded the hotel to how it currently looks, before selling it to the Sarova Group in 1978, and who still manage it to this date.


It is usually said that if you walked on Delamere Avenue in 1930, you wouldn’t know whether you were in Kenya or in Britain due to all the neo-classical buildings around.

After this tour, I see the truth in that quote. I believe no street in Nairobi holds as much history as Kenyatta Avenue.

That marked the end of our tour, and so we beckoned Anto, our photographer, to take a group photo, before we bade each other farewell. It was a lovely tour, and we do hope that next month’s may be even better. For those interested, you can check us out on social media as Qwani.

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