The two storied house with its long shaded verandah was built as an English officers’ mess in the early days of Somerset, and was hired by the Battiss family, who ran it as the Battiss Private Hotel between 1914 and 1917, when the recession which followed the First World War forced them to close, and move to Koffiefontein. It lies under the benign gaze of the Boschberg Mountain, and is a familiar landmark in this small Karoo town.
Dr Mackrill, a botanist appointed in 1814 by Lord Charles Somerset to assess the Colony's potential to adapt the natural resources in an attempt to establish an export trade, reached the Boschberg in October 1814 and deemed its agricultural possibilities so great that he need proceed no further. Dr Mackrill took possession of the farm in January 1815, after which houses, as well as the accommodation for the soldiers were built. The building housing the Walter Battiss Art Museum was built sometime between 1815 and 1825 as a mess for the British officers who were engaged in service at Somerset Farm.
The building was saved from demolition in 1974 by two past mayors of the town, Dr JC Vosloo and Mr B Erasmus. It was proposed to establish an Art Museum in the building in honour of Prof. Battiss, as his family had opened a hotel in the old Officer's Mess in 1911. The business remained in operation until 1917 when the Battiss family left Somerset East due to the recession following the First World War, to settle in the Free State. The name BATTISS PRIVATE HOTEL was clearly emblazoned in large painted letters on the west gable end of the building.
At the opening of the Walter Battiss Art Museum in October 1981, Battiss, at 75, still looked every bit the "strong man" his father wanted him to be, but also the artist that his mother preferred.
Owing to a number of reasons, but notably the lack of adequate funds to address problems and maintain the building, serious problems started to manifest themselves, and in February 1998, engineers and other experts were approached to assess the situation. Funding was sourced by the then curator, Emile Badenhorst, and extensive renovations were done. The museum reopened in 2004.
Unfortunately some of the decisions taken in the previous renovations are now causing issues. In 2022, the building is once again showing signs of serious problems, even though some maintenance was undertaken with the limited budget available during the preceding years. The Walter Battiss Foundation committee is urgently trying to source funding to address these problems.