A tour of significant buildings in the city celebrated the renaming of the Parktown &Westcliff Heritage Trust. Happy stories were told and anecdotes shared of Joburg's past.
JOBURG turned 126 years old on 4 October. On the same day, the Parktown & Westcliff Heritage Trust became a new entity, the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.
The trust has been the champion of heritage structures in the city for the past 30 years, and Flo Bird has been the chairperson for all those years. A fiery defender of the city's heritage, she says of the trust: "It was always a fighting organisation – we were not prepared to surrender heritage without a fight."
Historic buildings the trust has saved include the Sunnyside Hotel, which was built in 1895 as the home of American Hennen Jennings. From 1901, it was the official residence of Lord Alfred Milner and subsequent officials. Another home in Parktown that was saved from the bulldozers was built for James Goch, who arrived here in 1886 and set up a photographic studio. He moved in with his family around 1905. The double-storey house had 12 rooms, a coach house and a stable, and a long driveway lined with oak trees – giving it the name Eikenlaan, or lane of oaks. It became Mike's Kitchen in 1982, and is now a busy restaurant.
And another home, Villa Arcadia, an Italianate villa built in 1909 for randlord Sir Lionel and Lady Phillips and designed by Sir Herbert Baker, still stands proudly on the Parktown ridge, beautifully restored by Hollard, the insurance company.
To celebrate its new identity, the foundation conducted a tour of some of Joburg's most memorable places and people. Meeting at the Sunnyside Park Hotel in Parktown, a bus took foundation members to Markham Building in the CBD, where a blue and white plaque was placed. This building, built in 1897, was saved through the efforts of various heritage bodies in the city, and the city council of the day.
It was once so tall compared to the surrounding buildings that people living in Hillbrow and Braamfontein would read the time on its clock tower. It is one of Joburg's gems, recalling an era when shopping was a very different experience.
Markham was and still is an exclusive men's outfitters, offering personal service to the gentlemen of the town and fitting or altering suits with a team of tailors seated at sewing machines in the building's basement.
The iconic red metal signs of Markham, one on each side of the building, can still be seen through the dusty windows of the fifth floor. A ladder leads to the final floor, the soul of this lovely building, where the clock resides.
Markham was designed in the late Victorian style, and is the only surviving example of commercial architecture of this style in the country. It is architecturally significant. It was constructed with load-bearing brick walls and supporting cast-iron stanchions or posts. The roof came from an iron foundry in Glasgow, in Scotland, and is the only remaining example of its type in the country.
The predecessor of the trust was the Parktown Association, which still exists, and which helped to save the Markham building.
The passengers then moved on to pay their respects to Captain Carl von Brandis, the first landdrost of Johannesburg.
Von Brandis was born in Germany into an old military family. He served in the Hungarian and British armies, and sailed in 1857 for the Cape, where he was given land on the eastern frontier. He was appointed gold commissioner when the farms were proclaimed open diggings in September 1886 and set up his office in a tent. He was appointed to the post of landdrost in 1900. Commissioner Street in the city centre was named after commissioner Von Brandis because he erected a tent on the street.
The bus then moved on to Gandhi Square to see the new hoarding commemorating Herman Charles Bosman's association with the High Court building and what was the courthouse where he was tried for the murder of his stepbrother. Bosman is one of South Africa's most well-known and loved short story writers. He also penned several essays on Johannesburg, where he spent a good deal of his life. He died in the city in 1951.
From there, it was on to St Alban's Anglican Church in Ferreirastown, to inspect its restoration. Over the past year, work on the 84-year-old church has principally been to repair its waterproofing by replacing roof tiles, gutters and downpipes, and pigeon-proofing the turret. The repairs have been driven by Bird
The church was built in 1928 for the coloured community. It exudes a quietness and tranquillity, in contrast to the busy streets outside, with its buses and cars roaring past outside.
The late Ernest Oppenheimer visited the church almost daily after his wife died in 1934, and his son a year later. He converted to Christianity from Judaism, and although his parish church on Sundays was St George's in Parktown, says Bird, he worked in the nearby 44 Main Street, so St Alban's was convenient.
Bird says that the way they saved buildings, particularly ones in Parktown, was through rezoning areas. This meant that homes became businesses and the trust worked with the owners to restore the buildings.
But perhaps the trust's biggest coup was halting the city council's planned M6, a freeway that would have carved its way through Pageview and Vrededorp, through the inner city, Parktown, the sports fields of St John's College, to meet up with the M2 south. "It was a grid over the whole city," says Bird. It was when she told city councillors that there would be a fatwa if they demolished the mosques in Pageview that they sat up and took notice, and cancelled the plan.
Asked about the fun moments, she says without hesitation: "It's always fun when you win."
Part of the fun too was when the trust started giving tours, to educate Joburgers about their heritage but also to make the homes of Parktown accessible. A memorable outing was taking the Constitutional Court judges on a tour of the Fort, a site they choose for the court. Tours to the Fort were always "very, very moving" for Bird, she says. "I learnt something new every time."
At one time the Fort was considered for demolition. But the trust went to parliament on this one, together with writer Wally Serote, recounts Bird. "It was a big victory."
But there have also been losses over the years. Pageview and Vrededorp, with the vibrant 14th Street, were lost to the demolishers. Even if you pointed out that there were important struggle heroes in the neighbourhood, the authorities would come back saying it fell within the restrictions of the Group Areas Act, she says.
Over the years the trust extended its tours beyond Parktown and Westcliff. It has researched and conducted visits to Jeppestown, Yeoville, Berea, La Rochelle, Parkview and Greenside East. It has also conducted surveys of these original suburbs, giving an A, B or C rating to them. Plaques on important buildings have helped save them too, forcing the owner to recognise that the building has heritage value.
The ratings help the present heritage body, the Provincial Resources Heritage Agency of Gauteng, or Phrag, decide whether to issue demolition permits or not. Phrag became the provincial arm of the National Monuments Council, a body on which Bird served for 12 years. The council is now the South African Heritage Resources Agency.
Bird hopes to spread education to all the children of Joburg, to bring them into the city to see and hear about its heritage. The launch of the new foundation went off smoothly, she says, with many people on the bus recounting memories of the buildings visited. "I am very pleased with the launch – it was wonderfully happy."