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Jo'Burg Days: Wisteria And Lilac On A Spring Morning

…One by one, gracious and elegant old homes with spacious gardens and beautiful mature trees were sold, and in quiet gardens where golden Labradors and bulldogs once snoozed in the sun, fountains played and Madam’s silk skirts swept the well-tended gravel, the excavators dug deep into the unyielding red soil and dynamite completed what the mechanical shovels failed to achieve…

But now a Heritage Trust is fighting to preserve Johannesburg’s grand old buildings, as Barbara Durlacher reports.

Johannesburg has never really valued its architectural heritage, and thirty or forty years ago was working hard at destroying whatever buildings it had of any value or artistic worth. The ground on Parktown Ridge on which gracious old homes stood suddenly became valuable as the city marched westwards and northwards, building the new Rand Afrikaans University [RAU] and the landmark new South African Broadcasting studios. On the western ridge at Auckland Park a medium sized low-income hospital was followed by a spate of residential housing and an enormous road-building program designed to free up the perennially congested traffic and make the daily commute to the office easier and quicker.

Then to the north, came the new Johannesburg Hospital on one of the most prominent of the many folded east/west ridges where gold was first discovered and as always, before the developer’s cranes and scaffolding were erected, came the demolition crews with their crowbars and hammers, their earthmovers and scrapers, to smash and remove anything of value. In doing so, they obliterated all vestiges of the early mining magnates and their luxurious “Randlord Palaces” built during the preceding century on the north-facing ridges with spacious views towards Pretoria of the unspoilt veld.

In those days nobody had ever heard of the National Trust, or if they had, thought it was just another of those idiotic ideas ‘them silly furriners had, dem ‘em’ and therefore was not worth bothering about. Certainly few in Johannesburg felt it necessary to save the historic houses on the Parktown Ridge, and had it not been for Flo Bird and a dedicated band of helpers, they would all have fallen to the developer’s hammers.

One by one, gracious and elegant old homes with spacious gardens and beautiful mature trees were sold, and in quiet gardens where golden Labradors and bulldogs once snoozed in the sun, fountains played and Madam’s silk skirts swept the well-tended gravel, the excavators dug deep into the unyielding red soil and dynamite completed what the mechanical shovels failed to achieve.

When one considers how little is left of the former sophistication and style displayed in these lovely old residences, the elegance and sense of luxury that the owners created at such cost and effort, then the desecration of what was done can be better understood. Construction in early Johannesburg, where there were no ready sources of building material was an expensive and difficult undertaking. Every item was imported from Britain or Europe, sometimes from America or Canada, shipped across the sea and then railed up from the coast. Coupled with the interesting personal histories of many of the owners, these historic homes were a treasure-trove of irreplaceable style. Their continuing loss was seriously depleting Johannesburg’s early history.

Then along came Flo Bird and her colleagues. Flo’s appearance exactly matches her name, and her determination and dedication to saving whatever was left of Johannesburg’s heritage knows no bounds. Together with the small group of concerned people who had banded together to halt this wanton destruction, pressure was put on architects and big businessmen, residents and historians, newspapers and local opinion. Time after time, the group organised public protest meetings; time after time, despite all opposition, they refused to give in. Gradually the tide began to turn until finally a formal body was formed, called the ‘Parktown and Westcliffe Heritage Trust’. Pledged to save whatever was left of the formerly rich and unusual collection of grandly eccentric pleasure palaces built by those adventurers who found their fortunes in the gold of the early Witwatersrand, they worked unceasingly to preserve this vital part of Johannesburg’s history, and to a degree, they succeeded.

Today ‘Dolobran’ and ‘Northwards’, ‘Emoyeni’, ‘Brenthurst’, ‘The Pines’ and ‘Arcadia’ are a few of the historic houses still gracing the slopes of Parktown’s ridges while others, less famous and spectacular, but definitely worth preserving, slumber in their quiet dignity in shady tree-lined streets, the focus of the Trust’s annual spring pilgrimage. During this Spring weekend busloads of tourists rubber-neck over high garden walls, tiptoe into Edwardian garden ‘rooms’ redolent of lilac and freesias; gaze with wonder and appreciation at Herbert Baker’s fine proportions and rooflines and sigh with envy at the sight of irreplaceable Burmese teak doors and window frames.
Nowadays the group continue their work in other areas, and through their efforts the architectural worth of several old homes and buildings in Belgravia, Langlaagte and Yeoville has also been recognised. But there is one achievement that Flo is happy to take the credit for. Some years ago she organised tours of the site when “the grass was so high”, she says, [that] “I had to bring in my own gardeners to cut it back”.
By focussing attention on the old Johannesburg Fort, what has now become the site of the highest court in the land, the Constitutional Court and the Apartheid Museum, was not only saved from demolition, but preserved as one of the oldest historical areas of Johannesburg. Chosen in 1892 by President Paul Kruger for the building of a jail and small defensive fort, over the years the notorious prison held some of the most famous criminals in the South Africa’s history, including Ghandi and later, Nelson Mandela and his former wife, Winnie.

After extensive restoration, the jail and the area surrounding it are now regarded as one of the finest examples of modern architecture in South Africa and form part of the Apartheid Museum complex of which the Constitutional Court is the centre.

Many of the small band of people who have worked so hard to preserve what remained of Johannesburg’s built history do not want publicity, and in some ways the name of Flo Bird is the one most frequently associated with saving Johannesburg’s architectural heritage. But when the histories come to be written, there is no doubt that all those who have done so much to preserve these buildings will be recognised for their great achievement.

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