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Friday Oct 12, 2012

Joburg honours landmark property with heritage status

Even when Jozi was young and giddy from gold rush fever, she knew a thing or two about glam, glitz and the importance of "location, location, location".

The Markham building was built in a french baroque style in 1895.

It was how the intersection of Pritchard and Eloff came to be known in its glory days as a high-end retail hub and the most expensive piece of real estate on the continent.

So, it was a fitting tribute that to celebrate the city's 126 birthday this month, the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF) returned to the intersection to cheer on the Markham building's newly declared heritage status.

It was also a way to mark the renaming of the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust to the JHF.

"As the foundation we can more accurately reflect the work that we have done over the past 27 years throughout the city and not just in Parktown and Westcliff," says chairman Flo Bird.

Built in 1897, the Markham building boasts a 30m clock tower with four clock faces. Before the city started its vertical life in multistoreyed buildings, the clock tower kept time for people as far away as Hillbrow and Braamfontein.

Its French neo-baroque-style architecture had the added inspiration of what was architecturally in vogue in places like London, and had an iron roof imported from Glasgow.

It's typically Joburg, says Bird. It's the mishmash of influences and the story of a young city looking to make its mark through monuments and grand architectural gesture but never quite taming its edginess, energy or the grime and crime.

But even though the Markham building was once architectural royalty and a lone example of commercial architecture, it faced demolition in the late 1970s. It survived thanks only to the efforts of heritage activists and public outcry.

The JHF has been a champion for the Markham building and other gems in the city.

"You have to have a sense of your history and a sense of place to know who you are and where you're going," says Bird.

Isiah Nkosi has worked in the Markham building for 32 years. He remembers Markham's heyday and how Eloff Street's retail pulse throbbed. Back then, Markham was not a T-shirts and jeans store, but an exclusive men's outfitters, providing a range of fashion services for the city's posh clients.

"I am very proud that Markham is a heritage building today, it's special. The city isn't the same like before when it was clean and didn't have street vendors everywhere. But maybe it's coming right; people will come to the building, read the blue plaque and remember when they shopped here for men's suits.

"Those days you measured the men, and we did all the tailoring and alterations. We also had to wear a suit to serve the customers," says Nkosi, sporting a trendy floral shirt for the plaque unveiling that 30 years ago would have caused a sartorial stir.

St Albans in Ferreirasdorp.

It's about memory and modern relevance, says Bird. And it's why JHF has been instrumental in restoring another of the city's gems - St Alban's Church in Ferreirasdorp. This church was founded in 1898 but the original structure was upgraded to an FLH Flemingdesigned church, built in 1928.

The church was meant for the coloured community in the city, but by the 1960s forced removals threatened to destroy the church.

St Alban's made it and served as the diocesan offices until 1987, counting among its bishops Timothy Bavin, Desmond Tutu and Duncan Buchanan.

St Alban's remains a sanctuary of silence and salvation in the heart of the city. It's also a reminder of the history of forced removals in Joburg's coloured community.

The JHF managed to get funding and donations to repair the teak altar, leaking roofs and guttering.

Even thick coatings of pigeon poop were finally scraped off to restore the metal cock and cross as the true icons of St Alban's turret and red roof. JHF secured a donation of wooden pews from Villa Arcadia in Parktown.

Arcadia was built as a Jewish orphanage by randlord Lionel Phillips and his wife Florence over 80 years ago.

The benches started off life in the shul at Arcadia. They still have the engraved graffiti and names of children who passed through the shul's doors.

"I think I know some of the naughty children who carved their names into the wood," jokes Bird.

The Star of David is also carved on the benches, but is completely at home in St Alban's. It's another example of the perfect mishmash mosaic that is the story of Joburg.

Bird says in the spirit of educating children, St Alban's grounds and some of the surrounding buildings in Ferreirasdorp are perfect to accommodate much-needed innercity nursery and primary schools.

The Star

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