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Restoring the Past, Building the Future

January 31, 2018

After interviewing the OPH team, we have come to realize that heritage buildings in Johannesburg are not only important for our city, but the historical and cultural significance of these heritage buildings are absolutely vital.  Heritage buildings in Johannesburg were affected drastically, not only due to passing time, but also the outside political factors that Johannesburg CBD experienced from the 80's through to recent times. 

 

Somerset House (right), built in 1906, and the High Court Building (below), built in 1904, are positioned on the busy Gandhi Square and have fortunately, within the last year, become the responsibility of Olitzki Property Holdings to restore to their previous grandeur. 

 

"Restoring a heritage building isn’t as simple as putting a fresh coat of paint on the façade or sending architects in to redesign the layout with the goal of making it commercially viable.  You will face many challenges that are unique to the heritage building, and you must prepare for them beforehand.  Heritage regulation, even though an essential law for the protection of these magnificent buildings, makes restoration, a pain in the bum”. 

 

With the support of a dedicated engineering team and heritage specialists MayatHart Architects, who have been appointed to work on these heritage buildings, specialize in historical building restoration and have offered indispensable guidance throughout the restoration process to meet the heritage requirements.

 

"To find the balance between maintaining building safety, ensuring the building is a fully functional structure and adhering to the guidelines of the heritage regulation of Johannesburg are tremendously difficult.  Any inaccurate additions to the building during the restoration process could cause the structure to lose most of its historical value". 

 

"A small hole, short crack or single crumbling brick may seem like a harmless cosmetic defect, but it has in many cases lead to a greater issue with the building that requires urgent attention, valuable time, professional guidance and more money.  Dealing with building materials that have not been used in over a century is also a common obstacle OPH has faced in restoring these buildings as these materials are more often than not, irreplaceable!"

 

At this very point, OPH have restored the facade of both buildings and placed ground floor retail tenants such as Bayport Financial Services (below) in the High Court Building and Kaizer Chiefs in Somerset House, both facing directly onto Gandhi Square. 

Major retailers are expected to take up the remaining ground floor retail space, but leases are still in negotiation. 

 

The office floors in both buildings, after months of planning, are finally under restoration.  The image below is of the interior of Somerset House, displaying the upper floors which will soon be occupied by tenants. 

Somerset House, being one of the very few, or even the last building type remaining, which was found commonly in Johannesburg between the years 1900 to 1920.  A building containing an interval glass roofed court, a design which was used in the design of arcades and galleries.

Somerset House used to house the United Building Society, now ABSA Bank.  It also had almost 1 000 safety deposit boxes in a basement vault (below).  The bank closed its doors in 1930, but retained the safety boxes.  Somerset House was also home to the firm Bowman Gilfillan who are now a major corporate law firm based in Sandton. 

Although it was in a brutally neglected condition, some of the majestic features (below) dating back over 100 years have managed to stay in tact.  The tiles both on the wall and floor will never be able to be replaced and are luckily in very good condition throughout the building.  Carpets have been placed over the floor during restoration to prevent any further damage. 

The High Court Building (below) was completed two years before Somerset House

in 1904.

 

The building initially housed lawyers who attended the magistrate's courts located on what was then called Government Square, now Gandhi Square.  Well-known writer Herman Charles Bosman, accused of murdering his stepbrother, David Russell, rented a second-storey office in the High Court building during the 1940's.

 

Images from the interior (below) of the High Court Building.  The fixtures and finishes date back over 100 years and include wooden flooring, various arches leading into adjacent rooms, wooden window frames and fire places.