Inappropriate Renovations of Port Elizabeth’s Historical Buildings

Many of Port Elizabeth’s historic gems such as the Custom’s House have already faced the demolisher’s wrecking ball yet the more compelling danger to Port Elizabeth’s magnificent architectural heritage, is not the building’s outright destruction, but rather inappropriate renovations which wrench these buildings from their historical and social taproots, transforming them into anodyne objects divorced from their past. 

For me, the amber light of caution has ineluctably been switched to red as unscrupulous developers and renovators take no heed either of the original design of the structure or the materials used in its construction. In such a callous manner is this irreplaceable heritage being flushed away, substituted by architecture shorn of its historical roots. 

This is a plea – nay clarion call – not for vigilance but action to stem the tide of ahistorical renovations couched in terms of restoration. For not to do so, will forever doom this jewel to its gradual but ultimate destruction.

Main picture:  Many sins of omission and commission were committed in the restoration of these terraced houses in Donkin Street

Donkin Row as an Exemplar

What the correct restoration should have looked like based upon old records and photographsIt is cold comfort to be informed by the optimists that the Donkin Street terrace houses have been restored. As if allaying the pessimists’ fears, they will point to bright sparkling paint and neatly finished repairs. In their pristine newness, it seems churlish to cue the sober assessment. Perhaps most damning is that paintwork. Would not the paintwork over the balcony not have been a more sombre colour? What is certain is that is would not have been a gay colour. More likely it would have been a muted brown. The lack of colour photography in this early period will make this debate insolvable yet it was unlikely to be a brilliant blue. Furthermore, the favoured pattern painted on balconies was stripes or bands of dark and light colour. Surely not to be ahistorical, this should have been the recommended painting proposal.

Renovators will invoke the term “delicate balance” to justify their “indiscretions.” Yet in the case of the paint colour what can justify the use of the incorrect paint other than cost. If so, it is inexcusable. More likely it would be driven by factors such as “prettiness” or in this case, saleability. Rather a vibrant blue rather a glum green or muted brown.

Previous restoration of a Donkin terrace house with balcony subsequently incorrectly enclosed

Yet in certain cases, balance is a vital consideration. Take the Donkin Row as a fitting example. How does one handle issues relating to modern conveniences such as inside toilets, geysers, downpipes and plumbing. Without such “modcons,” these properties would be unsaleable. In the modern age, they are necessary evils. In reply, only platitudes such as minimise the damage, especially to prominent edifices, can be offered.

A more detailed review of the ahistorical changes effected would probably result in a raft of criticism. One final error which is glaringly obvious is the replacement of the trelliswork balustrade with vertical poles. An unforgivable modification as nowhere was this solution used on Regency Style buildings.

Generic errors in restoration

A distinctive feature such as a verandah was removed

In his excellent book, 19th Century Port Elizabeth: A Guide to Restoration, Danie Theron provides detailed guidance in 14 areas when embarking upon restoration. Included amongst these are consideration of the environment, external features, architectural metals, windows and doors, roofs and roofing and even byelaw requirements.

Inappropriate introduction of French doors and a balcony

Instead of a comprehensive definitive schedule of issues to take into considerations, this blog will pictorially cover some of the generic mistakes made during restoration. For instance, under environment, Theron urges renovators to retain distinctive features such as size, scale, mass, colour and materials of buildings as found in roofs, verandahs and stairways that provide the neighbourhood with a specific character. For instance, the building in Market Square which replaces the oroginal Mosenthals building is not only out of character with the surrounding buildings but also out of scale.

This twin gables single storey cottage located at 4 Wasley Street had its distinctive fascias and finials removed at some stage

Amongst the numerous dos and don’ts under External Features, Theron reminds renovators not to remove architectural features such as cornices, brackets, railings, shutters, window architraves, and doorway pediments. He also recommends that new shutters should be functional and not only ornamental.

Travesty with the Post Office Building

This information is a verbatim copy of a portion of an article by Andrew Reed entitled the Old Post Office Complex on the Heritage Portal website.

Old Post Office showing the tower which has now been incorrectly renovated

When the new Post office was built in 1988, there was a proposal for CAPAB to take over the building and utilize it for the arts. This never transpired, and the complex was sold by the Metro in 1990 to a Mr. Halgryn, who sold it to Mr. K. Denton in 2002 under Ummi Properties. After years of pressure, Denton repaired the exposed wooden skeleton of tower on the Post Office section in 2007, without approval from the PHRA permit committee. It is not known if the intricate guttering system within was retained. 

The tower on the north eastern corner has been totally incorrectly renovated in spite of attempted actions to prevent this from occuring

The public has had virtually no access to the site, although an enforced inspection allowed architects to inspect a limited (less damaged) section. There has been very extensive water damage that has weakened brickwork and destroyed portions of the moulded plaster sections of the ballroom, and serious damage to the Baakens Street elevation. With regards to more recent work performed (from 2010), there are several sections which appear to have been demolished. Witnesses have seen demolition work taking place in July 2009 in the ‘cart lane’ between the Post Office and Courthouse. A top floor external wall was being knocked down into the Cart Lane with bricks being loaded into a skip, out of view. Externally, the damage became visible with the repairs to the roof in February /March 2010. The first brick chimney was demolished from the Courthouse and then the dormer air vents. The next chimney to be demolished was the Coega stone chimney between the Post Office and Magistrate’s Court. It was the last such example to remain from the original building. All the remaining brick chimneys from the Courthouse and Baakens Street Police station examples have now been removed. (Five visible from the Street level and at least three hidden from view).

The most severe damage inflicted on the building is on the Baakens Street Police station section, where an entire floor, gables and chimneys have been demolished since the end of 2010. The building has significant architectural, social and political importance, and has huge tourist value and potential, apart from the Victorian architectural value of the building. 

Years of pressure has come to nought, and a section 34 charge was originally laid by members of the public in 2011. This after a new roof began to go up. Permission was given for “essential repairs” but the work progressed far beyond this. The case now sits with the public prosecutor (as at present, July 2016), who awaits information from the PHRA. The property owner in question, Kenneth James Denton, has, since 1998, owned a large portion of historic houses (many national monuments) and has allowed them to deteriorate for well over a decade. Other examples include the Donkin Street terrace houses, now completely and illegally altered beyond recognition. See also, Victoria House (c.1824), also owned by Denton, along with two Victorian Houses demolished outright.

Reflections on the state of play

The double storey verandahs have invalidly been removed

Even though I am no longer a resident of Port Elizabeth, having relocated to Joburg in 1980, my heart still resides in Port Elizabeth. Part of this passion derives from its deep history and the other from its invaluable buildings.

In 1983, Danie Theron identified all buildings in Central Port Elizabeth which merited preservation. One wonders what has eventuated in the intervening 35 years and how these buildings have fared and whether the prescripts of renovations as pronounced in all reputable publications, have been adhered to.

Buildings with preservation merit in PE Central per Danie Theron in 1983

Rather than an outsider like myself not intimately involved with the preservation of these magnificent structures, I have quoted verbatim from an expert in the field. Perhaps too forcefully expressed, yet it encapsulates the frustration felt by those in the field.


The installation of an air conditioner on the frontal edifice detratcts from the building’s character

The stark fact is that the current method of restoration of historical buildings in Port Elizabeth leaves more than a lot to be desired. The criterion that the Donkin Row or Constitution Hill restorations make these buildings “look pretty” is a specious argument that is superficially plausible, but actually plain wrong. Too many, some such as Andrew Reed and others like myself would argue, have been butchered rather than maintaining their original and unique character.

In an email to the author by Andrew Reed, he makes a searing indictment of the Heritage Authorities and the developer concerned.

“We have tried really hard in PE to demand and ensure high quality restorations and have mostly been “flipped off” by the many amateur/”cheapskate” pseudo-restoration saviours in PE. We need not mention any names. Some prominent architects tasked with restoration of municipal heritage assets in PE are ALSO proceeding without finalized approvals.”

I am of the impression that the Institute of Architects do not have the will to challenge illegal work, quite happy, as are many desperate residents, for anything to happen, no matter how shoddy the result. Here we have fertile soil for rampant, insensitive and unsanctioned egotistically driven projects.

The heritage authorities are not empowered to do even basic administration work, let alone enforce laws and by-laws. It is a testament to some dedicated professionals that the permit committee continues at all. They are heroes in my estimation, when the Department of Sports and Recreation, Arts and Culture do nothing for Heritage management or for museums. THEY draw lovely salaries, I am sure.

It has long been a joke and slumlords dance a merry jig around us all and come up the heroes in the public eye.

Andrew noted for instance that the example of insensitive restoration shown above at 4 Wasley Street is the first house after the corner, next to “JB Board’s house” (aka Victoria house).  It is very ironic to note that the building (4 Wasley) was demolished OUTRIGHT within a week. It seems probable that builders wanted better access to JB Board’s house, so they just thought it not a problem to demolish.

Andrew Reed continued: “Lyn [Haller] and I laid a charge at Humewood police station in perhaps 2014/5? (Section 34 of the Heritage Act.). The department is so flippantly negligent [that] they have even been made to publicly acknowledge the lack of support of the PHRA and even the individual charges laid are known to them and they still do nothing. My opinion is that Provincial Govt wilfully allows our heritage assets and museums into the ground through total dysfunction.

Another point is that this tower has/had(?) an intricate guttering system within. You will notice that the part of the tower that faces inside the square of the complex now has a nasty metal downpipe running down the outside of the tower! Next time you come from the South End/tramways side, you will see it.

For me, what is so devastating is that cheap work is being hailed and promoted as very expensive work. I hardly think R11k per roof of each of the Donkin terraced houses can be considered a lot. What happened to the distinctive wooden balconies? Incomplete.

In a subsequent email, Andrew Reed stated that “After 10 years of campaigning to get him [Ken Denton] to stop the rot, in 2009 he began with the shoddy renovations. The first section 34 (of the Heritage Act) charges we laid was for the illegal and invasive roof repair on the Magistrates and Baakens Police station roof, where huge chimneys stacks, gables and other features were demolished. Then 2011, the Donkin Row and numerous others. Bryan Wintermeyer (previous chairman of the Mandela Bay Heritage Trust), Lynn Haller and myself as members of the trust compiled details reports to the Provincial Heritage Resources agency, charges laid went as far as successive public prosecutors and as far as DASRAC and Bhisho, where these charges just sit and become less relevant by the year. Provincial Government and departments cite that there is no money to properly enforce heritage laws, barely equip heritage authorities to get through permit applications, and there is certainly NO political will.

A final comment

Such heartfelt comments by an obviously frustrated concerned resident of the town should raise a chorus of concern from all residents and especially members of the Historical Society. Intemperate language is never a solution. Yet this vulgar comment by a frustrated commentator on Twitter, in another matter, seems appropriately fitting in the case of the various regulatory officials involved and their dilatory responses: “F…. O.., Rude letter to follow.”

If nothing else, it is cathartic!


19th Century Port Elizabeth: A Guide to Restoration by Professor Danie Theron (1983, Instacopy, Port Elizabeth)

Comments on preservation of Port Elizabeth’s architectural heritage is based upon an email to the author by Andrew Reed

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