Port Elizabeth of Yore: Building’s name reflects change

Most buildings bear the same name throughout their life. This assumes that its name is not that of the tenant. In South Africa’s case, there is another reason for name change: politics. In this process, many buildings since 1994 have been renamed to reflect the new political order. In the case of this building, it has had to suffer the indignity of two names, each one to reflect this change.

In this process the Colonial Mutual Life [CML] building was renamed Pleinhuis and ultimately Noninzi Luzipho. In the case of the sale by CML in 1980 of this four storey Art Deco style building on the corner of Baakens Street and Whites Road evoked concerns regarding “insensitive changes.”

Main picture: The CML Building per La Femme 28 Aug 1996

The Colonial Mutual Life Building was designed by the Australian Architects Hennessy & Hennessy who were based in Sydney. The construction was supervised by Owen Eaton & Merrifield. It is interesting to note that Charles Merrifield had previously worked for the firm of Walgate & Elsworth. Lancelot Elsworth had supervised the construction of Hennessy & Hennessy’s Colonial Mutual Life Building in Durban in 1933 but it is not known if the connection resulted in the appointment of Eaton & Merrifield to undertake the supervision of the Port Elizabeth building.

Issues with original design
It was a young architect, Eric Vos, of Owen, Eaton and Merrifield who was tasked with developing working drawings from the plans that he received from Henessey and Henessey in Australia where the insurance firm which proposed the building was based. It was problematical on two counts: the plans were too large for the site as well as being the wrong shape for the site.

The Municipal archives show that the building was originally intended to be two floors higher (7 instead of the 5 constructed) and included a pitched roof along the main elevation facing Market Square instead of the present flat roof and a tower over the lift shafts.  

The E.P. Herald reported the opening as follows: “On a fine day in July 1935, Port Elizabethans gathered on the rooftop to commemorate the opening of the newly built Colonial Mutual Life building. A delightful breeze fanned guests as proceeding began with the national anthem played by the Prince Alfred’s Guard Band.”  

As the incumbent mayor, Mr. T.C. White and “representatives of every phase of civic life” recalled the recovery from the economic depression, they raised their glasses. To them, this handsome edifice portrayed a tangible turn of the tide in economic and commercial life. Barrister and Colonial Mutual chairman, Henry Burton, presided over the proceedings. He recalled his visit to Port Elizabeth 13 years earlier when he laid the foundation for the Burton Breakwater, to mark the construction of the PE harbour. He reminded the audience that Fate had decreed a terrific storm that night which would wash away the newly laid cement block. What an auspicious start. He reassured the audience that the foundation stone of the building, laid some 12 months previously, would not be washed away.

Concerns raised in 1996
Originally built for the Australian-based insurance company, it was initially named the Colonial Mutual Life Association Ltd building. The building was renamed “Pleinhuis”, after it was sold by Colonial Mutual Life in 1980 to the Port Elizabeth Municipality in order to house the Port Elizabeth Publicity Association and the municipality’s administration department.

Premises of Hansen & Schrader ( Bottom of Military and Whites Roads)

When the Municipality announced in 1996 that the Pleinhuis, one of Market Square’s most imposing buildings, was up for sale at an upset price of R850,000, grave concerns were raised among conservationists that this 1930’s building would fall into insensitive hands. These concerns related to whether the new tenants or owners would preserve the uniqueness of Pleinhuis.

Layout and style
The ground floor plan is arranged around a T shaped arcade, which connected Whites Road to Castle Hill and Baakens Street. The arrangement helped to connect the Feathermarket Hall to Market Square and divided the plan into a number of smaller shops rather than one larger unit. The main core of the building and entrance to the offices on the floors above is located at the intersection of the arcade.

The building was described as being Neo-Romanesque in the local press at the time but most of its details are clearly Art Deco.

An eclectic mix
A brief study of the building will reveal that this handsome building is an amalgam of various styles. After an evaluation by the Architectural School at the NMBU, they concluded that the building exhibited strong Art Deco influences but it nevertheless reflected a number of other architectural styles making it eclectic. This is evident in the classic convoluted columns and the rounded arches above the windows and doorways of the Romanesque period of the 9th and 12th century whereas the Art Dec influences are reflected in the castellated parapets on the top of the roof.  This period is identified by its avoidance of the pretty, implying rather a toughness in its design. It also exhibits geometric elements in pattern and a linearity.

Features on the Pleinhuis Building

Cast your eye on the metal work on the plinth zig-zag and geometric patterns on recessed panels, vertical patterns below the gargoyles and the geometric shapes between the parapets.  The design elements are streamlined to essential features with the reduction of ornamentation being the key.

Unlike neighbouring buildings, pigeons are not a menace as they dare not settle on Pleinhuis. The pigeons are said to be scared of the Egyptian bird-shaped gargoyles id est the grotesque waterspouts which project from a roof gutter.    

 Originally it was unpainted but in recent years it has been painted in subtle colours.

Concern over P.E.’s Pleinhuis (La Femme, 28 August 1996)
Sidebars: Grand Opening on Rooftop and An Eclectic Mix EP Herald 8 July 1935

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