Port Elizabeth of Yore: From YWCA’s Lester House to Pagdens Court

The Young Women’s Christian Association of Southern Africa (YWCA) was originally founded in Cape Town in April 1886. Thirteen years later in March 1899, moves were afoot in Port Elizabeth to establish another facility under the YWCA banner.

In 1988 the building, Lester House, was extensively renovated as chambers for the legal firm of Pagden and Christian.

This blog is a brief resume of the YMCA, its original home, Lester House to Pagdens Court.

Main picture: Lester House

Establishment of YWCA in PE
On 6 June 1899 a house at the corner of Clyde and Lawrence Streets was opened with Miss Thurman in charge, catering for 10 to 12 board­ers and providing dinners for many more. Miss B. Porter, the originator of the Association here, was the Secretary. The first AGM was held on 29 May 1900 in the Masonic Hall. A request to the Council for a grant of land was initially turned down, but ultimately conceded. On the 14th March 1906 a spacious new home and institute on Castle Hill was finally opened.

This opening ceremony of the new hostel on Castle Hill on land donated by the Town Council in April 1904, was performed by Alexander Cowie. The building, designed by Smith, Sons and Dewar was later used as a hostel by the Technikon and known as Lester House after Miss Elizabeth Lester, for many years General Secretary of the YWCA.

Lester Court

Even though the YWCA’s main focus related to the provision of secure affordable  accommodation to vulnerable young women, they were also involved in subsidiary projects. As a example on 24 January 1911, they officially opened YWCA’s restrooms in the Mutual Arcade in Main Street. This facility had been established to cater for working girls who had to spend their lunch hours in town.

Mutual Arcade

Relocation across the street
In 1984, the management of the then South African Permanent Building Society advised Pagdens  that they required more space for themselves and that they would not be renewing their lease. At that time, Pagdens occupied two entire floors in the “Perm Building” at 81 Main Street. They immediately set  out to track down new premises but there were few office premises in the Central Business District of Port Elizabeth in Main Street which could offer about 1 000 square metres of space.

The manager of Nedbank at that time, Johan Westraadt, came to their rescue. Nedbank had some space available in its building across the road at 88 Main Street and a number of leases which were due to expire in the early part of 1985. Nedbank indicated that it would be delighted to have Pagdens as one large tenant as opposed to having many small tenants and that it would not renew the various leases. And so it happened that on Saturday 15th March 1985 Pagden’s moved across the road to begin a new era.

Pagdens Court before restoration with L-R Rod Philip, Mike Ferrar and David Geard

A Mr. Engelbrecht was contracted to move their machines and furniture across the road. A Saturday was chosen because it was a half-day and Main Street would theoretically only be busy until lunchtime. Like always, a fly falls into the soup or the unexpected occurs. And so it did to the best laid plans. A general strike of labour had been organised for the Saturday. When all else fails, panic ensues and so it did amongst supposedly thoughtful and measured gentlemen and women. The panic rapidly subsided when they were assured by their contractor that his staff would not participate in the strike. Apparently being a farmer, his labourers who resided in the rural areas were blissfully unaware of the impending strike and would not be participating in it.

The new era for Lester House and Pagdens
The collective mood swung from full-blown panic to elation as the relocation was successfully completed. The firm would only remain at Nedbank Centre for just over four years when Nedbank again kindly agreed to an early cancellation of Pagdens five year lease which made it possible for them to relocate to our own building at Pagden’s Court. It must have been in 1987 that Lester House, as it was then known, first came onto the market. Pagden entered into negotiations to purchase the building from Jan Botha. They offered the sum of R400 000,00 for the building which was in a derelict and dilapidated state. The building was owned by a close corporation, Lester House CC and Botha proposed that he sell one half of his interest in Lester House CC for the sum of R400 000,00 with an option to purchase the other half in ten years at one half of the then value of the building. Rightly Pagdens declined this offer and continued their business from Nedbank.

SA Perm building in Main Street in the 1960s

About eighteen months after their abortive negotiations, it came to their notice that Botha might be prepared to sell “Lester House” at the price originally proposed. Pagden’s accordingly again made their offer of R400 000,00 and completed the purchase for the sum of R415 000,00; the increase being due to the fact that the tennis court had been filled in and surfaced and could now be used for off-street parking.

Pagden’s decision to purchase the building was not, as many people believed, predicated on the fact that the High Court had moved to Bird Street. In reality probably only 20%, if that, of their entire practice income relates to High Court matters. Instead their decision was based upon the fact that they wanted to own our own premises in order to avoid paying escalating rentals to landlords. In addition they were looking for premises close to the Central Business District which was then in Main Street and which offered off-street parking facilities.

Pagden’s then commenced negotiations with Nedbank to release them from their lease commitment and commissioned Rod Philip of Stauch Vorster as their architect. The tender documents were prepared and they were most disappointed when their long term clients, LTA, were not successful. However, Speyers Construction were the successful tenderers and Pagden’s was soon having site meetings with Rod Philip, Reg Chaney and Keith Parker of Speyers Construction.

Fate of Lester House
Many of the older buildings on the Hill were simultaneously experiencing the same phenomenon. Many of the landlords were frugal bordering on parsimonious as regards maintenance and upkeep. Many buildings such as my great great grandfather’s house at No. 7 Castle Hill were by the 1930s on the point of demolition. In this case it was only the saviour in the form of H.B. Smith who personally rescued the house.

I would postulate that Lester House was approaching a similar apocalypse. Once the cycle of under maintenance had created the repercussion of lowering rentals to attract new but undesirable tenants, the building is in a death spirals.

Officially Pagdens, unlike HB Smith, were not overtly rescuing Lester House from its ineluctable demise.  Notwithstanding that, I contend that the consequence of Pagdens actions was to rescue yet another historic building from ultimate demolition.

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).
Pagdens 1898-1998, A History of the Firm and A Story of its People by David Geard [1998, Port Elizabeth, Pagdens Inc]

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