Port Elizabeth of Yore: Preservation of its Architectural Heritage

The central areas of Port Elizabeth are experiencing degeneration commonly known as urban blight which is a consequence of neglect. Urban blight is cumulative and self-reinforcing as blighted buildings cast a pall on land around them, discouraging upkeep, and stifling renewal. Once this process is entrenched, it engenders further degeneration which hinders a process of renewal or gentrification.

Unfortunately neither the city fathers of the 20th century understood the gravity and necessity of the preservation of this cultural gem nor do the existing civic leaders.

Main picture: Donkin row showing the original balcony

In the firing line
Perhaps the most egregious example of the lack of forethought regarding the cultural or architectural significance of a building must be the proposal regarding the future of the Public Library during the 1960s. For some unknown reason, the City Council acquired the Cleghorn’s building. As the Provincial Administration in 1960 showed an interest in acquiring the building, the Town Council sold it to them. It then came to light that the Provincial Administration pro­posed to demolish both Cleghorn’s and the Public Library in order to build offices on the site. This proposal was abandoned when sense prevailed. The Cleghorn’s Building was not as lucky as it was demolished in July 1972 for road widening purposes. If the City Fathers had prevaricated instead for a decade or two, this decision might had been questioned as history will illustrate.

Perhaps the demolition of the Cleghorn’s Building instigated the notion that the City Hall was not fit for purpose as the City Council in 1972 debated the motion to demolish the Town Hall. Yet again wisdom prevailed, and the conservationists won the day by having it declared a National Monument in November 1974. Swaying the argument was its role in the settlement and the establishment of Port Elizabeth as a town. Surely apart from its cultural significance, its elegant design should have motivated for its retention.

Barely were the victory celebrations over for its retention when in 1977, tragedy struck. A fire ravaged the hall, reducing it to a smouldering memory of its original grandeur. Would the grand old building with its timeless elegance be reprieved twice in quick succession? However, in 1977, thanks to its importance and significance to the city and its people, it was decided to restore and rebuilt it. A local consortium of architects, in collaboration with specialist architectural consultants, were appointed to redesign and restore the City Hall. The attitude to restoration was thus that the facades be authentically restored and the interior be redesigned in keeping with traditional Victorian detailing. Restoration work commenced in 1979 and was completed in November 1981.

Lack of foresight
The project mentioned hereunder can be termed a monumental faux pas perhaps driven by megalomania with a huge dollop of lack of foresight. Conventional wisdom dictated that as the Central Business District lacked parking space, unless action were taken to address this issue, the existing tenants would flee the area for the suburbs. Their supposition was correct, but their remedy was not. What the Council had failed to do was to demolish the stereotypes by understanding that conventional wisdom does not have to be necessarily true, but it must be simple, convenient, comfortable and comforting. Hence it is beguiling.

Above: Buildings L-R Mosenthals, Richardsons, Reserve Bank

What the Council proposed was to provide a massive park and ride scheme from town to the Hill. For this purpose, they acquired the dormant Collegiate School buildings in Bird Street to serve as a parking lot. Next, equally scandalous, they purchased the Union Castle Building as well as the Mosenthal and Richardson Buildings. These buildings including others in Jetty Street were all demolished to serve as a Bus Terminus. In one fell swoop the Council had achieved in several years what urban blight might have taken half a century. This scheme was doomed to fail as it failed to address the core issue which most cities around the world were experiencing – the dispersion of retail palaces into the suburbs. This process was ineluctable and like King Canute, the Council was unable to prevent the inevitable viz the development of malls in the suburbs.

Above: Collegiate School Bird Street

A Civil Engineer’s Dream
The Sixties were idyllic for civil engineers in Port Elizabeth. The City was on a role. The City’s industrialisation policy of the 1950s of providing cheap commercial and Industrial land and as well as adequate supplies of electricity and water, had attracted new entrants to establish their motor plants in Port Elizabeth. A shot across the bow was Toyota when it elected to erect a plant in Durban. Unbeknown to the residents of Port Elizabeth, this would be the proverbial hole in the dyke. The mood had soured on PE. Militant unions and the Sullivan Codes implemented by American firms were the final straw. The birthplace of militant unions in Port Elizabeth would be the death knell of motor plants in the town. Naturally, other issues were equally compelling such as 70% of the market being in the Transvaal.

Above: The Russell Road interchange

What did the Civil Engineers perceive? The plight of a congested town with a drive from town to Deal Party being insufferably long. Also due to the lack of a road from the western suburbs to the industrial areas meant that the drive was becoming ever more tiresome. What the city lacked was a series of freeways to cater for this need and what better profession to ease the City’s pain than that of the Civil Engineering fraternity. Their plans would ultimately consist of three major aspects:

  • A freeway from Deal Party along the North End beach to Humewood
  • A freeway from the western suburbs to Deal Party which would also serve as the National Road bypassing the centre of the town.
  • A massive civil engineering works comprising multiple tunnels and impressive bridges along the Baakens River thereby obliterating Port Elizabeth’s green lung.  

Once more common sense prevailed. The salivating Engineers were restrained by reality and by the Council from proceeding with item number 3 on their to-do list. As reality dawned that the 1960s were the high tide mark of Port Elizabeth’s growth, the professional people such as the Civil Engineers were in retreat heading for greener pastures with as the satellite towns to Joburg mushrooming.

Above: Damage to the Harbour Master’s Building which has been stripped of lead

But what did these freeways have to do with Port Elizabeth’s heritage. Plenty. To connect Deal Party with Humewood meant the obliteration of one of the most historic parts of Port Elizabeth. Instead of placing the elevated roadways above the railway lines, they demolished a substantial portion of Strand Street. If one includes the flattening of Jetty Street and the historic buildings at its entrance at Market Square, a significant fraction of the town’s heritage was eliminated in one fell swoop.

In conclusion, instead of building the park and ride parking area under the Donkin Reserve and by saving money by marginally lengthening the overhead freeway at Strand Street, irreparable damage was done to the original architecture of the area.

In this context, insouciance represents a casual lack of concern or even indifference to the destruction of Port Elizabeth’s architectural heritage. In attributing blame, the parties culpable are the developers, the owners and the relevant authorities.  

It must be borne in mind that when a structure has been formally declared to be a National Monument, any repairs, maintenance, or reconstruction have to comply with the prescripts of the Heritage Act. Per Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it is “more honoured in the breach than the observance”. In effect, these actions should not change the structure in whatever manner or form. For instance did the recent changes to the Feather Market Hall comply with the Heritage Act. Another example that I frequently allude to is the renovation of the Donkin Row. Many changes from the original units are easily spotted such as the design of the balconies. Another personal bugbear is the removal of original distinctive features.  

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1 Comment

  1. We will soon be visiting PE — later this month. Reading your blog posts has opened my eyes to what there is to see now, and what has already disappeared. The dunes on the coast and the lead on the roof. Our trip up the Sundays river will be more interesting now that I have read some of your accounts of the history of that area. Thank you very much for sharing these stories.


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