Amongst all the iconic buildings of Port Elizabeth, this must feature in the top five. Yet in 1977 this building which epitomises Port Elizabeth, almost became an ex-icon as a result of a conflagration which destroyed it.
What a momentous loss that would have been?
This blog covers the odyssey of a plan transformed into a Town Hall to finally being acclaimed as the City Hall.
Main picture: The Town Hall under construction from 1858 to 1861
Prior to the construction of the Town Hall, Council Meetings were held in the Commercial Hall, a single storey building of no great architectural merit standing on the site of the current Main Library.
During the 1850s, the people of Port Elizabeth must have possessed a larger vision for Port Elizabeth than the puny town that it then was, as they embraced the construction of an architecturally stunning building to epitomise the town. Historical records reveal that the denizens of the town were frugal to the point of being parsimonious with Council spending, yet somehow the building of a magnificent building was approved.
In part thanks to the fact that land was still available in such a central location that the Commissioners were granted land between the market place and the Commissariat which was located where the current Post Office is currently situated to build a Town Hall, Library and Athenaeum. Funding of these buildings was raised through the sale of other land. The Town Engineer, Robert Archibald, was appointed as the architect.
The 18th October 1858 marked the official commencement of building operations when the foundation stone of the Town Hall was laid by the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir George Grey. The completion of the building in 1861 revealed a rectangular building with a flat roof. No towers, spires or other perturbations pierced the sky.
Apart from its architectural pulchritude, what provided the building with additional significance was that it was the focal point of Main Street.
One can only presume that the reason for the lack of a clock tower and an elegant entrance, was the lack of funds. These were put to rights in 1865 when a porch was constructed and in 1883/1884 when the magnificant clock tower was added. From July 1852, Main Street had already when graced with a clock known as the “Town Clock” when a clock was added to “New Church” in Main Street. This clock was later donated by William Jones for use in the Town Hall.
The Town Hall took its final form in 1934 when the interior was considerably altered.
In a move in 1972 to demolish the Town Hall, 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 establishment of Port Elizabeth as a town.
Barely were the victory celebrations over when in 1977, tragedy struck and 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 restored and rebuilt in a way that honoured its architectural beauty and its historical importance. Since being reopened in 1981, the City Hall has hosted a number of events and functions.
Twice during my youth in the late 1960s, I had to “perform” in the City Hall, once in an Eisteddfod and another in a non-speaking role in an adaptation of Enid Blyton “Noddy” play. With the revamped auditorium set up in cinema style, parents today no longer have to crane their necks to view their little darlings as their stutter their lines or embarrass the teachers with inappropriate waves to their parents.
The NMB website informs us that “the City Hall is a popular spot for concerts, lectures, celebrations, and even some glamorous weddings. The reception room has a capacity of up to 300 people in cinema style and 200 in a banqueting layout.”
It is hard to imagine that the magnificent Port Elizabeth City Hall was almost demolished. The article below, first published in the Evening Post in January 1973, describes a meeting organised by the Port Elizabeth Historical Society where arguments on both sides of the preservation versus development debate were presented. We stumbled across the article in Bulletin, the old journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa).
The director of the Simon van der Stel Foundation, Dr. W. Punt warned recently that if the historic 110-year old City Hall was demolished the importance of the city’s central area would decline.
Addressing a meeting called by the Port Elizabeth Historical Society and attended by about 120 people, Dr Punt, pleading for the preservation of the building, said the City Hall was part of our heritage, not only of Port Elizabeth but of South Africa.
The meeting decided, in spite of several speakers opposing the retention of the building, to ask the National Monuments Commission to investigate declaring the City Hall a national monument.
This was decided by a show of hands and without a count. But it was obvious the majority favoured preservation.
Respect for the past
“Tradition speaks to all of us. It is tradition that will ultimately carry the force of national conviction that our ancestors produced something worthwhile,” Dr Punt said.
He said that by retaining the building “you will encourage the youth to respect the past”. The City Hall, he said, was built by the people who built Port Elizabeth.
He gave examples of buildings in several overseas countries which were saved for posterity after public opinion had opposed the destruction of the buildings by the authorities.
Dr Punt told the meeting “the enemies of preservation” had come with the story that preservation cost more than a new building. That he added, was not necessarily true.
The same argument was raised during the fight to preserve a church overseas and it was decided to call for tenders for both the preservation and the building of a new church.
A new church would have cost R750 000, according to the tenders received. Preservation of the old church cost R250 000. Port Elizabeth’s City Hall, Dr Punt said, had character which spoke to people of time gone by. It was the most historic City Hall outside the Western Cape.
By retaining the building, the city would create a centrepiece for the layout of the civic centre. But if it was destroyed the importance of the central area would decline.
Dr Punt said the Prime Minister had taken a keen interest in the preservation of historic buildings. He had issued instruction to all Government departments that no state building should be demolished without its historic merit first being evaluated.
If this City Hall was evaluated, it would be classed as a historic building, A1,” Dr Punt said.
The preservation of the City Hall would have an influence on other towns and there would be a reaction throughout the country, he said.
Mr Alfred Porter, chairman of the Historical Society, said the purpose of the society’s campaign was to “prevent what we believe is a scandalous proposal”. “The Historical Society believes that this must be prevented at all costs if the city is not to be known as a city of Philistines,” he said.
Mr J. Graham Young said the City Council’s site for the planned civic centre was large enough to accommodate two civic centres without touching the City Hall. The building, he said, had cultural, historic and aesthetic value. Everything of public importance had happened on the steps, in the hall or in the rooms of the building. “It is the heart of Port Elizabeth’s history,” he said.
Mr Young also sketched the history of the plan to establish a civic centre since 1958 when the proposal was first mooted. Mr M.S. Davies, a former councillor and a prominent local figure, spoke out against the preservation of the building, but said the facade could be retained.
Mr Edgar Crews, who said he was “proud of the City Hall”, claimed the civic centre was planned on the wrong site.
Mrs Billy Gosschalk told the meeting that “when we build today, we build for the future, not for our children but our children’s children and those who came after”. Speaking against preservation, Mrs Gosschalk challenged anyone to show her something that was attractive inside the building.
Mr C. Holliday said the discomforts about which Mrs Gosschalk spoke could easily be rectified and that the building should be preserved and “turned into something that will be of some use to the generations to come.”
Mr Ray Limbrick said a large group of people did not want the City Hall to be converted to a theatre. Mr Porter told the meeting the primary purpose of the Historical Society was to preserve the building. There had been suggestions that it be converted to a theatre, among other things. However, there was no official support from the society to turn it into a theatre, though its members believe this is a proposal which could be considered.
Mr A.P. Knight spoke in favour of preserving the facade only and developing round this “backdrop”.
Mr J.C. Grieve said the society should take steps to have the building declared a national monument. Mr Porter said the society had already written to the National Monuments Commission and the matter would be discussed at its next meeting.
Mr Grieve then proposed a recommendation to go forward from the meeting asking for the City Hall to be declared a national monument. The proposal was seconded by Mr Holliday.”
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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Holy Trinity Church in Havelock Street
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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Enclosed Harbour Scheme in the 1930s
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Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Earliest Photographs
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Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine
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