Architecturally Main Street has arguably evolved through four stages in its 200-year history. At the risk of offending the sensibilities of certain of the residents, put in the starkest terms, these stages reflect both the demographics and the economic status of the town. But this venerable street now faces the prospect of terminal decline. It is my strongly held opinion that unless alternative uses are found for the area, whatever architectural merit remains of this area, and this includes Central PE generally, will be irreparably lost forever.
That begs the questions of how and what.
This blog merely serves to raise the warning flag and offer some ideas of what may be done. In its starkest terms, a more comprehensive integrated long-term plan is required to address this issue.
Main picture: Main Street during the transition from the initial plain double storey structures with shops on the ground floor and living accommodation on the first floor to more elegant structures complimenting the graceful Town Hall.
Phases of development
For Main Street, the journey from its dusty beginnings to the vibrant hub of a prosperous ever-expanding town, mirrors the fortunes of the town. Its current trajectory into slumlord land reflects what has occurred in most towns in South Africans where the former economic hub has been replaced by a new one. Take Joburg as a shining example. Since the 1980s, Sandton has steadily eclipsed the centre of Joburg as the epicentre for business. Perhaps this is a uniquely South African phenomenon, partially reflecting the racial dynamics in this troubled land. Nevertheless, it is a reality.
In my view, Main Street has experienced a number of eras, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Loosely, these can be defined as follows:
- Initial development(1820 – 1840). This period produced basic buildings often with little architectural merit or even structural integrity in some cases.
- Refinement & growth(1840-1940). This period was characterised by the construction of more elegant and substantial buildings, one that reflected the economic well-being of the town. Included here would be the elegant Mutual Arcade and other Art Deco buildings. This would undoubtedly be Main Street’s heyday.
- Soulless tall buildings(1940 to 1960s). For me, as I worked at Price Waterhouse in one such building, the SA Perm Building epitomises this type of box structure. They were merely tall, unpretentious, unadorned boxes of little architectural merit. Numerous other buildings of this era exude this soulless building syndrome.
- Stagnation & desertion(1960s onwards). As the town stagnated, so too did its CBD. As business abandoned the centre of town, vacant buildings are vandalised and became havens for squatters.
The Possible Futures
One can decry what is occurring in Main Street but what are the viable alternatives, if any, for the future. However much one would like the old Main Street to remain unchanged as a museum piece, doing nothing is not an option. In any case, many of the existing buildings erected in the 1940s to 1960s, in my mind, do not represent buildings that are worth saving from an architectural perspective.
Perhaps the older generation will base their views for retention on nostalgic or sentimental reasons, but perforce, this will not suffice. Buildings such as the erstwhile Fischer’s Building deserve to be persevered while others do not. If nothing is done, as business deserts Main Street, the buildings will ultimately be taken over by squatters like many buildings in central Joburg. This is an ineluctable process hereby the ultimate fate of the building is often demolition. Even if the buildings are not demolished, many of their features will be cannibalised as fire wood or stripped of their wrought iron and other metal fittings.
That leaves only one solution, viz continued usage, but not in their previous manner as businesses. Instead, disused buildings should be converted into residential accommodation. The puritans might wail but Main Street will be saved from a graver fate. Where possible, buildings could be converted into specialised museums such as naval museum and in other cases allocated to research organisations at nominal rentals. Perhaps Port Elizabeth could even attract overseas organisations to base their African research facilities here but offering other incentives as well. Only in this innovative manner, will Main Street’s future be secured.
Quo Vadis Main Street?