Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Commercial Hall Building

The building of the Commercial Hall was indicative of the emerging maturity of the town. One of the purposes to which this building was to be put, namely as a library, was emblematic of this transition.  Unfortunately, intruding on these good intentions was the old court house burning down. As a consequence, from 1856 until the new library was opened in 1902, this prime function was put in abeyance for 46 years.

Main picture: Commercial Hall building on the site of the current Main Public Library

Disputed designer

Charles Michell (sic), the first surveyor-general and civil engineer in the Cape, is remembered today for the mountain pass named after him – Michell’s Pass. In the case of Port Elizabeth, he is barely remembered for the one building that he designed, the Commercial Hall or Commercial Exchange probably due to the fact that it has been demolished and replaced by the Main Public Library in Market Square. In the 1830s and 1840s England was in the throes of a revival of neo-classicalism, particularly in its Greek form, while simultaneously espousing the Gothic style for its ecclesiastical buildings. Michell used both of these styles, the former in St John’s Church in Bathurst and the Commercial Exchange in Port Elizabeth.

On the 26th July 1843, the foundation stone of the Commercial Hall was laid by Captain Francis Evatt, on the site of the present library in the Market Square. According to Richings, construction must have been completed within one year with the building being a fine exercise in the neo-Grecian style. Land for a “library and commercial hall” was granted by Sir George Napier in 1839. The build­ing, designed by Charles Collier Michell [without a T], was completed in 1845.

1840 Unidentified sketch by Charles Michell of Doric columns presumed to be of the Commercial Hall

This hall was financed by public share subscription of which the Rev. Francis McCleland held one share. The Rev. McCleland officiated with prayers and the Commander of Fort Frederick, Captain Francis Evatt was the host at a party of 50 held at the original Phoenix Hotel on the other side of Market Square from the Commercial Hall.

The original Phoenix Hotel building with its mansard roof, later to be replaced. The terminus of Cobb’s Coaches was outside the front gate of the hotel

In Richings’ telling, he casts doubt that Michell is the architect whereas Harradine expresses no such misgivings. Richings’ attribution to Michell is on a negative basis in that Michell was talented and experienced enough to have designed it and given the fact that no other architect’s name has been suggested, the design was accorded to the Surveyor-General. Moreover as Richings concedes, Michell displayed a penchant for the neo-Grecian style of architecture, particularly the Doric style. Be that as it may but Michell did bequeath to posterity a pen and ink drawing of an unidentified building with Doric columns and a pediment similar to those incorporated in the Exchange. In the Graham’s Town Journal the builder’s names are given as Thomas Proudfoot and Edward Slater

This building served in all its intended roles for all public occasions until 1856, when the old court house on the corner of Military Road was burnt down and the Hall was expropriated to serve that purpose.

One of the uses for which this building was designed was that of a hall. The first time that it served in that role was on the 12th May 1847 when the first public concert held in Port Elizabeth took place in the Commercial Hall to raise money for those suffering as a result of famine in Ireland and Scotland. Fifty pounds was raised. Later that year on the 22nd September 1847 the first performance of the P.E. Amateur Theatrical Society was held in the Commercial Hall. This consisted of “Ion” by S. Talford and a farce called “The Queer Subject”. After the Royal Theatre was built behind the old Cleghorn’s building, this building no longer served that purpose.

Market Square in 1870 taken by J.E. Bruton with the Commercial Hall situated where the modern Public Library is situated

It was only on the 2nd October 1848 that the Port Elizabeth Public Library and Reading Room opened in a room in the Commercial Hall. It began with about 154 members, the secretary was William Passmore, and the librarian was John Freeman, with hours from 5-9 pm. The Port Elizabeth News Society had earlier (1846) provided newspapers, books and periodicals, and William Ring operated a commercial circulating library for a time. The Library was highly regarded by the citizens. The “Herald” in October 1848 said: “The Library rises indeed like a Great Blessing among us and over us, a holy radiance across our community.” Furthermore in July 1853, it noted that “The Public Library, henceforward, will stand forth the proudest monument of the wisdom, intelligence and liberality of the first inhabitants of Port Elizabeth, on which posterity will be caused to gaze.

Commercial Hall

In its initial years, the hall was also used for some influential meetings. Most noteworthy was one held on the 19th May 1849. The proposal of Earl Grey that convicts be sent to the Cape instead of to Australia met with resistance. There was fierce anti-convict agitation and a protest meeting held in the Commercial Hall was described as “the biggest and most influential meeting” yet held.

The use of portion of the Commercial Hall as a library came to an abrupt end in August 1854 when the oldest building in Port Elizabeth, originally the quarters of the Commandant of the Fort and at this point also the Magistrate’s Court, was burned down. The Commercial Hall was expropriated for use as the Court House and was used as such until 1885 when the new building in Baakens Street was opened.

Commercial Hall and the original Cleghorns building in the 1860s. After commencing operations in 1865, the E.P. Herald would use the upper floor of this building

On the 4th June 1856 the Commercial Hall would also serve a new role as the meeting place of the newly established Port Elizabeth Divisional Council. On that date, an Act of Parliament was passed creating the Council. The first Divisional Councils Bill was introduced into Parliament by John Paterson, founder of the E.P. Herald and Standard Bank, as Chairman. Among the roles of these Councils was the upkeep of roads within the rural areas.

Market Square. In the foreground is the Obelisk after the addition in June 1878 of the granite water trough and drinking fountains designed by James Bisset while in the background is the Commercial Hall.

By now the Commercial Hall had outlived its original purpose. The role as a hall, a Court House and as a Theatre had been superseded by purpose-built buildings. Only a purpose-built library was now required. The site on which the Commercial Hall was located would serve as the ideal location for a library. In any event, the Commercial Hall had in all probability been underutilised over the preceding 15 years, and as such, there was no dissent at the decision to demolish the existing structure. Secondly from a perspective of elegance, the design of the building lacked both proportionality and coherence. For this reason, it was unlikely to have been sorely missed.

This unloved utilitarian building had served its purpose and was to be replaced by an elegant building which would befit a library of this prosperous town. On the 29th July 1902 the new Public Library in the Market Square was officially opened. Designed by Henry A. Cheers of Twickenham, England, it is faced with imported terra-cotta blocks. In 1950 the ground floor offices were converted into shops and plate-glass windows installed, but the facade was restored in 1989.

1908: The new library which replaced the Commercial Hall, much more in keeping with the surrounding architecture but sadly now closed for eight years due to a leaking roof. No date has been provided for its reopening

Sources

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)

The Life & Work of Charles Michell by Gordon Richings (2006, Fernwood Press, Simon’s Town)

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