Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Destruction of the Architectural Integrity of the Market Square Precinct

Many people once pejoratively called Prince Charles a sentimental old fool for deploring the destruction of the architectural coherence of an area by demolishing an old building within a section of a town or street which epitomised a particular architectural style. As such, Charles was roundly condemned for wanting to stifle progress and advancement. Instead, it was an earnest plea by Charles to preserve such sections of the town where there was merit to do so. For not to exercise caution would destroy the architectural integrity of that area.

Sadly, Port Elizabeth has witnessed the destruction of such an area which would fall within the remit of Charles’ rebuke. Without a doubt, this area encompasses the old Market Square and includes Jetty Street and the old Customs House. To this we can add the demolition of the Fleming building and the old Collegiate School for use as a parking area

Main picture: The Main Library in 1939. All of these buildings whether they were constructed in 1859 like the Grey Institute or the Donkin lighthouse in 1861 are still standing. At this date if one had to turn around and look across Market Square, all of the original buildings would still be standing. From Castle Corner to the Mosenthal and Richardson buildings, they would all be present. Then as in in fit of pique, in the 1970s they would all be demolished.

Sense of destiny

At its birth, the woes, and miseries of the residents of Port Elizabeth were imbued with a yearning to succeed, perhaps even invoking a manifest destiny to build a town worthy of them. This impulse and determination would drive them to create something bigger than themselves. What Port Elizabeth lacked in natural beauty was to be created in its buildings and an ephemeral esprit de corps. In this respect Port Elizabeth was to differ from other towns. Unlike Cape Town it was to be the entrepreneurial hub of the Cape Colony with the likes of Frederick Korsten, the Mosenthal brothers and the Richardson’s developing businesses which were not parochial in their ambitions for they viewed the world as their market. Yet today only a mere handful of Bayonians, as they were once called, would even recall their names let alone the immense contribution that they made to Port Elizabeth’s success.  

The three ‘sisters’ on the eastern side of Market Square shortly before the left three’s demolition in the 1970s

The City Hall

The requirement for municipal offices befitting the town is what gave the impetus for the construction of the majestic Town Hall. Fortuitously there was a vacant stand available between the market and the Commissariat Building which was situated where the old Post Office is now located. In addition, what made this location ideal apart from its central location was the fact that it would be the focal point of Main Street. Prior to the construction of the Town Hall in the late 1850s and early 1860s, the centre of the town was a hodgepodge of styles from the original single and double storey buildings of little architectural merit or elegance to more gracious buildings. The construction of the Town Hall represented the first step in the town’s aspiration for greatness. The product was only finalised later when the clock from the New Church on the corner of Donkin and Main Street was added to the rectangular building with no towers, spires, or other embellishments to serve as focal points. The addition of the clock tower to accommodate the clock was only completed some twenty years later in 1883.

City Hall in late 1880s. Also shown – Fleming House, passenger carriages for hire (hooded ‘spider’ type), horse drawn tram, Court House, Obelisk, gas lamp.

St Mary’s Church

The first manifestation of this yearning was not embodied in its first public building, the original St. Mary’s Church. Due to a lack of funds from an impecunious and struggling congregation, they were only able to construct an oblong building of little architectural merit. It was this parlous financial situation which was to foreshadow a decision which the church would rue at a later stage.

At a meeting on the 20th February 1824, organised by Captain Francis Evatt, at the Red Lion Inn in Main Street, a request was directed to the Governor of the Cape to provide a school and a church. The latter request was declined. Instead in April 1825, the Governor of the Cape granted a large plot of land for the building of a church, but the actual Deed of Transfer bears the date of 27th November 1827. The extent of the plot was 15 square roods and 60 square feet. It comprised the whole of St. Mary’s Terrace besides a valuable frontage in Main Street. 

St Mary’s Church before the UBS building was constructed

In order to fund the building project, the church was compelled to sell some of its assets. A Deed of Sale reveals that the Churchwardens sold three plots of church ground which included the whole of St. Mary’s Terrace for the sum of £ 33 to a Mr. William Matthew Harries on 12th November 1833. Some thirty years later, portion of this land had to be repurchased.

During 1924, Canon Mayo with the assistance of Sir Hugh Levick, had re-purchased the plot on the corner of Main Street. This was part of the origin grant to the church, and which had been sold to William Smith in 1843. The intention was to use the land in order to extend the church, but the quotes obtained indicated that the cost would be too great for the church to bear. Based on this reality, in 1930 Mayo sold two-fifths of this valuable frontage to the United Building Society. From my personal perspective, this decision was equivalent to sacrilege. On this land, the UBS built a high-rise building which obscured the church from view. However, as a consequence the funds required to extend the nave were made available.

After 1933, all that could be seen of St. Mary’s Church is the nave as the rest of the church is obscured by the UBS building

The resurrection of St. Mary’s church after being destroyed by fire in 1895 was like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. The consequences were two-fold. While the architectural merit of the United Building Society building per se cannot be faulted and would have been more in keeping with buildings further along Main Street, it hid the charm of St. Mary’s Church from view. Would it not have been better if the St. Mary’s had been exposed in full view to Main Street? Was it not insensitive of the developers and the Municipality to permit the construction of such a tall imposing building with such an architecturally inappropriate design not in keeping with other buildings in the Market Square? 

Misreading future trends

Apart from permitting the destruction of architectural icons in this architecturally sensitive area [which I will deal with shortly], the Town Council fundamentally lacked an understanding of urban development trends. Foremost amongst them, commencing in the 1960s, was the steady relocation of business to the suburbs where large shopping malls would be established. In light of these developments, they cast around for solutions based upon their perception of the problem. This they determined was lack of parking space in the CBD. As the motor vehicle had supplanted public transport such as the tram and the bus, parking within a short distance from Main Street was at a premium. Exacerbating this was the need to negotiate a huge hill when parking 210 feet up at the top. Prior to the 1960s, one’s grocery shopping could either be done at a superette / corner café in the suburbs or at OK Bazaars in town. The sixties were the inflection point. With the establishment of regional shopping areas such as Cape Road, Newton Park with its abundant supermarkets, and then the conversion of the Fairview Racecourse into the huge Greenacres shopping mecca, the writing was on the wall for shopping in Main Street.

The Union Castle Building on the left and the Mosenthal Building on the right were both victims of the “slash and burn” policies of the Council during the 1970s with the Union Castle building being replaced by a bus station

This is not to say that the Council did not feel the earth literally move under the CBD, but their solution did not address the underlying problem. Their response was technocratic. They provided additional parking space in town. To this end, the historic and gracious Collegiate Girls School was demolished to make way for parking whereas Jetty Street and the historic Castle Corner were demolished to be supplanted by a bus station. Then the Council perpetuated the ultimate sacrilege. The contiguous Mosenthals Building, constructed in 1903, and the Richardson Building, constructed in 1923 by Sir Lewis Richardson, were both demolished to make way for Norwich Union Towers. This was the ultimate indignity for, apart from the destruction of such impressive buildings, it also represented the lack of recognition of the splendid work of two farsighted entrepreneurs in the development of Port Elizabeth.   

It is safe to say that without fear of contradiction that the Council brash attempt like King Canute to reverse the course of progress was an abysmal failure. With abundant stores without ten minutes from home, never would the customers travel into town again for their day-to-day purchases.

One of the very earliest photos of the newly opened Fischer & Co building in Main Street circa 1914. Generations of brides would purchase their rings from this shop. Like many others, it has fled the centre of town for the suburban malls.

One of the original attractions of visiting Main Street was the experience. This was beyond the realm of purchasing one’s daily bread but to visit the best shops in town and to meet one’s friends for a snack and a chat. Where were 90% of all weddings rings purchased but at Fischer’s Jewellers, school clothes at Birches, records at Michael’s. Undoubtedly parking was problematic but what about creating a parking garage underground. The law prohibited construction above ground but not beneath the ground. The Donkin Reserve was ideal for this. An alternative solution would have been to convert various decrepit buildings in Strand Street into multi-level parking garages.

Rather the solution lay in making Main Street an attraction, a place to visit and a place to enjoy oneself. By converting the whole street into a pedestrian walkway with alfresco diners with shade trees and ferns would make the area more people-centric, the whole ambience would be more like a giant mall. With a ring road utilising a widened Chapel Street and Strand Street, vehicular noise and pollution would not interrupt one’s pleasure.

Main Street R-L West of England Clothing aka T.Birch & Co, Unknown, Provident Chambers, J. Geard & Son, ironmonger

The Council’s role would be to empower a CBD Revival & Events Company to arrange special events within this precinct providing entertainment for both young and old.

Disdain for heritage

In light of the Council’s actions, one can only conclude not only their lack of imagination but also a wilful disdain for history which precluded them from deriving more progressive responses to the imminent implosion of the CBD. Leading the pack in the additional evidence file is the Council’s proposal to demolish the Town Hall in 1977 after a disastrous fire. It was only the fierce rear-guard like actions of the ratepayers which prevented it from falling to the wreckers’ ball.  

The Custom’s House before the Campanile

Although not strictly in Main Street or Market Square, both the Customs House at the entrance to the harbour and the Fleming Building were significant historical buildings which should have been included within the remit of the CBD Revival Committee. Instead both areas are now barren unsightly parking spaces. I will not mention the destruction of Strand Street but instead of bulldozing the historical part of town, the freeway should have been rerouted over the railway lines.

Fortunately the exemplar of proposed wilful destruction not of historical buildings but of the environment must be the proposed freeway along Baakens Valley in the 1970s. Had this come to fruition, Port Elizabeth’s wilderness within the city’s boundaries would have been disfigured by concrete pillars and the roar of speeding cars and motor bikes without mufflers. Serenity and beauty would have been cast aside in the name of progress. Only by civic action was this monstrous solution defanged and the slain.

The historical buildings – Mosenthals & Richardsons – have now been replaced with these monstrosities which totally defile the architectural integrity of Market Square. What was the Council thinking?

Quo Vadis?

With a Council little concerned with the preservation of heritage, I am fearful for the future of this wonderous town. To date it has prospered in spite of the machinations of politicians and ne’er do wells. First it was the Colonial government in Cape Town which viewed the self-generated progress by the town’s citizens as a threat. Hence only after almost a century’s long fight to obtain a harbour, did the government relent. This was only to be built in the early 1930s.  

Next came a government without the interests of the town and its people at heart. Without considering the human cost and trauma of destroying a vibrant and multi-cultural community, it was to flatten South End without a care in the world. All that I can say is “Shame on you.”

Now we have a Council which has displayed the worse vices of arrogance, corruption and disdain for the heritage of the city and are blissfully untroubled by the damage that they inflict by omission and commission.

Port Elizabeth.

I weep for you.

2 Comments

  1. Port Elizabeth has been defiled by “experts” who are actually guilty of desecration.
    Before its too late the opinion of sensible people needs to be sought.
    Many of these so called experts are totally out of touch with history and culture.
    As an example I once watched a gathering of experts quaffing wine and toasting the installation of a new chandelier made of pieces of stainless steel and brass plates which looked like something constructed by a railway apprentice in his spare time. I asked the most intelligent looking one what the significanse of this crude piece was and she looked at me disdainfully and haughtily said “it represents the wind and the waves !!” I shook my head and walked away. At that time the bronze cannon from the Sacramento could have been purchased for R 120,00.00, but no money was available and they went to the scrap yard to be turned into brass door knobs etc.
    This is what has happened time and again in PE, the “intelligensia” ride rough shod over the normal peoples opinions and leave a legacy of destruction.

    Reply
  2. Thank you for these truly insightful articles. As a newcomer to PE and an architect, I have a deep respect and appreciation for the work you are doing.

    Reply

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