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. Finally it is saved from destruction by the wreckers’ ball of short-sighted Councillors and then from a fiery inferno.
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.
In 1856 the Government commandeered the Library Building (also known as the Commercial Hall) to serve as a Court house and the Library which used these premises was also evicted. As a consequence, they had to find temporary premises. Conditions at a temporary venue were unsatisfactory and as a result on 11th July 1856, a deputation from the Library Committee met the Town Commissioners with a proposition. They proposed that a building be erected to house the Municipal offices as well as the Library, the Athenaeum Institute and a museum. The Town Commissioners made an application to the Government for the land on which the City Hall now stands.
This request was granted on the 1st November 1856. 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 building was designed by Mr. Robert Archibald, the Town Engineer, and the foundation stone was laid by the Governor, Sir George Grey, K. C. B. on the 18th October 1858. Occupation was taken in 1860 although the building was not finally completed until 1861, housing the four institutions previously mentioned.
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.
The splendour of the interior was commented on by a visitor in 1861: “The chairs and the tab1es were so splendidly fine that I suspect the worthy citizens wi11 have to appoint an· inspector to examine the trousers and coat sleeves of some of the Councillors whom they elect, for it would be a rare pity to spoil the fine furniture by sitting or leaning upon it with dirty greasy “inexpressibles” and coat-sleeves. The reporter’s desk is so exquisitely finished that you can comb your hair and shave yourself 1n the lightly polished mahogany …“
One can only presume that the reason for the lack of a clock tower and an elegant entrance, was due to the lack of funds. These were put to rights in 1865 when a porch was constructed and in 1883/1884 when the magnificent clock tower was added. From July 1852, Main Street had already been graced with a clock known as the “Town Clock” when a clock was added to “New Church”, the original Congregational Church on the corner of Main and Donkin Streets. This clock was later donated by Councillor William Jones for use in the Town Hall. After the usual arguments, grandstanding and political nit-picking, the Council decided to erect a clock tower to house it and this was completed by the end of 1883.
The Athenaeum Institute ceased to function in 1885 and the Museum was moved to the Feather Market Hall in 1886 as the Municipality required more space. In the early 1890’s certain institutions – the Young Men’s Institute, the Art School and the Camera Club revived the Athenaeum’s claim to space in the Town Hall. In order to get rid of this embarrassing claim, the Town Council agreed to meet part of the cost of erecting the present Athenaeum Club in 1896.
The library vacated the Town Hall when the present library building was completed in 1902 with the Town Council providing a grant of £8,000 in return for the Library’s surrender of its rights in the Town Hall.
Many 19th century visitors to Port Elizabeth commented favourably on the Town Hall, among them were Anthony Trollope, Dr Emil Holub and Sir Frederick Young. The building has also been commended by present day architects such as Professor Nikolaus Pevsner and Dr Doreen Greig. Many famous people have been entertained here – the Cape Governors and later the Cape Administrators, Earl Roberts, Lt-Gen Baden-Powell, Joseph Chamberlain, Cecil Rhodes and many others. The hall was a venue for entertainments and concerts and several famous artists have performed there, e.g. Mark Hambourg and Madame Albini.
The building was renamed the Port Elizabeth City Hall when the municipality gained City status on July 28, 1913. On July 9, 1934, the revamped hall was opened with a performance of “Oh! Oh! Delphine!” The renovations were the work of George Begg, the City Engineer. The decorations were designed by F Pickford Marriott and made by him and the students of the Art School.
The Town Hall Clock
According to Margaret Harradine under her entry date 23rd August 1884, “the clock tower on the Town Hall was completed with the erection of the Municipal Arms ie the Coat of Arms. From the outset it was intended to have a clock tower, which is why Bowler, in one of his pictures of Port Elizabeth, added one in anticipation. In January 1880 Charles Storey won first prize for his design for a tower and in August the engineer. James Bisset, stated that the walls of the Hall were strong enough to take the weight. In May 1881 the Council decided to use Bisset’s drawings rather than Storey’s, but eventually, in 1883, the tower was begun to plans drawn by Municipal Engineer, William Henry Miles. The clock, originally in the New Church tower, was given to the town by William Jones. The nineteen-and-a-quarter hundred weight bell was cast by J. Warner and Son of London and was raised into position in May 1884, under the supervision of Mr. Warne, the foreman engineer who was here in connection with the roof of the new markets. After the fire of 1977, the makers of the original clock, Gillett and Bland, now Gillett and Johnston, made a new clock, electronically operated. They had earlier, in 1934, supplied a new chime clock and a new one-ton bell.“
The Saga of the Bell
In June 1887 the first bell was said to have been removed as another was awaited from England. At the turn of the century it was still in the basement of the Town Hall and the Council called for tenders to have it removed.
Based upon the paragraphs above, the timeline is as follows:
- May 1884 – Bell hung
- June 1887 – Bell removed and put in the basement to await delivery of a new one. Was it cracked?
- Turn of century – ‘Damaged’ bell removed from basement
- 1934 – Gillett and Johnson supplied new 1 ton bell.
Based upon the summarised timeline, it sounds (sic) like the Town Hall never had a bell during the period 1887 to 1934.
The town’s fire engines were housed in the basement until 1904 when premises were built in Military Road.
Efforts to locate the original foundation stone have been unsuccessful, nor has it been possible to trace the ceremonial trowel used by Sir George Grey on that occasion. This had a silver blade, a golden ferrule securing the ivory handle with a topaz set in the top. Under the stone was buried a container containing copies of three local newspapers of the time, coins of the realm and a vellum scroll commemorating the event.
The interior was redesigned in 1934 by Frank Pickford Marriott, Head of the Art School, who was responsible for the frieze of ships around the main hall depicting Bartholomew Dias’s ship, the Dromedaris, and the Chapman, the first of 1820 Settler ships. Mr. Marriott died before the alterations were completed and the famous mural round the stage proscenium was designed by Mrs. Phyllis Gardner and executed by Miss Marie Nolte.
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 the 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 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 Hal1. 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.
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.
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.”
Allegations regarding the cause of the fire
The City Hall burnt down during the time of the Banks Commission into alleged corrupt dealings of the City councillors, especially Kakelak’s Vlei where the mayor James Kleynhans had allegedly bought cheaply and when the City expansion was announced, the farm was going to be used, he sold it for a fortune to the City Council. Sadly all the land dealing records were destroyed in the fire. There was a joke going around at the time regarding the cause of the fire: “Some said it was caused by an electric light on the first floor. Others said it was a gas light on the ground floor, and still others said it was an Israelite in the basement. ” Whether
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.”
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.
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