One of Port Elizabeth’s little-known gems is this feature in St George’s Park. Think of Kew Gardens Conservatory – but on a far smaller scale – and you will have an idea of what to expect from the Pearson Conservatory.
Main picture: Interior of the Pearson Conservatory
It is Mr Henry Pearson, Mayor of P.E. on sixteen occasions, member of the Legislative Assembly, Treasurer-General of the Cape 1880-81 and Colonial Secretary in 1889 that Port Elizabeth can thank for championing the construction of a conservatory for the cultivation of exotic plants, water lilies and beautiful orchids.
The striking Victorian conservatory in St George’s Park was completed and officially opened on 12th September 1882 and christened the Pearson Conservatory after the incumbent Mayor of Port Elizabeth, Mr H.W. Pearson. The opening ceremony was performed by the Honourable John X Merriman, the then Commissioner of Works. The conservatory cost £3,800 and arrived in South Africa as a ‘kit of parts’ and was constructed in the park. This conservatory was imported from England and was the first of three such buildings in South Africa at the time.
The 25-foot wide central atrium opens up to a skylight is flanked by two wings to the East and the West with perfect symmetry along its two axes.
Article in the E.P. Herald dated 13th September 1882
OPENING OF THE PARK CONSERVATORY
Yesterday afternoon in the presence of the Mayor, H W Pearson, Esq., the Town Councillors, our leading merchants and several ladies, the new Conservatory at the St George’s Park was opened by the Hon. JX Merriman. The following description of the building will prove interesting to our readers.
The roof is supported on eight lofty columns with marble shafts and ornamental heads picked out in gold and dark green.The structure consists of a centre building and two wings. The central building measures 25 feet by 50 feet by 29 feet high to the centre of the skylight.
The roofs of these buildings are also supported on ornamental columns, and over theses as also the centre building the iron ribs of the roof are strengthened by means of ornamental wrought iron scroll work.The wing buildings each measure 21 by 44 feet by 17 feet high to the centre of skylights.
The whole of the buildings with the exception of the plinth are constructed of glass and moulded teak wood framing, the roof ribs being of light iron. The interior is decorated as follows: a warm grey ground picked out with pale blue and light chocolate lining, and the scroll iron work with light flesh colour lining columns all marbled, and mouldings gilded, and the glass on the sides exposed to the sun is frosted with ornamental lines and corners. The roofs have also been frosted in light blue to subdue the vertical rays of the sun and keeps the place beautifully cool.
The gutters have a small chocolate stencil pattern, and the sashes all white, the ornamental iron cresting and terminals are painted dark blue, picked out with white and gold.The exterior is decorated as follows: Light stone colour ground with chocolate and white lining.
The ventilation of the building is complete, being arranged as follows: Ivory alternate sash at the bottom opens, being hung on pivots, and the sky-light sashes throughout are opened simultaneously by a lever apparatus, worked by a hand screw.
The arrangements of the interior are as follows: Round the whole building a raised bed is built with a retaining wall for plants, and at the centre of the two wings a double tier of shelves of perforated iron, supported on miniature columns for the reception of plants.
The centre building has a very handsome centre fountain with large basin, and on either side enclosed spaces for plants. There are also four very handsome bronzed seats for visitors.
The glazing, painting and decorating has been executed by Mr Johnstone, of Port Elizabeth, under the instruction and superintendence of Mr W H Miles, Consulting Architect to the municipality.
At four o’clock a large number of ladies and gentlemen having collected in front of the Conservatory, the Mayor, H W Pearson, Esq. and the Hon. X J Merriman, ascended the steps of the main entrance, and the key of the building was handed to the Mayor by the architect, Mr W H Miles.
The Mayor said they had met there that day for the purpose of opening the Conservatory, and he felt thankful – to the Hon, the Commissioner of Public Works, who was on a short visit to Port Elizabeth, on coming there to take part in the ceremony of opening this little addition to the public gardens (hear hear).
The gardens he need not inform them, and doubtless it was within this recollection of the Hon, the Commissioner, were formed from ground that was a few years ago a barren desolate place, but, by the dint of the perseverance of the community of this town, in addition to the untiring industry of Mr Wilson, they have arrived at their present perfection (hear hear).
For Mr Wilson’s constant attention to his duties they were indebted for what they saw around them, and Mr Wilson, too, has enjoyed the reward of his long labours in seeing the result of his works.
The Mayor thanked him personally, on behalf of the Town Council and of the people of Port Elizabeth for his labours.
The Mayor said he would now ask the Hon. the Commissioner of Public Works to perform the ceremony of opening the Conservatory.
With regard to the Conservatory itself, it has been going on for some years, but it was necessary to get the money together to carry on the labour.
The following was the financial statement:-
The Conservatory was designed and material supplied by Messrs. J Boyd & Son, of Paisley.
The glass was supplied by Messrs Chance Bros.
The foundation was laid by Mr J Marshall, of this town.
The Conservatory was erected under the superintendance of Mr Fraser, one of the employees of Messrs Boyd and Son, who was sent out for that purpose.
The fountains were obtained through Messrs J Boyd and Son, and cost 71. Both are supplied with Van Staden’s River water.
The vases were imported from Messrs J Rosher & Co., of London.
The eight iron seats were obtained by Messrs Birt and Nephew from the Colebrook-dale Company, England.
The late Mr Wicksteed was the architect until the period of his death, and since then the works have been under the supervision or Mr W H Miles, architect, of this town. Mr Bullen has acted as clerk of the works throughout.
The cost of the construction in England was £1,560
Freight and Duty 336
The cost of foundation and erection here £1,904
Making a total cost of £3,800
Whereof the Parliament in 1876 voted a sum of £1,000 but owing to the omission of the annual vote for parks, only £750 was available for the Conservatory.
The interests thereon and votes of the Town Council provided for £1,050, leaving £2,000 which has been borrowed from the Town Improvement Fund on an engagement to repay £250 per annum with interest during the ensuing eight years.
The Mayor believed that he could assure them that they would have £250 worth of amusement out of the Conservatory and concluded by again thanking the Commissioner of Public Works for his attendance there that day.
The Hon J X Merriman, who was very warmly received, said he felt deeply grateful for the kindness done, and the honour conferred on him, by asking him to take part in the ceremony there that day, and to be connected with the opening of so useful and ornamental a work.
The work was ornamental, everyone could see that, and that it was useful no-one could doubt who considers the refining effect the higher class of gardening has upon any community, from the mere artisan who cultivates a few flowers, to the Duke of Devonshire who cultivates acres.
We had no Dukes of Devonshire in this country, but there was what was better, a public spirit, and Port Elizabeth had set a grand example to the whole of the colony.
It was a pleasure to have to come to Port Elizabeth to see what the public spirit of the community could do, and not asking the Government to do what people ought to do for themselves.
In this respect he thought Port Elizabeth affords an admirable example to many other places in this colony (applause).
As their worthy Mayor had said, the place where they then stood was, a few years ago, a howling wilderness, and no one thought they would ever have gardens there like the present, and anyone who said so would be laughed at.
But all these difficulties were overcome by the public spirit of Port Elizabeth, without appeals to that much burdened entity, the Government, that is called upon to do things (laughter).
He hoped they would continue to act in the same way, and whenever they ask the Government for assistance the Government will be inclined to listen to them (hear hear).
He liked to see people helping themselves.
It has been said by Faith all things are accomplished, and he was sure by Faith Port Elizabeth had set an example to other communities.
Referring to the water supply, he said Port Elizabeth was one of the best supplied towns with water in South Africa. It would be a credit to any town of even six times the size of Port Elizabeth (Mr W Jones: Hear, hear).
In the present Mayor they had the right man in the right place.
From another hand (doubtless Mr McGibbon’s of the Botanical Gardens, Cape Town), we have an account of the park:
“Leaving Main-street, the place ‘where merchants most do congregate,’ and proceeding up the steep ascent known as White’s Road, passing the handsome Catholic Church on the left, and at a distance of less than a quarter of a mile from the Town Hall, a flat table-land is reached, locally known as ‘The Hill.’
Scattered irregularly over this locality are many fine villas and houses in almost any style, and no style, of architecture, the abodes of the aristocracy of the place.
Here merchants, bankers, ‘newspaper people,’ &c., have their dwellings, where they can breathe a pure bracing atmosphere after the business of the day is completed in the town below, which from this point is almost hid from the view.
At some distance beyond this pleasant locality, and yet at a convenient distance from the town, is situated the Park – one of the lions of the bay, and a most agreeable public place for strangers to visit at Port Elizabeth, and where fair faces, the grace and beauty of the bay, may be seen at all hours, from early morn to dewy eve.
‘G-d helps those who help themselves, is a proverb as old as the hills, and the park at Port Elizabeth is a capital illustration of the truth of it, and what may be done by local energy from local resources.
These gardens have been wholly created and maintained in their present excellent state of cultivation by the corporation of the town for the use and benefit of the people, – not for a class, but for black and white, rich and poor alike.
They are open at all reasonable hours.
No whining solicitations for Government aid are ever heard in the Executive or within the walls of Parliament House.
The Bayonians are justly proud of their Park and contribute freely the necessary means for its support.
The extent of land allotted for the Park is large, a portion of which only is fenced and laid out as a garden. Additions will be made from time to time, as circumstances admit.
Between three and four acres are now in course of being added.
Some portions of the Park have been sold in allotments for villa residences; these yield a quitrent which go to the revenue for the maintenance of the garden.
A considerable number of the allotments still remains unsold. In course of time, these will become very valuable, and be eagerly taken up as the progress and importance of the place increases.
Being as yet the great outlet for the produce of an extensive back country, and the only port for imports in vessels of heavy tonnage, Port Elizabeth must always be a progressive place.
Never having been fostered by an Imperial military expenditure, it has nothing to fear from the withdrawal of the troops.
Like all commercial cities, it has had and will again have its periods of depression and revival.
With the progress of the town, villas and residences will spring up on the Park lands and cluster round the garden, realizing an ample revenue for its support.
On approaching the enclosure, and glancing at the surroundings, it is at once seen the site of these gardens is not naturally adapted for artistic effect in landscape gardening, but the most has been made of what existed.
Entering by the principal gateway, a broad walk leads to and encircles an ornamental basin for retaining a supply of water for the garden.
The surface of the water is covered by aquatic plants; but it strikes the visitor at once that something else is wanting to fill up the pretty picture of the fountain, and we cannot help suggesting a rock-work for the centre as one thing needed.
Eastern Province Herald
September 13, 1882.
It is a sad fact that many buildings from this period have been lost, mainly as a result of hasty decisions based on the assumption that repairs would be prohibitively expensive. In Port Elizabeth’s case, demolition was briefly considered in 1972, but rejected by the City Council. It was declared a national monument in 1983.
Between 2009 and 2011 the conservatory underwent a complete re-creation, rather than restoration (so much of the wood that was the building’s substructure had rotted and the idea was to make the building last), after it was saved from demolition in the 1970s.The restoration has managed to marry the need for endurance with preserving the building’s original character. Today it is a Grade 2 listed building.
As part of the process of restoring the building its original cast iron structure was maintained, but the timber substructure was completely replaced with galvanised steel tubing. Into this they inserted meranti handmade window panes and doors (replacing the former pine doors and windows) and mimicked the original timber mouldings with moulded fibreglass.
What one is left with is a contemporary replica on a Victorian theme that pays tribute to the original beautifully. The team used old photographs and records so that they could display similar plants to those that originally featured in the conservatory, although they vary through the year depending on the weather.
The lights in front of the building were recovered from the old Mayoral Garden in front of the City Hall and re-used here, as was the sandstone paving on the internal pathways. The central fountain is still the original one that was imported from the United Kingdom in 1882. Horticultural grade glass is used in the building while the central dome was replaced with fibreglass in the early 1970’s. Conservatories from the Victorian era give every appearance of being fragile, light and airy structures, but are, in fact, remarkably stable.
To many horticulturists they represent an absolutely ideal example of a building designed to look beautiful and fulfil the decidedly utilitarian function of growing plants from a variety of climates.
Ventilation is by geared, hand operated roof ventilators and individual side windows. There is now a back-up electrical fan system for ventilating and heating when no staff is on duty. Normally there would have been heating by boiler and hot-water pipes, but this was omitted.
Given reasonable and sustained maintenance there is no reason why this structure should not last for a long time and the present condition gives no cause for undue concern. All of the ironwork and over 98% of the woodwork are original, whilst a goodly proportion of the glass also dates back to 1882.
Decay despite renovation
Maintenance of the building and its contents has since been supervised by the parks department. Questioned about the state of the building, municipal spokesman Mthubanzi Mniki said the department was using the “workforce” that was in place – that is, a handyman to do minor repairs.
“The department has a maintenance plan that will look at repairs as and when required,” he said. As the Pearson Conservatory was classified a heritage building, any repairs done would need to be kept as close to the original as possible, Mniki said. “Only experts in this field can be appointed to do the work.” The municipality had been working with a service provider specialising in such structures, along with the municipal architects, to ensure a complete repair plan. “The plan includes [the] possibility of permanent security for the structure,” he said. Supply chain processes had been completed and work would start as soon as an allocation was confirmed from the municipality’s operational budget. Mniki also appealed to the public to take care of the facility and protect it against vagrants. “If the community works closely with the municipality, facilities of this nature can be preserved,” he said.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)