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.
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.
Technically this building has not been lost as it still exists. Rather the problem relates to inappropriate alterations which have destroyed the façade of the building making it unrecognisible.
Main picture: WM Cuthberts & Co Building
This was one of the glories of old Main Street and many have considered its demolition and that of the Mutual Arcade, two doors up, as the greatest acts of vandalism in the city.
Main picture: The Bank of Africa
If you were able to put the genie back in the bottle, what changes to the historic Port Elizabeth should not have been made or what should have been done differently.
Main picture: St Mary’s Church’s frontage in Main Street with the elegant building behind hidden from view by the UBS Building
The employees of this venerable establishment will undoubtedly be offended if their shops were referred to a clothing stores. This would lump them together with retailers such as Mr Price, Jet or Ackermans. Instead they should be referred to as outfitters which more befits their role and image in establishment circles in Port Elizabeth.
This is a succinct history of this 150-year-old establishment which still has ties back to its founder, Mr Trenley Birch.
Main picture: Mr Trenley Birch, founder of T. Birch & Co
This blog is largely based upon the reminiscences in the 1940s of Anthony Scallan who was born on the first floor of his father’s shop in Main Street on 12nd October 1852. Below, the sign on the shop front, it read, “James Scallan, Tailor.” This business was run by John’s grandfather, James Scallan, an early Settler but not strictly 1820, and by his father, Patric [sic], who had been born in 1822.
He vividly recounts what Main Street was like in an era when most buildings were double-storeyed with the upstairs area being the family’s home. Join me on a journey to a long-lost world of early Main Street, not only the buildings but also some of the characters that inhabited them.
Main picture: One of the earlier photographs of Market Square long before the erection of the Public Library
Not only does Fischer’s Jewellers embody the essence of Port Elizabeth but also for many of its citizens, especially in prior generations, Fischer’s was their preferred choice for jewellery. Also, the building is one of the remaining structure built in the Art Nouveau style.
Apart from this obvious connection, my grandmother had another, more obtuse connection, to this iconic store.
Main picture: One of the very earliest photos of the newly opened Fischer & Co building in Main Street circa 1914
More modern does not necessarily equate with better. In this regard, the Mutual Arcade in Main Street, Port Elizabeth comes to mind. From 1900 to 1958, it graced Main Street to be replaced with an insipid rectangular building.
Main picture: The Mutual Arcade circa 1904 showing shops at ground level in Main Street
Sixty one years after the landing of the 1820 Settlers, the tramway network was established on 14th May 1881. As the initial trams were all horse drawn, no routes up the hill could be established. Instead the line followed the route of Main Street and its various extensions to North End. From 16th June 1897, it was converted to electrical power which allowed the routes to be extended up White’s and Russell Road.
The tramway network was finally closed down on 17th December 1948.
Main picture: My favourite picture of this era showing a horse drawn tram at the terminus where the incoming and outgoing lines merged