Raise a beer to history

2014-08-13 00:00

FROM beer to beauty.

A new gallery and exhibition space for the Durban Art Gallery (DAG) are among the possibilities for the conversion of the old Beer Hall at 102 Florence Nzama (Prince Alfred) Street.

The move is part of the refurbishment plans unveiled for the Rivertown project in downtown Durban.

Built in 1914, the Beer Hall provided a place for black people to eat and drink. Then called Native Eating Houses, they were popularly known as beer halls.

Established by the municipality to combat the illicit liquor trade, beer halls were outlets for legally drinking the sorghum beer utshwala. The Native Beer Act of 1908 facilitated opening a municipal beer monopoly in Durban and criminalised others from producing alcoholic beverages. The monopoly’s revenue eventually set up a municipal Native Affairs Department in 1916.

The building houses two separate rectangular halls joined at an angle and operated as a municipal beer hall until 1968. It was subsequently leased to several commercial firms, the last being a panel beater. When that lease expired in 1993, the municipality intended demolishing the building. However, a last-minute reprieve saw one hall now being used for storage by the DAG while the other houses the Local History Museum’s technical staff.

Collective support from the eThekweni Municipality and local architects and artists saw the Rivertown neighbourhood refurbishment project launched at nearby 8 Morrison Street during the recent UIA (International Union of Architects) conference.

One side runs adjacent to John Milne Street. The council commissioned engineer John Milne in 1855 to install a drainage channel in swamps to channel out water so the land could be used for buildings.

The Milne drain was originally open to the elements,but later concreted over. A section has been reopened as part of the Rivertown initiative.

The eThekwini Architecture Department’s Nina Saunders said a gallery was a more likely option for the old beer hall. They would meet on Friday to discuss other options.

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