The history of a city icon

2009-06-13 00:00

BUILT in the closing years of the 1800s to house the Natal colonial government offices, the imposing Colonial Building — described by experts as “the first built example of Edwardian imperial baroque in the city”— has stood unused, vandalised and neglected since about 1997.

Designed by architect William Henry Powell, who entered a competition for its design in 1894 — bagging a £100 prize — it was completed in 1901.

When Pretoria became the administrative capital of South Africa in 1910, the building became headquarters of the provincial government, which later moved to Pietermaritz Street until Natalia in Longmarket was completed.

Since then, parts of the building at 241 Church Street have been used by a variety of government agencies, including the Deeds Office and the Surveyor General’s Office before they moved to premises in Pietermaritz Street.

Staff of the Natal Museum occupied the building for a period while the top floor of the museum in Loop Street was being built. The Small Claims court also took a turn occupying the building.

A range of unsuccessful proposals for its use have been made over the years, including a bid in the 1980s by former city mayor Pam Reid and others to have it converted into a theatre and opera complex.

In 1988, a delegation from the city council flew to Pretoria to protest Justice Department plans to use the building as a magistrate’s court, arguing that the traffic of prisoners and police vehicles would detract from the ambiance of the newly-pedestrianised Church Street.

In 1989, a bid by the security police to use it as their headquarters was opposed by the city council and the City Residents’ and Ratepayers’ Association.

Other proposals included its conversion into an upmarket hotel. In 1992, the building was put up for sale, but no buyer stepped forward.

The Witness has, over the years, carried stories of decay and vandalism of the building, reporting that in 1998, the KwaZulu-Natal Heritage Council found that thieves had made off with copper sheeting from the roof, the cast aluminium staircase capping, two tons of lead lining from the toilets and all the cast-iron Victorian firehearths.

Plans for refurbishment were first announced in 2004, but actual renovations of the site, which were to house the Master of the Supreme Court offices and a new parking garage at the rear, began in July last year when the site was handed over to GVK-Siyazama contractors with Nick Grice on board as project architect.

Yesterday a spokesperson for Grice, Small & Petit said the contractors were halfway through their two-year, R80 million contract and had completed 40% of the work required.

“Much of the initial ‘slow’ work had been completed and we were fully on track to finish in the required time,” the spokesperson said.

 

PRECAUTIONS against fire were a major concern for the original architect, William Henry Powell.

In a retrospective piece produced in July 2004, The Witness noted that following the laying of the foundation stone in 1887, masons went on strike and “a long debate began about the necessary fire precautions for the building”. The debate reportedly continued, even after civil servants had occupied certain completed sections. On July 20, 1899, Powell wrote a letter drawing attention in the final paragraph to “the practice followed by the civil servants of smoking within the building, having in regard the quantity of inflammable material. It is hoped that in mentioning this subject, it will be understood that our intention is solely the preservation of the building.”

The prescient Powell died in 1900, never getting a chance to see the completed building.

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