Fiery farewell to Harwin’s Arcade

2009-07-31 00:00

“NOT just a building, but a place where life happened.” That’s how DA MPL Radley Keys yesterday summed up Harwin’s Arcade, which used to provide a “magnificent” home to Progressive Federal Party (PFP) offices from the mid 1970s to 1989 when the Democratic Party was formed.

PFP regional party director during that time, Keys recalled that the political party shared the upstairs section of the arcade with a number of tailors and seamstresses for which the arcade became well known. “Downstairs, there was a nice bar for a while and various businesses moved in and out. It was magnificent,” he said.

“For us, it was a comfortable place, where we enjoyed some victorious times and some times when we were beaten by the Nats. The offices were of course much larger than modern-day offices and were well laid-out.”

Keys said the fire damage to the building represents a loss for the city and a loss for those who work in it. “We need to make a strong statement and ask what is going on in the fire department. Does the council take the safety of our buildings seriously?” he said.

Bloomsbury bookshop, another local landmark whose demise was widely mourned by Maritzburg’s reading public, occupied two levels of the arcade for a substantial period.

Local resident Merridy Pfotenhauer, who managed the shop together with owner Thomas Welz for 13 years during the ’80s and ’90s, said the shop consistently drew fascinating visitors from around the country.

“Extraordinary people used to walk through the shop door, representing professions ranging from bricklayers to judges,” she said.

The arcade is on the Amafa register of listed buildings and, according to Amafa’s Ros Devereaux, it is believed to be one of the only remaining examples of Victorian arcades in the province and among possibly one or two remaining in South Africa.

“Certainly, there are none left in Durban and the ones in Johannesburg have largely been destroyed, although there may be one in Cape Town,” she said.

In his book, The Architecture of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, Dennis Radford described the covered arcade as a “rarity”, running between Timber Street and Theatre Lane, which gave expression to the late Victorian love of “surface richness”.

Devereaux included the arcade, which she described as “small by British standards”, in tours of the city. She said the clientele has changed over the years and it still retains its character and interest from a tourist point of view.

Devereaux said the arcade underwent a revamp during the mid-1980s, along with several other buildings in the city centre, as part of a restoration campaign driven by the Pietermaritzburg Society, which later became the Pietermaritzburg Heritage Society. Towards the end of that decade, however, restoration efforts had largely petered out.

In the late ’70s, the arcade was clearly in need of a revamp. An architectural essay entitled Walks around Pietermaritzburg by Gordon Small and Jon Williams written at that time refers to the “unfortunate shabbiness” of an otherwise “very pleasant top-lit space”.

In latter years, cash-lending businesses had migrated to the arcade, although its reputation as a good place to have a wedding dress made or your trouser legs taken up persisted.

“Once again, Amafa is very sad to see a building of this kind damaged by fire,” said Devereaux, referring to the recent fire that damaged the Colonial Building recently.


Named after successful Pietermaritzburg merchant John Harwin, the arcade was designed by Harwin’s son-in-law Clement Horner Stott, a partner in Stott & Kirkby architects.

A young man of 23, Harwin arrived in Natal in 1862 and opened a successful retail business, Harwin & Co., dealing in drapery and clothing and operating out of a specially built shop in Church Street, opposite the Standard Bank. Later, he turned his interest to transport and diamond mining, becoming very wealthy in the process, according to a family history written by Cedric Akerman.

Harwin’s Arcade, the design of which he commissioned from Stott, was one of two major construction projects undertaken by Harwin during his lifetime. It was built between 1902 and 1904.

The other project was the construction of the Harwin home at the end of Alexandra Road in Pentrich, known as Sans Souci, which was designed by German architect Albert Halder, who apparently imported craftsmen from Italy and France to do the building.

Harwin’s great-grandson, Pietermaritzburg local resident Richard Clacey, told The Witness that both Harwin’s Arcade and the Sans Souci homestead have always been strong family landmarks for him and his family. He admitted yesterday to being shocked to learn of the fire damage to the arcade.

Following Harwin’s death in 1927 at the age of 88, Harwin & Co. was sold to John Orr, who became a big name in departmental stores.

Harwin’s Arcade was also sold a few years later. According to Clacey, the latter sale probably took place in the early 1930s.


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