A bog and the Bug House

2017-02-17 10:28
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PICS: Sandton demolition

The old municipal buildings and former FIFA 2010 World Cup headquarters in central Sandton have been demolished. See the pictures here.

While younger readers may have been puzzled by Thursday’s Nostalgia series picture in The Witness, many more mature readers knew exactly what they were looking at.

The picture first aroused curiosity in The Witness newsroom, with many of us wondering why on earth there would be a building in the middle of the old Chapel Street.

The Witness phonelines were busy on Thursday morning, as many people called in to tell us that the quaint building in the road was actually a public toilet.

They also shared their memories of other familiar landmarks around the area.

First on the line was the well-known Keith Olivier, previous principal of Maritzburg College and city councillor.

Olivier said the old public toilet was a familiar sight for him. He estimated the picture must have been taken in the 1940s.

But, what Olivier reminisced about more than the toilets was the Excelsior cinema house, fondly known as the “Bug House”.

He said it was very popular with the youngsters back then and used to show cowboy pictures.

Olivier said the “dark and dingy” cinema was demolished in the early 1950s.

Olivier remembers an article in The Witness at the time lamenting the loss of the fine example of Victorian architecture.

“It was written by a dear old revered gentleman, John Clark, a teacher at Maritzburg College who also wrote for The Witness.”

Olivier also reminisced about Jimmy Lewis’ Sweet Corner, which he would visit on a Friday evening.

“It was customary for us to go walking and shopping in the evenings. If you were courting, you’d take your girl.”

Olivier added that his wife Margaret’s brother, who was around 12 years old at the time, would catch a train from Lesotho to Pietermaritzburg back then so he could attend school.

Olivier said his train would arrive at Pietermaritzburg Station at 3 am and the boy would wait in those public toilets until daylight when he could get a taxi or rickshaw to school.

Pat Dohney (88) said she also remembered the public toilets.

“You had to go down steps and there was a row of toilets. That was a long time ago.”

She guessed the photo was taken in the early 1950s.

She was a secretary in town back then and remembers taking walks there at lunchtime.

She recalled it being one and six for a ticket to the Excelsior, but she said she never went there. “It didn’t have a very good reputation.”

She said she preferred the slightly more respectable cinemas in town, the Grand and the 20th Century.

Margaret Hofmeyr said she moved to Pietermaritzburg in 1951 and it always intrigued her that there were toilets in the middle of the road. She said she was sure her parents would not have let her go to the Excelsior.

“I never sat through a movie there, but I probably sneaked a look in.”

Audrey Tanner (84) remembers having to walk two steps down to the public toilets in the late 1930s and 1940s. She said the plumbing was below ground.

She too remembered the Excelsior “bioscope” and described it as small and crowded. “You had to sit very close together. It only seated about 100 patrons.”

She also reminisced about the Sowden and Stoddard department store, which had an Eastern temple feel about it and was painted white. She added that it was later demolished and the OK Bazaars was built in its place.

“This has brought back many memories.”

Vernon Wickham said in those days you could park on either side or in the middle of Chapel Street.

He said the Excelsior had shown “cowboys and crooks” films, but he had never taken a date there, because it was before he started dating.

He said the 1948 Chrysler parked outside the Excelsior was a good indicator of when the photo was taken.

Wickham said the Mobil Gas sign pointed to where Hignett’s Motors was situated. He said the owner always parked his MG TC-type cream convertible at the side. “I always admired that car.”

He said it had sold Prancing Horse petrol and one could also get Union Spirit, a gasoline made from sugarcane that gave one’s car extra oomph.

“It was 100 octane.”

He said he used to drive an AJS motorbike.

So many other readers also called in that The Witness was unable to speak to everyone.

Many readers also wrote e-mails to The Witness about the photo:

M. Fisher guessed the building was an old ablution block and said they had a “similar building in the main street in Harare”.

Angela Saville said she thought the photo was from the 1950s.

“The building in the middle of the street is a public toilet — Gents and Ladies facilities. In those days it was safe to walk around the city centre, both in the daytime and nighttime and the toilets were kept spick and span.”

John Bayley wrote: “One of the cars parked appears to be a 1947 or 1948 Chevrolet sedan. This may give an indication of the dating.”

Mike Woollam said of the public toilet, that “as was the case in those days it had entrances for Whites and ‘non-Whites’, as well of course for Ladies and Gentlemen”.

He too recognised the Excelsior “Bug house”.

“Judging by the cars I would say photo taken about 1950. The black car on the right looks like a 1948 Dodge and the car in front of it possibly a Hillman Minx. The white car is, I think a Morris,” said Woollam.

Jennifer Lancaster wrote that the public lavatory was well known to her as a very small child in the early 1940s as an aunt and uncle lived in the flats opposite.

“… As traffic density increased it was demolished.

“This little building fascinated me and I frequently enquired about its use. The word ‘lavatory’ was considered indelicate and my uncle told me (to laughter from the adults present) that it was a Canary House.

“I spent many worried moments trying to work out the logistics of this; where did the canaries come from, were the canaries fed and how were they caged. A simple truth would have been preferable and instantly understood.

“The little building’s architecture suggests it may have been built in the early 20th century. Certainly, it was an iconic feature by the 1940s,” wrote Lancaster.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg

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