This is an article that we have been wanting to write for years. We have always been amazed how the six storey Markhams building was once the tallest building in the city and thought it would be fascinating to trace the record breakers over the decades. The list is definitely a work in progress and we will need your help to generate a complete picture. Feel free to add your comments below the article. [Originally published in 2014]
While one could go back further our list begins with the Palace Buildings located on the corner of Pritchard and Rissik Streets and built in 1889 (demolished in the 1950s). The five storey building was a landmark for decades reaching 28.35m into the sky.
The Palace Building (Mining & Magnates)
In 1897 a new landmark building rose above the mining town... the six storey Markhams building, located on the corner of Eloff and Pritchard Streets (still standing today - well at least the facades and clock tower). It would hold the height record until 1902/3. [we still need to get an accurate height measurement]
The Markhams Building
After the War construction began on the new Corner House Head Office (the Third Corner House) which became the largest and tallest commercial building in South Africa. It was a technological masterpiece and people from all over the Rand came to marvel at it. More research may be needed here but it appears as though the +- 38m high Corner House held the record up until the late 1920s.
The Corner House (Heritage Portal)
The period from 1929 to 1937 saw the title change hands at least four times. The Barbican building (42.67m) held the record from 1929/30 until 1932 when the developers of Astor Mansions insisted on adding twin spires to take the record (45.72m). Clive Chipkin (Johannesburg Style) provides a great description of the competitive spirit of the time:
Astor Mansions is a close contemporary of Barbican Building and, like its rival, was intended to be ten storeys high. But when it was realised that this would give pre-eminence in the Johannesburg skyline to the Barbican Building, the architects were instructed to increase the height by any means possible. Astor Mansions was completed in 1932, and with its eleven storeys and accroutements it epitomises the prestige attached to height...
Astor Mansions only held the record for a few months before Castle Mansions on Eloff Street stole the show. Not only was this building the tallest at just over 55m but it was also the greatest in size and bulk.
Barbican Building (The Heritage Portal)
Astor Mansions (The Heritage Portal)
Castle Mansions (The Heritage Portal)
Four great skyscrapers were built in the mid 1930s: Ansteys, Escom House, the Lewis & Marks Building and Chrysler House. These buildings would dominate the Johannesburg skyline for over thirty years (along with His Majesty's finally completed at the end of World War II). In terms of the record breakers it appears as though Escom House and Ansteys vied for the title. Again Chipkin provides a fantastic description:
At a height of 236 feet, Escom House was pre-eminent in Johannesburg, and was considerably higer than the tower of the Senate House at London University. But Anstey's surmounted by its Art Deco flagmast, seemed in the 1930s (when viewed from Hospital Hill) the highest point in the Johannesburg skyline. From pavement level, however, Escom House looked the higher building to the generation of children who were taken to gape at the incredible site, not believing that humans could build so high.
Ansteys Building (Brian McKechnie)
More research on the Chamber of Mines Building is needed. This could throw the cat amongst the pigeons in terms of the information above (various internet sources put its height at just under 77m).
Chamber of Mines Building (The Heritage Portal)
It would take a change in the zoning laws of Johannesburg to open up a new chapter for the city. Various sources mention that from the mid 1960s until the late 1970s over sixty towers were built transforming the skyline to what we generally recognise today. The mid to late 1960s is a period where we definitely need assistance. The information we have is that the Schlesinger Building in Braamfontein, completed in +- 1965, and reaching 110m, took the crown.
Schlesinger Building (The Heritage Portal)
More research will be needed on the exact completion dates of The Standard Bank Centre (139m) and Trust Bank Building (140m). It appears as though both were finished in 1970. We are including both on the list for now and hope someone out there can provide exact completion dates (Standard Bank Centre appears to be late 1970).
Standard Bank Towers / The Hanging Building (Heritage Portal)
This then brings us to the ultimate Johannesburg record breaker... the Carlton Centre (223m) completed in 1973 (see main image). The Carlton reaches up fifty floors and together with the Hillbrow Tower (the tallest structure at 269m) and Ponte (the tallest residential building) dominates our skyline today.
Carlton Centre (The Heritage Portal)
Hillbrow Tower and Ponte (The Heritage Portal)
The Carlton has held the record for over forty years now. Do you think Johannesburg will reignite the race for height one day? Is building tall compatible with the social challenges facing our country? The future will be very interesting indeed.