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Monday, July 9, 2018 - 11:38

It has been about four decades since the people of Johannesburg rallied to put pressure on the Johannesburg City Council and the Foschini Group to save the Markhams Building from demolition. The article below, written by J Campbell-Pitt representing the then Transvaal Institute of Arhitects, reveals the architectural and historical significance of the building. The piece was published in the August 1979 edition of Restorica, the journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation. Thank you to the Heritage Association of South Africa and University of Pretoria (Restorica copyright holders) for giving us permission to publish.

Markham's is the second oldest retail business in Johannesburg still operating from the same premises. When it was bought by the Foschini group, the name was not changed. 


Early photo of the Markhams Building (Girders on the Veld)


Markham's Building was erected in 1896/7, and is one of the oldest surviving buildings of historical and architectural significance in the city. It was designed in the Second Empire Style (French Neo Baroque) and is the only surviving example of commercial architecture in that style. The design is based on a portion of the facade of the new Louvre (Paris) by Visconti and Lefuel (built 1852-7). It also reflects the treatment used by Sir Charles Barry in the Halifax Town Hall (built 1860-3). Although there is no record of the original plans, the design reflects the hand of a competent architect. This is evident in the masterful way in which the classic quality of the facade has been handled. Realising the importance of this corner site the designer created a building of tower-like massing which not only serves as an important forerunner of architectural development, but is also an example of a building being treated three-dimensionally, as opposed to the two-dimensional street facade treatment which was commonplace at that time.


Photos showing the Markhams Building in the 1970s (Restorica)


The structure of Markham's was an achievement in its time, having load bearing brick walls together with cast iron stanchions supporting the internal structure. The partially red brick and plastered wall surface is heavily moulded with classical textures such as pilasters, cornices and balustrades. Originally the building was surrounded on its street front by a verandah at ground floor level which has been replaced by a reinforced canopy. The brickwork was more recently plastered, and some of the detail was thereby lost. Nevertheless the building still retained most of its character and sound construction.

The building was lavishly decorated in 1897 for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne and also for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. Markham's Building did not stand alone for long. The addition of Cuthbert's in 1904 and Chudleigh's (now the OK Bazaars) in 1912 were positive signs of confidence in the rapidly growing town of Johannesburg. 


Cuthberts Building (The Heritage Portal)


OK Bazaars (The Heritage Portal)


Markham's became a landmark. For two decades the clock tower loomed over the rough mining town like a grand palace. It was also a favourite meeting place.


Markhams Building and Clock Tower (The Heritage Portal)


The clock face has its reminders of the roughness and exuberance of the mining community - there are five bullet holes in the southern face, a remnant of some wild shoot-out in Eloff Street. The room in the roof below the clock was used for several years as a studio by the artist C H Maltby. (He painted four delightful water colours of Barnato Park in 1897 which was to be the home of Barney Barnato). There is evidence today on the wooden walls of the studio of some sketches and flora designs by other artists who worked there.


The Markhams Clock Tower (The Heritage Portal)


Inside the Clock Tower (The Heritage Portal)


Last year the owners, Foschini, decided that the time had come to replace Markham's with a more modern office complex, and it was discovered that demolition tenders had gone out. The Transvaal Provincial Institute of Architects and the Johannesburg Historical Foundation immediately sprang into action. Structural engineers were asked to make a study of the building. Their decision - that the building was still structurally sound - added fuel to the growing fire. Also, it was felt that, because of its unique architectural and historic significance, it was a building eminently suited for conservation.

The Transvaal Provincial Institute of Architects in conjunction with the Johannesburg Historical Foundation and other interested bodies set about to gauge public reaction to the proposed demolition. Petition forms were drawn up, and over 26 000 signatures were gathered in a two-day period. The press gave their wholehearted support throughout the campaign, and beyond.


Collecting signatures for the Save Markhams campaign


Dr Piet Koornhof, then Minister of Sport and Education, received a delegation comprising members of the Institute and the Johannesburg Historical Foundation, and the petitions were handed over. Dr Koornhof took a very active interest in the campaign, and chaired several meetings in his office in Pretoria.

The owners of the building, Foschini, and their architects, finally reached a compromise. They produced a plan that would save the facade whilst allowing for interior modernisation. It is an appropriate decision.

The Central Business District Association has declared that part of Eloff Street is to become a pedestrian mall, and the elegant old building will take on new meaning when the mall has been completed. Markham's could well become the fashionable spot it once was.


Another shot of the Markhams Building (The Heritage Portal)


Right now only the facade of the building is visible. Demolishers have gutted the remainder, and construction on the new interior is expected to begin shortly.


A blue plaque was unveiled in 2012 (The Heritage Portal)


Blue plaque inscription (The Heritage Portal)


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