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Thursday, July 27, 2023 - 22:19

On Sunday 16 July, Johannesburg Heritage members, in partnership with the Freemasons of Johannesburg, hosted the blue plaque unveiling celebration at Freemasons Hall, Parktown.


The crowd gathers outside Freemasons Hall (Vincent Carruthers)


Opened in 1957 and designed by Gordon Leith, the building captures Leith’s architectural commitment to the classical and traditional. There is an echo of the Herbert Baker spirit (Leith was a disciple and apprenticed to Herbert Baker). With its imposing Corinthian columns fronting a long ambulatory and the imposing bronze faced double entrance, this is an august but austere building. It has served the Freemasons well for over 60 years. The design of the building underlines a quiet grandeur but also achieves effortless functionality. The craftsmanship and detailing focus on the symbols and insignia of Free Masonry. There is symbolism, allegory and intent behind each object, the classic insignia of freemasonry are building tools such as the square and compass, the trowel and the level. The first masons were the builders creators and craftsmen of European cathedrals. The Freemasons brotherhood is rooted in ancient biblical ritual - pelicans, cornucopias, eagles all have special significance.

Gordon Leith himself was a senior Freemason. He served Johannesburg well as the architect of several important buildings in the city. His range across public edifices such as town halls, banks, hospitals, churches, domestic architecture, educational institutions, war memorials and war cemeteries was astounding. As a young man, together with Gerhard Moerdyk, he designed the classical Johannesburg Railway Station on De Villiers Street (1926-31) with its main entrance steps opening to the central hub that was Eloff Street. The Johannesburg branch of the Reserve Bank on Fox Street, Barclays Bank, the Johannesburg General hospital of the 1930s, the Queen Victoria Hospital and the Rand Water Board building are among the many buildings that still survive and are celebrated.


Johannesburg Railway Station


Reserve Bank Building (The Heritage Portal)


Johannesburg Heritage has partnered with the Freemasons in offering tours of the Freemans Hall giving our members the opportunity to learn about this distinguished Johannesburg institution. The most recent tour took place in April and was led by Kathy Munro and Clare van Zweiten.

Freemasonry has enjoyed a strong presence in Johannesburg from the late 1880’s to the present. Drawing on Anna Smith’s Johannesburg Firsts : “The first Masonic Temple dates from 21 September 1887 for on this day Capt. C von Brandis laid the foundation stone on the corner of Rissik and Main Streets."

The first British Lodge was started by C Cowen and others (Anglo-African Who’s Who, 1905). The Star of 11 September 1920 recorded Johannesburg Lodge (English), Golden Thistle (Scottish) and Star of the Rand (Netherlandish) as the earliest lodges in Johannesburg.

The District Grand Lodge, which has its headquarters in the  present building, was established in 1895 in the old Jeppe Street Masonic Temple.

The blue plaque reads: 

Freemasons’ Hall was completed in 1957. It is the Headquarters of English Freemasonry under the United Grand Lodge of England in the District of South Africa North. The building was designed by the architect Gordon Leith, District Grand Superintendent of Works, an active senior Freemason. He worked in the practice of Sir Herbert Baker and was influenced by his work. The building is characterised by its elongated horizontal and symmetrical form, its colonnaded street entrance and impressive entrance hall.


Blue Plaque (Vincent Carruthers)


The unveiling was a stylish affair; champagne flowed and we toasted the Freemasons and the newest blue plaque in the Johannesburg City Heritage series.

For the JHF it has been a happy partnership with the key officers of the Freemasons of the District Grand Lodge, Johannesburg North. The plaque was unveiled by Leighton Shaw (Assistant District Grand Master and Chairman of the Heritage Appeal Committee) and Christopher van Gaalen – District Grand Master.


The blue plaque emerges from behind the curtain (Vincent Carruthers)

The members of the Heritage Appeal Committee, Richard Fahrenheim (District Grand Tyler), Richard Woodward (District Grand Almoner), Charles Burn (Assistant District Grand Master) and Roland Dunstan (Librarian and District Grand Secretary) took the lead in this project.

Following the unveiling guests were treated to a stunning jazz concert in the principal lodge meeting room with Matthew Hardegen and the Four Seasons Jazz Quartet.


Grand staircase at Freemasons Hall (Vincent Carruthers)


Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories. She researches and writes on historical architecture and heritage matters. She is a member of the Board of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and is a docent at the Wits Arts Museum. She is currently working on a couple of projects on Johannesburg architects and is researching South African architects, war cemeteries and memorials. Kathy is a member of the online book community the Library thing and recommends this cataloging website and worldwide network as a book lover's haven. She is also the Chairperson of HASA.


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