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Tuesday, March 27, 2018 - 18:38

My acknowledgement and huge thanks to Clive Chipkin, Marc Latilla and Alkis Doucakis who generously gave me their views and drove me to improvements and further research. Thank you.

Sometimes falling upon an artwork that appeals because of the subject or scenery can lead one to an artist and a great deal more besides. This week I encountered (and purchased) a wonderful lithograph of old Johannesburg. It was love at first sight. This fine lithograph in black and white (illustration above) is by the 20th century English artist Charles Ernest Peers. Peers made his home in South Africa from 1904 and died in 1944.

The lithograph has no date but from clues in the picture, the date is likely to be 1937. The composition shows a somewhat dreamy view of the old city, filled with buildings, churches, the Great Park Synagogue and in the far distance a mine dump to the south (could the mine dump be Village Main?). Spires and steeples of at least six churches feature. It is a picture that deserves magnifying glass inspection. Close examination shows that the tallest skyscraper in the background is the Ansteys building and it is still under construction. Hence a guess at a date as circa 1937.


Peers view of Jhb for a cigarette card ablum


It seems there is a certain authenticity and verisimilitude about the work, but an artist can “invent” a city or give an impressionistic view of a cityscape. Perspectives can be foreshortened and streets shifted or some landmarks or features one would expect to see are just not there (I hesitate to say missing) - Joubert Park was the Johannesburg  park of the thirties but does not appear.

Clive Chipkin takes another view and comments:

I query the accuracy of this urban portrayal - let me tell you why: Ansteys skyscraper under construction (R centre background); then to the left, the radio mast on Broadcast House, and twin modernistic towers of Astor Mansions are surely both in wrong position.

The spire on the left of Ansteys could be that of Castle Mansions. In any event do we allow our artist Peers some latitude?


Ansteys (Brian McKechnie)


Castle Mansions (The Heritage Portal)


Johannesburg of the thirties from the early years of the decade and then much speeded up in the wake of the move off the Gold Standard and recovery from the Great Depression was on its way to being a modern Art Deco City of international importance. Modernity in architecture expressed itself in the confident, new tall residential apartment blocks, shops, office blocks and cinemas. Well documented are Broadcast House in Fox Street, Castle Mansions in Eloff Street, Ansteys Department store and building on Joubert and Jeppe Street and Astor Mansions corner of Jeppe and Von Brandis Streets. It is these sort of buildings that appear to form the backdrop to the Peers drawing. They are an expression of the new Joburg rising as the mining town (by then a city) celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1936 with the successful Empire Exhibition at the Milner Park site, bringing 2 million visitors to Johannesburg.


1935 Broadcast House on Fox Street. Architects Cook and Cowen for I W Schlesinger. (Seventy Golden Years)


Ansteys under construction (Artefacts)


Old photo of Astor Mansions, corner of Jeppe and Von Brandis, 1931, Obel and Obel - combination of shops and residential blocks – fashionable with a New York name and presence.


The background view shows Johannesburg of the thirties with rising new deco apartment and business skyscrapers changing the skyline. Johannesburg in that decade was being transformed from a low-rise town to a high-rise city with the atmosphere of a southern African New York. In the far distance one can spot the twin crowns of His Majesty’s building (corner of Eloff and Commissioner Streets) but in 1937 that would have been the old theatre which had opened in 1903. In 1937 African Consolidated Theatres commissioned J.C. Cook & Cowen to design a new theatre and office complex to replace the earlier His Majesty’s. However construction was interrupted by World War II and the new theatre and office complex was only completed in 1945. There is an Art Deco series Blue Plaque on His Majesty’s but the theatre has since disappeared.


His Majesty's Building (Seventy Golden Years)


Another Johannesburg landmark building of the thirties, that perhaps more than any other new edifice defined the modernity of the city, was the first Escom House on Main and Rissik Street. It opened in 1937 surpassing Ansteys as the tallest building in the city, at a height of 236 feet. Escom House was designed by Percy Rogers Cooke but completed by Professor Geoffrey Rogers Cooke.


Escom House from the air (source unknown)

Clive Chipkin comments with a knowledgeable and critical eye, on the specifics of the identifiable buildings in the Peers lithograph: “In the foreground is the dome of the Great Park Synagogue and opposite was the Hebrew Sefa torah school; to the left is Christian Science church; and to the right of the dome of the synagogue is St Mary’s Cathedral but the positions are suspect, where is Joubert Park?”


Wolmarans Street Shul / The Great Park Synagogue (The Heritage Portal)


The Great Park Synagogue or the Wolmarans Street Shul dates from 1913 and was designed by the Swiss architect, Theophile Schaerer. The synagogue was consecrated in 1914. The synagogue filled an entire city block bounded by Wolmarans, Claim, Quartz and Smit Streets. The site was chosen by the architect Hermann Kallenbach. It was close to Doornfontein and residential old Johannesburg where the Jewish community lived and worked. The Synagogue closed in 1994 and a new Great Park Synagogue was built in Oaklands, opening in 2000. Today the Wolmarans Street Synagogue is the home the Revelation Church of God and attracts thousands of people who fill the church and the surrounding streets and pavements on a Sunday.



        Sunday morning on Wolmarans Street outside the old Great Park Synagogue – it is now a new church. Here are people sitting and standing on the pavement (the overfill from the church) and they are in front of  the Hebrew High School which featured in the Peers Lithograph. Photo by Kathy Munro.

Now if we take a closer look at this picture we see its small decorative steeple and the identifying  name in plaster – the Hebrew High School.


The really fascinating aspect of the Peers picture is that it shows a contrast between an “older” and a “newer” Johannesburg. Here is the documentary evidence of old Johannesburg  portrayed in the architecture and scale of the buildings in the foreground. These were the churches, four and five storey apartment blocks of the twenties, the rooming house backing onto Noord Street alongside the steep railway cutting. These are survivals from Johannesburg of the 1900s, the post Anglo-Boer War decade when the city shifted to permanence and communities and families lived in the inner city. People who lived in the city needed homes, schools, churches, clubs, parks and all the amenities that made an urban lifestyle appealing. The inner city of the first half of the twentieth century was still residential: trees still mattered. Churches and immigrant national identity shaped communities: Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Swedish, English, 7th Day Adventist, Christian Science, the Anglican Cathedral (St Mary's), Protestant Presbyterian.


The lithograph with labels by Marc Latilla and Alkis Doucakis


In the foreground is the Great Park Synagogue on Wolmarans Street fronted by a gracious residential block called Eaglemont. Marc Latilla and Alkis Doucakis have kindly provided the labels and have identified what we see. Marc has inserted labels on the picture and Alkis writes:

That's Smit Street in front with the dome of the Great Synagogue on Wolmarans Street. Front left (east) is the English church built of dressed koppie stone on Banket Street.  Is that not the roof turret of the Hebrew School of 1911, cnr Claim Street, to the left (east) of the synagogue? (indeed yes and it is still there) Between the Swedish church, which was on Hancock Street, and the 7th day Adventist church was St. Georges (Presbyterian). It doesn't appear to be in the picture. It had a very distinctive spire. (Not entirely convinced about the Swedish Church, but it's in the right place as far as I can see). Near the 7th day Adventist is the old Central Zion church, but it doesn't look like the image in the picture, hence my not being sure. There was also an old Baptist church on De Villiers Street, but it was closer to St. Mary's.

With reference to the building marked the "Greek orthodox church": the church became a cathedral in 1927. It was built on the stand to the left (east) of the building ringed in your painting. The stand with the building was bought c. 1945 and the ringed building was demolished to become the cathedral's garden. It is now the cathedral's parking area“.   


The Greek Orthodox Cathedral designed by Hermann Kallenbach and built in 1913. It does not feature in the Peers lithograph. (Photograph Kathy Munro 2016)  


       Another shot of the Cathedral (The Heritage Portal)


In summary: the places of religion / school Marc has identified are: the Great Park Synagogue on Wolmarans Street (still there and now on sold to a Pentecostal church), St Mary's Cathedral, the Jewish School on Wolmarans Street (still there), the First Christian Science Church, the Swedish Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and with some doubt the 7th Day Adventist Church. Marc adds that the building next to the Swedish church could be the original Marist Brothers school which was in Kock Street.


Early photo of Koch Street School of Marist Brothers (via www.maristbl.co.za)


Another building displayed prominently in the centre of the Peers lithograph is Geraldine Court, a high-rise apartment block on Wolmarans Street opposite the Great Park Synagogue. The architect was John Russell Boulton (listed on Artefacts and dated “pre 1939").


Geraldine Court as it appears today (source unknown)


Somewhat older but also just visible in our lithograph is Kensington Flats in Noord Street (now named Sophie De Bruyn St) backing onto the railway cutting, with distinctive cast-iron verandah. This rooming establishment dates from circa late 1890s and has an A grading from the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation. The Architect was Robert Lockhart McCowat and the original owner was Holt and Holt.

The apartment block in the foreground on Smit Street is Eaglemont. Marc has been the detective and has established that Eaglemont later became the BG Alexander Nursing School residence until it was vacated in 2001. It's on the corner of Banket and Pieterse Streets. Further research is needed but it appears as though this is a Gordon Leith designed buiding.

B G Alexander was Bella Gordon Alexander who served as the General Secretary of the South African Trained Nurses’ Association (SATNA) and was the Matron of the Johannesburg Hospital during interwar years. She was a champion of nursing education.


Eaglemont now the B G Alexander Nursing school (The Heritage Portal)


By the early 2000s the B.G. had fallen into extreme disrepair and the building was hijacked. Since 2007 a social housing partnership of Madulammoho and the City of Johannesburg’s JOSHCO has restored the property and created an estate that is today home to more than 1000 tenants. It is a substantial development occupying an entire city block. The B.G. is a series of buildings designed around a central courtyard space. This image above shows some obvious changes when compared to the 1937 Peers picture: the satellite TV reception dishes, parking for cars, an enclosed street and security gates. The trees are still a green life saver and are now grand old green ladies.


This 3D view on google maps provides us with a glimpse of Peers’ Johannesburg some 80 years later - the Great Park Synagogue is still there as is the First Christian Science Church.


Heritage takes one into unexpected corners and brings up new links, so here is a toast to Charles Ernest Peers and his valuable record of Johannesburg with all its possible uncertainties and the interesting debate it has raised. Meanwhile I shall be framing it and  placing it in my Joburg home. It is a treat to know I and my friends have now studied this picture with care.

Are there any more Johannesburg cityscape lithographs out there?

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.


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