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Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 09:38

I snapped the image above from the Station Street entrance of the Braamfontein East Campus  - exiting the Wits gates. Photo taken on Sunday 17th November 2019. It reminded me of how much of a city university Wits is and how layered the city is in the buildings around us. 
In the foreground are the old corrugated iron semi-detached workers cottages (now the Performing Arts Administration of Wits’ School of Arts). This was once a home of an artisan - we know they were here as artisan’s residences of turn of the 20th century Braamfontein. 
The tall building with the circular flying saucer top is the 1970s Lawson’s Corner and the flying circle was the old revolving restaurant and night club of that era. It was the pride of Wilfred Lawson who started life in Braamfontein when he established a garage and petrol station on Jorissen Street and went on to become a car agent. He held the agency for Volvo as I recollect. Many older Wits alumni recall being sold their first car by Mr Lawson. Lawson’s corner with its garage on the corner of Bertha Street (extension of Jan Smuts Avenue) and Jorissen Street grew to reflect Lawson’s  business acumen and success in the automobile world. There was initially a fairly modest building but ultimately the skyscraper rose on the corner site. The original street frontage building was then backed by the 21 storey skyscraper.


Different angles of Lawson's Corner (The Heritage Portal)

Wilfred Lawson was a Johannesburg character and a party man - his daughter is Wilma Lawson Turnbull who became a great PR lady and celebrated socialite. His son Matthew was a fellow student in economic history with me. Lawson was also a keen early aviation enthusiast and an airplane crash, which left him severely crippled for life, did not dampen his spirit.
Lawson’s other major 1970s investment building in Braamfontein was Noswal Hall, which was named for himself (it’s just Lawson spelt backwards). It was an office block but has been converted into student accommodation and is part of Wits University’s  Braamfontein Residence Cluster.
In 1976 Lawson’s Corner was acquired by the University of the Witwatersrand after the death of Wilfred Lawson and renamed 'University Corner'. The 19 storey building presented a challenge to Wits.  Would it be possible to use a tall building as a teaching space when you are totally dependent on high speed lifts to move students in short time slots between lectures. For a few years Wits ran the revolving restaurant as a staff facility and those were luxury heady days of having all Johannesburg spread out below, as the circular restaurant with its grand double storey volume and dramatic stage like velvet curtains set the mood for afternoon lectures.
In 2012 the old Lawson’s Garage and the lower floors of the older part of Lawson’s buildings (now University Corner) were recreated as the prominent and successful Wits Arts Museums (WAM) incorporating  the garage forecourt as well as a basement gallery and ground floor gallery and the mezzanine gallery.


Wits Art Museum (The Heritage Portal)


University Corner (The Heritage Portal)

The third building that caught my eye, is a new addition and stretches almost the length of the block from Bertha Street to Station Street with the frontage on Jorissen Street. It is still under construction and has changed the proportions of the street, the relationship of one building to another has suddenly developed new geometry. The old small Braamfontein Barclays Bank building on the corner (now  the Scientology Centre in Braamfontein) which has a certain classical august bank architecture look, has now been scaled down in size and importance. It is a new development by South Point student accommodation and property company and its latest student residence, complete with new-look ground-floor retail space, is under construction with the demolition of some earlier rather non-descript low rise corner buildings (Kirchoff’s seed and garden shop was once there). Now Braamfontein is a thriving throbbing student hub with South Point providing thousands of student beds on a commercial let basis. They are part of the urban revival of this early suburb  They are part of the urban revival of this early suburb, which was once the first suburb of modest means to emerge beyond the railway lines. In the fifties Braamfontein began to transform into a business node but today it has reverted to residential (but for a transitory student population). It’s a great place for coffee bars, food markets, restaurants and art galleries.


Scientology Centre Braamfontein (The Heritage Portal)

Johannesburg is a city that changes before your eyes -  but sometimes a simple pair of artisan cottages, survives as the representation of  the  legacy of the early 20th century and even a 1970s building   has arrived at the half century mark.

Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand and chair of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation. 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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