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It is hard to imagine that the magnificent Port Elizabeth City Hall was almost demolished. The article below, first published in the Evening Post in January 1973, describes a meeting organised by the Port Elizabeth Historical Society where arguments on both sides of the preservation versus development debate were presented. We stumbled across the article in Bulletin, the old journal of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (today the Heritage Association of South Africa).
The director of the Simon van der Stel Foundation, Dr. W. Punt warned recently that if the historic 110-year old City Hall was demolished the importance of the city’s central area would decline.
Addressing a meeting called by the Port Elizabeth Historical Society and attended by about 120 people, Dr Punt, pleading for the preservation of the building, said the City Hall was part of our heritage, not only of Port Elizabeth but of South Africa.
The meeting decided, in spite of several speakers opposing the retention of the building, to ask the National Monuments Commission to investigate declaring the City Hall a national monument.
This was decided by a show of hands and without a count. But it was obvious the majority favoured preservation.
Port Elizabeth City Hall (The Heritage Portal)
Respect for the past
“Tradition speaks to all of us. It is tradition that will ultimately carry the force of national conviction that our ancestors produced something worthwhile,” Dr Punt said.
He said that by retaining the building “you will encourage the youth to respect the past”. The City Hall, he said, was built by the people who built Port Elizabeth.
He gave examples of buildings in several overseas countries which were saved for posterity after public opinion had opposed the destruction of the buildings by the authorities.
Dr Punt told the meeting “the enemies of preservation” had come with the story that preservation cost more than a new building. That he added, was not necessarily true.
The same argument was raised during the fight to preserve a church overseas and it was decided to call for tenders for both the preservation and the building of a new church.
A new church would have cost R750 000, according to the tenders received. Preservation of the old church cost R250 000. Port Elizabeth’s City Hall, Dr Punt said, had character which spoke to people of time gone by. It was the most historic City Hall outside the Western Cape.
By retaining the building, the city would create a centrepiece for the layout of the civic centre. But if it was destroyed the importance of the central area would decline.
The main clock tower (The Heritage Portal)
Dr Punt said the Prime Minister had taken a keen interest in the preservation of historic buildings. He had issued instruction to all Government departments that no state building should be demolished without its historic merit first being evaluated.
If this City Hall was evaluated, it would be classed as a historic building, A1,” Dr Punt said.
The preservation of the City Hall would have an influence on other towns and there would be a reaction throughout the country, he said.
Mr Alfred Porter, chairman of the Historical Society, said the purpose of the society’s campaign was to “prevent what we believe is a scandalous proposal”. “The Historical Society believes that this must be prevented at all costs if the city is not to be known as a city of Philistines,” he said.
Mr J. Graham Young said the City Council’s site for the planned civic centre was large enough to accommodate two civic centres without touching the City Hall. The building, he said, had cultural, historic and aesthetic value. Everything of public importance had happened on the steps, in the hall or in the rooms of the building. “It is the heart of Port Elizabeth’s history,” he said.
Mr Young also sketched the history of the plan to establish a civic centre since 1958 when the proposal was first mooted. Mr M.S. Davies, a former councillor and a prominent local figure, spoke out against the preservation of the building, but said the facade could be retained.
Mr Edgar Crews, who said he was “proud of the City Hall”, claimed the civic centre was planned on the wrong site.
Mrs Billy Gosschalk told the meeting that “when we build today, we build for the future, not for our children but our children’s children and those who came after”. Speaking against preservation, Mrs Gosschalk challenged anyone to show her something that was attractive inside the building.
Mr C. Holliday said the discomforts about which Mrs Gosschalk spoke could easily be rectified and that the building should be preserved and “turned into something that will be of some use to the generations to come.”
Another shot of the magnificent Port Elizabeth City Hall (The Heritage Portal)
Mr Ray Limbrick said a large group of people did not want the City Hall to be converted to a theatre.
Mr Porter told the meeting the primary purpose of the Historical Society was to preserve the building. There had been suggestions that it be converted to a theatre, among other things.
However, there was no official support from the society to turn it into a theatre, though its members believe this is a proposal which could be considered.
Mr A.P. Knight spoke in favour of preserving the facade only and developing round this “backdrop”.
Mr J.C. Grieve said the society should take steps to have the building declared a national monument. Mr Porter said the society had already written to the National Monuments Commission and the matter would be discussed at its next meeting.
Mr Grieve then proposed a recommendation to go forward from the meeting asking for the City Hall to be declared a national monument. The proposal was seconded by Mr Holliday.”