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Monday, September 26, 2016 - 09:25

The Three Castles Building is a landmark in downtown Johannesburg. It started life as a factory for the production of 'Three Castles' cigarettes with the facade becoming a powerful marketing tool for the brand. Initially 100 female workers were employed to roll the cigarettes but by the late 1890s this role was taken over by machines. According to John Shorten in The Johannesburg Saga, the factory was unable to keep up with demand despite producing over 300 000 cigarettes a day! 

It appears as though the factory began production in 1895. There is some confusion about its construction date as the official opening ceremony, attended by President Kruger, only occurred in 1899. This was Kruger's last official visit to Johannesburg according to Shorten.

Today the structure is in a pitiful state and appears on South Africa's 'In Danger' list (click here to view). In the article below David Sieff provides some fascinating memories of the period when his family owned the building and argues that the building must be saved for future generations.

My mother had studied corsetry garment design before emigrating from Lithuania to South Africa in 1935. Working on the kitchen and dining room tables at home, they started a small garment manufacturing business, later graduating to premises in Anderson Street, opposite the rear of the Police Barracks. By the 1950s these premises were too small for the business and they moved to the Three Castles Building located on the corner of Marshall and Goud Streets.

'Naomi Beauty Form' was the name of the firm which was well known across the country and abroad for its foundation garments, accessories and swimsuits. It even had a weekly 15-minute afternoon programme on Springbok Radio.

The Three Castles Building had been occupied by the Holt brothers' Acme Tobacco Company for many years, and this left a legacy of a fairly pleasant lingering odour of cured tobacco, adding to the historical character and ambience. 


Old drawing of the Three Castles Building


The ground floor offices occupied the south-western corner, with the large cutting room across a passageway, where the numerous component pieces of fabric were cut to template shapes drawn on the upper of many layers - the "lay" - for assembly by numerous specialised sewing machines as finished garments in the large factory on the first floor above. My mother's office was in the south-western corner of this floor, in the middle tower with its battlements. My aunt (Naomi - hence the brand) had an adjoining office on the western side.

A very interesting feature of the buiding is the narrow circular tower on the Gold Street aspect. The tower enclosed a very narrow spiral stairway from the ground floor up to a small door leading onto a roof of the central bastion tower. The dark stairway was barely lit by the two narrow windows so a battery-powered torch (flashlight) had to be used to light up the climb to the top and back down again.


The narrow circular tower (The Heritage Portal)


Occasionally, a cousin or a friend and I would climb to the roof and imagine ourselves defending the castle from the invaders. When we had tired of this game, and before descending to reality, we also had an interesting birds-eye view of the surrounding area.

The main front entrance with its ornate decorations can be seen on the Marshall Street side while the adjoining wall to the East had wide solid metal gates to the dispatch yard where parcels were loaded onto vehicles from a raised platform. Today the gates have been replaced with a brick wall to keep vagrants and vandals out.


The main facade (The Heritage Portal)


Bricked up entrance (The Heritage Portal)


An apparent anomaly is the view across this yard, showing an adjacent empty property seemingly adjoining the yard; this was the Main Street site of a large used car business (Ephron Motors?) also since closed.

This wonderful structure housed our family business for many years until the business was acquired by a British company with similar products. I was very upset when I found out about the sorry state of the building. The proximity of the site to the ABSA / Barclays campus and the bustling Maboneng precinct makes it highly suitable for adaptive reuse and for tourist interest. The people of Johannesburg must rally to ensure its preservation. I can't wait for the day when my beloved Three Castles opens its doors again! 


The building lies between the ABSA / Barclays campus and Maboneng (The Heritage Portal)


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