I have been battling to find anything to celebrate in Heritage month until earlier this week. Brian McKechnie and I had been asked to inspect a building. I feared the worst. Another demolition in this dreadful month with an owner in Westcliff ruining a Modern Movement house of special architectural and scientific heritage, then finding that someone had built a high wall across one of the semis owned by Pancho Guedes in Melville and the utter misery of seeing the Johannesburg Art Gallery in a state befitting a war zone.
Johannesburg Art Gallery (The Heritage Portal)
So when we drove up into Hillbrow where beautiful buildings are wrecked by the thuggish enclosure of balconies and refuse piles up around street corners my mood was gloomy. We turned into van der Merwe Street and there stood one of my favourite little buildings - freshly painted and secure behind new palings and alongside a small, but clearly very old house also freshly painted. I was so thrilled to see Sunbeam House and realise it was not going to be demolished. I could have danced for joy. This would have been very undignified and might have embarrassed Brian and Raymond – the person leading us to see Mark Steel’s latest investment.
There are just three buildings on the north side of the block. The newly built tall block of flats – The Alex, the little house and Sunbeam House. It sounds corny, but for me the sun was streaming out from behind the very dark clouds.
The little house was built for a gentleman named Houghton and the plans were simple and rather delicate, done in 1905 by a New Zealand architect, David Ross, who came to Johannesburg aged 75! Michael Fleming selected the drawings for archiving so they are safely stored at Museum Africa along with the drawings for Sunbeam House. Sunbeam House was designed by H Wolsely Spicer in 1931 for Mrs Mackintosh.
Plans for Sunbeam House (Johannesburg Heritage Foundation)
The little house has been restored after a fire which destroyed most of the floors and several ceilings, but instead of demolishing it Mark had decided to keep it. Saving whatever had survived and salvaging strip flooring from other sites the house is almost as good as new. While keeping the profile of the windows new aluminium framed windows let in lots of light, and fireplaces and ceilings still there have been painted, skirting boards patched where necessary. What did not survive were the doors and the architraves which have had to be replaced.
The house has been restored (Johannesburg Heritage Foundation)
Destined to become a crèche or perhaps doctors’ consulting rooms the house will become really useful to local community and stand as a marker in time alongside the 2021 brick block of flats. And on the corner of van der Merwe and Banket Street stands a delightful architectural gem. Thank you Mark Steel!
Flo Bird - September 2021
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