Quick links
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, WBS

EXPLORING THE PAST GIVES NEW MEANING TO THE PRESENT
18 September 2007

Prof. Katherine Munro

Where cows once grazed and horses were groomed, graduate students now engage in debate about the 21st century economy. Where carriages once rambled along, cars now whiz by; where governesses once tutored, lecturers now teach and where children once played, student now live.

Visitors to the Wits Parktown Campus are often taken aback by the beautiful surroundings in which they find themselves. More than that, it is the story behind each building that seeps through, inviting guests to take a nostalgic walk through history.

The Campus forms part of Parktown (originally Park Town, named after Park Station) an old residential part of Johannesburg dating back to the end of the 19th century. Park Town became a desirable new suburb from 1892 to 1910, housing the elite residents of Johannesburg.

Bordered by St David’s Place, Victoria Avenue, Blackwood Road, Oxford Road and St Andrew’s Road, the Parktown Campus is now an academic and residential hub, extending over seven hectares. It is home to the Wits Business School and the School of Public and Development Management but it also serves as a residential hub, housing the 22 double-storey cluster units of Parktown Village 1 for postgraduate students and the older, substantial sturdy blocks of the Ernest Oppenheimer Hall dating back to the 1960s, affectionately called EOH by generations of undergraduates.

Wits University invested in properties in Parktown from the early 1960s and remains a major landowner with an interest in maintaining its educational presence. Sadly, even in recent decades, much of the past vanished as new buildings were erected. Today there is a far greater consciousness of the need to preserve our architectural heritage than there was even 20 years ago. A powerful legislative framework ensures that older buildings cannot be demolished or even altered without permission and consultation. In terms of the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999, permits are needed to demolish or redevelop any structure older than 60 years.

Wits faces the challenge of conserving and celebrating the past while at the same time adapting old buildings to suit modern educational purposes. We would like to further develop the Parktown Campus as a premier South African management education campus to shape global leaders in Africa in the 21st century. We are actively seeking support to build a conference centre, to enhance accommodation for students and delegates and to upgrade teaching and library facilities.

Drawing on Australia’s Burra Charter of 1999 (The ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural significance) Wits is committed to understanding the cultural significance of its buildings through documenting the fabric of the buildings and researching the history of all its properties. To this end, the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management commissioned architects Henry Paine and Johann Bruwer to present a Heritage Status Report to assist Wits in preserving and developing the Parktown Campus and to ensure that it meets all legislative requirements.

Wits believes that old houses, outbuildings, servants' quarters, coach houses, a block of flats, and even boundary walls, trees and gateposts can be saved and imaginatively included in plans for new activities. Wits seeks to work with the Parktown Heritage Association to ensure that the richly layered history of this portion of Johannesburg is preserved, protected and appreciated.

Paine and Bruwer have researched the history and buildings of seven of the original Parktown Campus stands. For a complete copy of the report send an email to shirona.patel@wits.ac.za

The core of the Wits Parktown Campus is the historic piece of land once known as The Oval. The 1896 Plan of Johannesburg

drawn by AE Kaplan, shows the Parktown Oval positioned at the centre of the original eight stands. In 1939, the Oval was renamed by the City of Johannesburg to the John Forrest Oval which later became an additional playing field for the Park Town Preparatory School (PTPS). In 1970 the City Council donated the Oval and the Oval Road to the University. Regrettably, much of the land was used for the residential Parktown Village cluster in the 1980s. Today, it is only a slight bend in the road behind EOH that picks up the outline of the original oval space.

The name The Oval was also given to the double-storey, symmetrical small block of flats facing St Andrews Road built in 1926 in Early Modernist style. Minimal alterations have been made to the four original apartments and the original design is still visible. Wits acquired the property in 1963 and is currently using it for residential accommodation. Wits is planning to make this building the new home of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies.

On the corner of Blackwood Avenue and St Andrew’s Road is Beaulieu or Annie’s House. This modest, single-storey home was built in 1901 by Simon Zwarenstein. The style is late Victorian and a Cape Dutch-style gable was added in 1904. The house is of importance because it was the first of two residences built next to the Oval. Wits acquired the house and its associated buildings in 1972.

One of the two most imposing extant homes on the Parktown Campus is Outeniqua. This home has been described as a Parktown Baronial, built in 1904 on the corner of St David’s Place and St Andrew’s Road. The original residents were the Robert Kantor family. It is an eclectic mix of architectural details - Arts and Crafts and art Nouveau as seen in the glass panes and the imposing Burmese teak staircase. The house was also known as Ohlsson House but in 1912 when ownership passed to Abraham Aaron Atkins, a Russian Jewish immigrant, the name of the house changed to Streatham. Over the next half-century there were four owners. The present name, Outeniqua was given to the house by Johanna Theron who from 1957 ran a boarding house for Wits students and the Overseas Visitors Club.

Wits acquired Outeniqua in 1964 as a suitable home and location for the newly established Wits Business School (WBS). New buildings were added to the rear of the old house. The success of the WBS and the generous support of donors has enabled additions and extensions to be made, linking the old and the new. The house is in excellent condition but the alterations and additions have compromised the integrity of the original design of the house. In 1999 the Albert Wessels Building was completed followed by the Bert Wessels building in 2004.

Equally important from a heritage perspective is North Lodge on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Oxford Road. The house was completed in 1906 for Henry S Wilson in a style called Free Renaissance. It was an architectural fantasy featuring a steeply sloped Gothic roof with turrets. Over the years there were several changes in ownership and function - the house was at one stage a school, then a boarding house and later a private hotel before its acquisition by the University in 1964. North Lodge became part of EOH and the Dean and his family lived on the ground floor with senior students accommodated on the first floor. In 1982 the house became a national monument. However, the integrity of the original design was lost with the changes to the roof and the demolition of the turrets of the original house and the coach house and stables. The conservatory to the western side of the house is reminiscent of the conservatory of Melrose House in Pretoria. It was restored in 1996 and the stained glass fanlights bring back that fantasy feel of the faux Gothic design.

Mwalimu House, today the home of Wits’ Link Centre for research and teaching in telecommunications policy was built in the 1930s for a Mrs Fanny Segell and was called House Segell. It is a double-storey modernist house built on the site of an original 1918 house. The 1938 house had a flat concrete roof but in 1953 this was converted to a hipped slate roof, compromising the integrity of the art deco design. The servants’ quarters of the original 1918 home were retained and today this more humble structure is considered to be of cultural significance. Despite the loss of the original setting of this house, the period woodwork, brickwork, fittings and flooring are still appreciated. The University acquired the property from Alfred Segell in 1971 and renovations were completed in 1981.

Today Wits is preserving but giving new life to Trematon House on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Trematon Place (formerly Queens Place), to create additional quality residential accommodation. Trematon House started as a modest home for E Holmes in 1902. In 1910 the house was redeveloped as a boarding house with dormitories and bedrooms, a dining hall, kitchen and communal bathroom and toilets for the PTPS. The style is late Edwardian and Geoffrey E Pearse was the architect. Pearse was appointed the first Professor of Architecture at Wits in 1921 and had the distinction of being the first Professor of Architecture in South Africa. The Foundation stone was laid by Sir Lionel Phillips in 1913 and the project was completed in 1914. The PTPS building was itself demolished to make way for EOH. Wits acquired the building in 1963 and it served as the home of the Institute for Adult Education and the Schmerenbeck Centre for several years and also as the location of a holiday centre for the children of Wits staff and students.

Wits is currently exploring a range of development and planning options in light of the historical age and importance of the Parktown Campus. Despite so much being lost in the past, there is much to preserve, celebrate and enjoy. We invite you to take a walk along the jacaranda-lined roads of the Parktown Campus and to take a peep into our buildings to see how Wits blends the past and present. You have only to read a bit, park your car and pay a visit to the Parktown Campus to experience the echoes of the past.

Prof. Katherine Munro is Acting Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management at Wits University. This article was first published in the Wits Review, a quarterly publication for WIts Alumni produced by the Alumni Relations Office.