Secret Johannesburg

Paul Duncan
18 November 2016

Any city holds secrets. Grand interiors hide behind unassuming exteriors; crumbling façades disguise neglected glory. Jo’burg, a city built on empty veld thanks to the lottery win of a gold rush, is full of unseen marvels – as revealed in the new book Hidden Johannesburg. As author Paul Duncan says, buildings are more than just the sum of the materials used to construct them. Go on then. Look up. Explore

De Villiers Street, CBD

Park Station in its original incarnation was called Park Halt or The Halt. There was to have been a park nearby and it was where passengers alighted on their way to shop in fashionable Eloff Street. It subsequently became Johannesburg’s primary station and, like the city itself, has gone through a number of reinventions, growing as quickly as its surroundings. In 1897, a steel and glass structure arrived from Holland and was in use until the late 1920s – in fact you can see its remains marooned on a derelict site west of the Nelson Mandela Bridge on the edge of Newtown. Gordon Leith’s station opened in 1932 with eight platforms and four approach tracks, the contemporary of Milan’s majestic railway terminus, Milano Centrale, completed in 1931 by Mussolini. 

The vaulted concourses are silent now, their lanterns covered in a film of mining dust, their fish ponds empty and the marble stairs leading down to them chipped and broken. And although the 32 painted panels that JH Pierneef supplied to South African Railways in 1929 – the Station Panels – have been removed to the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch, their setting is still remarkably intact. 

Leith’s entrance also remains intact, the disembodied elephant heads with their huge flapping ears still in position above the sealed-off entrances – along with the frieze and the row of coupled Tuscan columns holding up the roof. 

Ridge Road, Parktown

The View is one of Johannesburg’s oldest surviving houses (built only ten years or so after the city was proclaimed in 1886). The former home of Sir Thomas Cullinan, a bricklayer-turned-prospector and owner of the Premier Diamond Mine, its interiors are, for this country, incomparably opulent and have survived, one imagines, partly because Lady Cullinan, who lived in the house until the 1960s, never changed anything. 

The View once had magnificent views over rolling veld north to the Magaliesberg and Pretoria. This was the countryside, and at the time Parktown was chosen for development as a respite from the gritty clamour of the rapidly developing city on the other side of the rocky ridge, replacing dusty Doornfontein as the suburb of the elite. But it wasn’t only the distant Magaliesberg that excited its plutocratically prodigal resident Randlords and magnates who, slightly later, went on to employ Herbert Baker, Frank Emley and James Cope Christie to design their stately homes in this dramatic setting. In fact, it looked out over the dense acres of young firs and blue and red gums of the Sachsenwald [Forest], planted to supply the mines with props. There was green forest down there where, not long before, it had been only rocky veld and scrubby growth. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy the view?

Hannaben Street, Linksfield Ridge

Who was L Ron Hubbard (1911–1986) and what was he doing living in Linksfield Ridge? Lafayette Ronald Hubbard was, in fact, an American pulp science fiction writer who developed a system of Dianetics (‘The Modern Science of Mental Health’) as a way of healing the self, spreading his message through the Church of Scientology, the controversial and secretive religious movement that he founded in the 1950s. 

The house in Hannaben Street is where Hubbard lived during his South African sojourn and it’s been meticulously restored to reflect the period he lived there. While he was here for only six months in 1960–61, Hubbard developed much of the structural and organisational aspects of Scientology.

The Johannesburg house has been painstakingly restored to its 1960s state, as captured by Hubbard in photographs and film footage. His life and achievements are laid out in the upstairs rooms as a sort of homage, well documented with photos, letters and artefacts depicting him as a Boy Scout, seaman, glider pilot, and writer of more than 300 science fiction titles. 

The brochure you get when you visit deems it a ‘landmark site’ and a place of ‘supreme significance’. Following its restoration, ‘visitors are effectively teleported back in time to pivotal moments of discovery and thus revelation’ – via a 1960s-era fridge and an Oregon pine accent wall amongst a range of other well-chosen mid-twentieth-century modern collectables.

Louis Botha Avenue, Orange Grove

In 1929, in Orange Grove, what is now Johannesburg’s oldest surviving public bar, the rather tatty Radium Beer Hall, opened its doors as the Radium Tearoom. A decade or so later it was given a new, male-dominated, spit-and-sawdust persona the minute it got its wine and malt licence. And, no doubt encouraged by the coincidental arrival of the original bar counter from the old Ferreirastown Hotel, the Radium Beer Hall has never looked back. Ferreirastown incidentally, or Ferriera’s Camp as it was originally known, was the oldest part of Johannesburg and it’s where the first gold diggings started. The original El Dorado, it’s also where Johannesburg’s first bar was, and where its first pub, first brothel and first school were situated. 

In the 1940s, a soccer player called Joe Barbarovich took ownership of the Radium Beer Hall and a special variety of raucousness overtook the place as its legend began to grow. Portuguese ownership in the 1980s led to the billiard room being turned into a restaurant with a Portuguese menu. Women were finally allowed into the bar, and blacks – a seminal moment that anticipated the new South Africa by a few years. Today the Radium Beer Hall is a place of weekly live jazz performances, with a particular focus on the Radium Jazz Band’s regular gig on Friday nights.

Vilakazi Street, Orlando West

The Nelson Mandela National Museum is the house in which Mandela lived from 1946 until his arrest and imprisonment in 1962, initially with his first wife Evelyn and their son Thembikile, then from 1958 with Winnie Madikizela, his second wife. 

The house is an unprepossessing place, now a museum crammed with memorabilia. What is perhaps most interesting about it is that it lets us look back at the Johannesburg that Mandela knew as a young man: a rough-edged, often violent place crammed with hopefuls from rural areas trying to survive in a city undergoing one transition after another. 

The house had been built in 1945 and, like hundreds of others around it, and in other townships in other cities countrywide, it was a simple, three-roomed, rust-red facebrick-built structure with a tin roof. It had ‘a narrow kitchen, and a bucket toilet at the back. Although there were street lamps outside we used paraffin lamps as the homes were not yet electrified. The bedroom was so small that a double bed took up almost the entire floor space’. It had a coal stove and there was a small stoep finished in shiny red polish. But, like many of the homes in Johannesburg’s developing townships back then, it was a foothold in an emerging city. 

Corner Commissioner and Simmonds Streets, CBD

At ten storeys high, the Corner House was Johannesburg’s first ‘skyscraper’. Structurally, it comprised a steel frame, over which a skin of red-brown cut stone from Warmbaths was layered. Corner House is an opulent building and the attention to detail paid by its architects on its appearance is nowhere more apparent than on the staircase. Its occupants benefitted from the latest in modern comforts, and were provided with water-borne sewerage and central heating.