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Neil Fraser looks at post office
11 August 2008

The post office

Is there finally light at the end of the tunnel for the Rissik Street Post Office with some refurbishment plans from the provincial government in the pipeline?

Prominent city man Neil Fraser
Neil Fraser

SCARCELY a week goes by without my receiving an enquiry from someone regarding the status of the Rissik Street Post Office. Before sharing what I know, a reminder of why this building is synonymous with a great deal of the history of the city from practically its earliest days.

When Cape Town became a victualling station for ships passing the Cape of Storms it also became a postal centre, with a series of "post office stones" and trees under which letters were left for collection and onward movement. Johannesburg's postal service started two centuries later through the appointment of one AB Edgson as the first postal agent for the city. He kept a canteen in Ferreira's Camp and the post was held, appropriately enough for a mining city, in a gin box!

Towards the end of 1886 postal services were introduced three times a week. The addressees' names were read out from an open window and the public claimed their post. At the end of the first year of this service there were 10 000 unclaimed letters (130 being for the Smith family).

In 1888, a single-storey government building was erected on the site of the current building and the post office was relocated from Ferreira's Camp into a wing of this new building. The first pillar boxes were erected in 1889 and the first house-to-house deliveries started in 1896. However, these were stopped when the Volksraad refused to approve funds to cover the cost of deliveries.

In 1887, the first telegraph service was instituted, and in 1892 the entire building was made available to the postal services. But in 1895 it was vacated so that the building could be demolished to make way for the new, existing building.

The new three-storey building was designed by Sytze Wierda, the state architect for the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (ZAR), and construction started in 1896. The contractor was NCA Meischke and the contract price £65 000. Meischke also later built the City Hall directly to the west of the post office. The building opposite the City Hall on the corner of Market and Harrison streets is known as Meischke's Building and, urban legend has it, was built from materials that surreptitiously fell off Meischke's delivery wagons as they rode down Market Street to the two government building sites.

The corner-stone of the post office building was laid by the then postmaster, IN van Alphen, on 27 February 1897 and the building opened to the public just over a century ago on 1 July 1898.

Chipkin's Johannesburg Style reflects the following: "The ZAR architecture of Johannesburg, originally part of the public works programme carried out by a reluctant Boer government, possesses a fascination deriving from its sound architectural qualities as well as from its archeological remoteness. The most prominent example was the Rissik Street Post Office, a wide three-storey edifice, which defined the eastern perimeter of the vast Market Square like a nineteenth century version of the Renaissance Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome."

"Vast" was no exaggeration. Initially, Market Square was a space undifferentiated from the general area around it but for the fact that it was the camp's centre for trading. It was shown on early maps as stretching from Sauer Street to Rissik Street. Initially the only building on the square was the small tin shed of the market-master, which was replaced with a brick building in 1888. After 1890, the cattle trade was moved to Marshall Square (now occupied by a commercial building - another example of local authorities' lack of appreciation for public open space) and Market Square was reserved for general auctions and sales.

Gerard-Mark van der Waal (From Mining Camp to Metropolis) describes Market Square: "Every day of the week Market Square was therefore a hive of activity. Ox-wagons were parked everywhere and people thronged around the tables on which the merchandise was displayed. The New Market Building, a large two-storey complex which had replaced the old building in 1890-1, stood in the middle of the square, between Simmonds and Harrison streets - it was demolished in 1915. Due west of the Market building were a number of small one-storey structures, two tall reservoirs and a narrow tower used by the fire brigade."

The Rissik Street Post Office was built facing on to Market Square, although not on Market Square land, and looked over this vast stretch of ground in the middle of the rapidly growing mining town. It must have dominated the area with its three-storey façade.

After the Anglo Boer War and the resultant end of the Transvaal Republic, the accession of King Edward VII in 1902 was commemorated by the addition of a fourth storey to the building. This was on the instructions of the newly appointed governor of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, Lord Milner. The English architect, Wilfred Tonkin, was responsible for the design of the new floor and of the clock tower marked with the cypher ER.

Extra storey
Arnold Benjamin, A Lost Johannesburg, wrote of the additions: "Yet the structure familiar to Johannesburgers of today is substantially different from the original 1897 version. The addition of an extra storey in 1905 badly spoiled its looks ... that addition unfortunately destroyed the original proportions and replaced the charming variation of the roof line with one that was straight and functional, dominated by a heavy clock tower (and a large square watertank!)."

The City Hall was built in 1912-14; its positioning was strongly criticised by the Association of Transvaal Architects, who wanted it placed on the western end of the square to provide a far better balanced space between it and the Rissik Street Post Office. The fact that this suggestion was rejected, led to the relatively small space that now separates the City Hall's eastern façade from the post office, two great buildings far too close to each other to visually fully appreciate the merits of either. (This small space is, of course,  also bisected by Rissik Street and the useless fountain not so warmly referred to as "Eddy's Folly" after the chairman of the city's planning committee who, scorning all objections, forced the design and that of the then Library Gardens on to the city in the early 1990s.)

This Rissik Street space now faces a further bisection with the proposed Bus Rapid Transit route up the street, which means that the fountain will undoubtedly have to go. A number of street folk will also now lose their washing trough!

Back to history! In 1919, when the central government revealed plans for further extensions to the Rissik Street Post Office, the Association of Transvaal Architects and the Town Planning Association (Transvaal) joined forces to recommend that the building should, in fact, be demolished as it was "an obsolete building which did not warrant additional expenditure" and should be rebuilt on the western end of the square. The then city council decided that the western end of the square should rather be reserved for the library, which was eventually built in 1932-34. If one adds the physical areas covered by the library and the City Hall, a substantial piece of public open space in the centre of the city was forever lost to its citizens.

In 1940, an agreement was entered into between the national government and the city council to the effect that ownership of the land would be transferred to the council and that the government would be responsible for demolishing the building. As a result of strong preservation voices, however, the council waived this clause in 1976 and the building was declared a National Monument in 1978. The responsibility for its maintenance remained that of the Post Office in terms of the long-term lease agreement which was now entered into between the Post Office and the city. The "rental" was R49 per year!

The Post Office, despite requests, instructions and threats of court action, never fulfilled its obligations in regard to maintenance and the building deteriorated from year to year. In 1993, an editorial in The Star said: "For Johannesburg to think it is worthy or capable of hosting any prestige event, let alone the Olympic Games, is laughable! ... Have a good look at that National Monument, the Rissik Street Post Office. It is literally falling to pieces ... Instead of being a monument to the past, it is a national disgrace."

In 1994, the Central Johannesburg Partnership (CJP) proposed to the fledgling Gauteng provincial government that it relocate from Pretoria to Johannesburg. Two of the city's buildings that it could use were identified as the City Hall, which could be altered to house the Provincial Legislature, and the Rissik Street Post Office, which could be refurbished for the offices of the premier. Although the City would make the latter building available, it was not in a position to finance the restoration.

Lease deal
A private sector consortium was put together by the CJP, the finance was raised and a lease deal was offered to the provincial government, which was accepted. I have never been able to determine exactly why the provincial government reneged on the deal, although I have heard that there were "political pressures" brought to bear, whatever that might mean! Before the deal was scuppered, the City's negotiation with the Post Office to cancel its lease and vacate the building had been completed. The deal included a payment to the council of R3,5 million in compensation for the lack of maintenance that had led to the poor exterior state of the building at that time. That money was never spent on the Rissik Street Post Office!

In 1988, the council (in the form of the Southern Metropolitan Local Council) called for proposals for the future use of the building. It accepted a Malaysian property developer's proposal to turn the building into a "five-star boutique hotel" at a cost of R35-million. A number of people, including myself, were highly sceptical of the proposal as well as of the feasibility of turning the building into a hotel at that low a cost. At one meeting with the council, when I suggested that this deal would never happen, I was told that I was just being negative! The deal did nothing other than to block all other possibilities for a number of years and was finally cancelled in the early 2000s.

The City then put out another proposal call for the re-development of the building through the Johannesburg Property Company (JPC) and, I understand, received some very good commercial proposals including retail, hotel and commercial uses. However, the City was evidently heavily "leaned on" and the building was sold to the Gauteng provincial government, I think for something like R25-million although, as yet, no actual money has changed hands.

The building has thus stood empty since 1995 and continues to decay, its demise assisted by vagrants and profiteers as the building has been stripped unhindered over the years.

The clock
In Citichat 28/2002, The bad news is that the bells aren't ringing, I recounted the fascinating but sad information regarding the clock in the Rissik Street Post Office's clock tower. It was built in London by Gillett & Johnston in Croydon and shipped to South Africa early last century. Its largest bell, named "Little Evelyn" weighing in at 1 050 kilograms, was an exact replica of the smallest bell in London's Big Ben, of which the Rissik Street clock is an exact replica in miniature - absolutely unique! For nearly 80 years, three times a week, two apprentices spent the better part of a morning winding the three weights of 225 kilograms; 293 kilograms and 360 kilograms for the clock movement; hour and quarter-hour strike respectively. On two occasions in the past (1936 and 1952) a weight fell because of overwinding, crashing through two floors and landing in the main foyer.

In 1980, the winding mechanism was automated, a concrete slab cast under the clock to avoid such accidents in future - a similar one in Big Ben is 5m thick - and the four light bulbs illuminating the clock face replaced with 16 neon tubes. Some years ago the clock was stolen, in fact, almost everything of value has been systematically pilfered, from brass window fittings and door handles to some of the wooden flooring and stair balustrades. While the latter has probably been used for firewood, the former must surely have been sold to unscrupulous  scrap metal dealers. And to add insult to injury, it is also not just that parts of the building have been stolen, I believe that even the plans of the building were removed from the city council by someone who claims to have saved them from the incinerator in the 1970s!

Some good news: in the last couple of months we have been made aware that the Gauteng Legislature intends proceeding with a massive refurbishment of the building as offices for itself as well as space in the old postal hall for public consultation, et cetera. The building will not fully meet its needs but there are numerous neighbouring buildings, existing and planned, that will. The big question mark is when this will happen. The bad news is that it seems that, with the current government nearing the end of its term, there is a reluctance to commit the incoming government to such plans. I find this quite strange, unless Legislatures themselves are under threat as a result of the current investigations into the three-tier form of government. In which case we are back where we were in 1995.

But some other good news is that, while the provincial government was also hoping to obtain Oppenheimer Square behind the post office to erect additional offices, that, thankfully, will not be allowed. The square is currently a disgraceful piece of public space that desperately needs some love and care; but so is the Rissik Street Post Office.

Ciao, Neil

Saturday, 16 August
Melville Koppies

Melville Koppies is holding its annual general meeting. Sue Krige will bring a group to do a presentation, "The Sophiatown experience in conjunction with the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre". St Joseph's Home and Sophiatown border on part of Melville Koppies West, so we are all linked in the past and present.

The meeting will be held at the lecture hut, Melville Koppies Central, at 2pm. Park in Kafue Road, Emmarentia.

King Edward VII School, Houghton - walking tour
At over a hundred years old, KES is one of the oldest schools in South Africa. It has produced some very well-known and respected men. In 1902, it was a vacant cigar factory before becoming The Government High School for Boys. Now situated high on the Houghton Ridge it is built of lovely koppie stone and warm red brick. The focal point remains the arcaded courtyard centred on the Cenotaph. Tradition is important as the many memorials and honours boards testify - the grandeur of the school hall reflects its kingly name.

The cost is R60 and booking is at Computicket, on 083 915 8000 or 011 340 8000, or through the Computicket website. Meet Liz and Alex Parker at 2pm and park on the school grounds - from 44 St Patrick's Road, Houghton, turn into Oak Street. For more information, telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

Last One Standing
The African premiere of Last One Standing is held at the Drill Hall, from 5pm. This landmark event will bring together the citizenry of the inner city of Johannesburg in the staging of a spectacular international sporting event.

It will deploy snowballs as a medium through which a variety of people who have different stakes in the space of the inner city can engage in managed combat with one another. The winning team will be declared "the last one standing". It is being realised through a partnership between the Joubert Park Project and the Official Snowball Fight Association, a Swiss organisation dedicated to the promotion of this unique sport and engaged in wide-ranging research on the ethical, environmental, scientific, political, theological and literary dimensions of the snowball.

The event will highlight the small but potent place that the snowball has occupied in the shaping of Johannesburg (with snowfalls in 1909, 1936, 1964, 1981 and 2007). The city's memory of the snowball will be brought to life through the screening of exclusive archival photographs and acclaimed writers' anecdotes of snow in Johannesburg.

The centrepiece of the event - the snowball fight tournament - will involve four teams of six players each competing on a 9 x 18 metre court, according to the rules established by the Official Snowball Fight Association. The four teams will consist of the people who shape our cosmopolitan city, including taxi mechanics and trolley pushers, hairdressers, city managers, boxers and models, rugby players, artists and soap opera stars.

The teams have undergone rigorous training prior to the event with the internationally renowned snowball combatant, Anthea Moys. The contestants will wear custom-made combat suits created by the Berlin-based fashion designer Birgit Neppl. The evening will be emceed by actor Robert Whitehead.

Bishop Paul Verryn of the Central Methodist Church will preside over a blessing of the event.  Louw Venter, the comedian/actor/philatelist and general creative wholesaler, will open it with the inaugural Ballad of the Snowball and act as head referee. The Universal Gospel Choir will provide the soundscape for the tournament, co-produced with musicians/composers, Joao Orecchia and Andy Sherman. A technical team of referees and snowball-makers have been assembled to ensure strict adherence to the rules of the game and snowball specifications established by the international governing body.

Georges Pfruender of the Official Snowball Fight Association will present the South African edition of the Last One Standing Trophy, manufactured in Switzerland.

A snowball party will close the event, running till late. Teams of poets and hip-hop performers will compete to win the Battle of the Ballad of the Snowball.

The Last One Standing starts at 5pm at the Drill Hall, Joubert Park, on the corner of Twist and Plein streets. There is additional parking at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, with shuttles to the hall from 4.30pm. Entrance is free. For more information, contact Joseph Gaylard on 082 598 4107 or Dorothee Kreutzfeldt on 083 956 0507.

Saturday, 23 August
Joburg jol - bus tour
Join a "safe adventure" in the city of Johannesburg by night - a bus tour. The tour includes a buffet dinner with a cash bar. There will be one or two other pub stops along the way with a spooky and mysterious ending to the evening. The buffet meal is included in the tour price but all drinks are for your account. Dress warmly, wear comfortable shoes and bring a torch.

The cost is R400 for members of the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust and R450 for non-members and booking is at Computicket, on 083 915 8000 or 011 340 8000, or through the Computicket website. Meet Deanna at Sunnyside Park Hotel, 2 York Road, Parktown in the Pound and Penny pub at 6.30pm to depart at 7pm - be ready for a romp.

For more information, telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

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Last Updated on 11 August 2008