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The magnificent organ in City Hall is being restored, as is the building itself. It will also soon be home to the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra.
THE Friends of the Organ have swung into action, and the historic City Hall organ will soon be given a major dose of TLC.

The classical columns and wrought iron balustrades give the City Hall a grandnessThe classical columns and wrought iron balustrades give the City Hall a grandness“This is a virulent team,” says John Des Fountain, the director for operational support services for the Gauteng Legislature, the owners of City Hall and the organ. The team consists of 15 members, and the patron is the Speaker of the Legislature, Lindiwe Maseko.
City Hall, completed in 1915 and declared a national monument in 1979, was sold by the City to the provincial government in 2003 for R20-million. The purchase included the Harry Hofmeyr Parking Garage and Beyers Naude Square.

With 6 035 pipes, the organ is the largest on the continent. It weighs 60 tons and rises to three stories, perfectly complementing the tall moulded ceilings of the hall. It is believed to be the masterpiece of the famous Edwardian organ builders Norman & Beard.

The plan is that the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) will make City Hall its new home, says Des Fountain. At present, the orchestra is based in Randburg and conducts its rehearsals and concerts on the Wits Education Campus in Parktown.

Rehearsal rooms are being prepared for the JPO at City Hall, confirms Des Fountain, a process that has been going on for the past six months. City Hall itself is also undergoing much-needed refurbishment. Its walls are being repainted, chipped plaster corners are being repaired, lighting is being upgraded, the wood finishes are being varnished and the chairs are being revamped.

“We will restore the City Hall to presentable orchestra standards,” adds Des Fountain.

Shadrack Bokaba, the managing director of the JPO, says of the move: “It’s a dream come true. There is not a single concert house in the country. This will go a long way in establishing Joburg as a concert location.”

Ornamental arched ceilings and rich green walls complement the red carpetingOrnamental arched ceilings and rich green walls complement the red carpetingHe says that once the JPO moves, it will consider improving the acoustics of the hall, as well as lowering the stage. “It is a beautiful place, with secure parking.”

The organ
Once the dust in the hall has settled – expected to take a few months – attention will turn to the organ. Its restoration is expected to take up to two years. A section 21 company is to be formed, bringing in the private sector, in a bid to raise the R18-million that it is expected to cost.

Outside help has already been offered. The Austrian ambassador, Otto Didtz, has flown out two organ surveyors to do a full-blown survey of the organ. There are only two other similar organs in the world – one in Sydney, Australia, the other in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“The original builder of the organ has offered to come out,” says Des Fountain.

Once the JPO is in its new premises, the public will be allowed to attend lunch-time practices.

Des Fountain stresses that the 200 or so provincial staff members who work in the building “very, very jealously guard” what it represents. “They are aware of the colonial heritage of the building.”

But money has not always been available for maintenance, with other more pressing priorities taking precedence.

The exterior of the building is to be the focus of the upgrading in the near future, described by Des Fountain as “a huge job”.

Restoration includes neighbouring Beyers Naude Square, where decades-old tipuana trees damaged the roof of the underground parking. The trees have been removed, with approval, and the roof has been repaired. Now, white stinkwood trees will be planted, providing Joburgers in the city with shady lunch time spots. The square will be complete by the end of June.

Interior renovations
Interior renovations of the building involved the third and fourth floors of the west wing. Here, office space was reconfigured; the third floor was turned into an open plan space, and the fourth floor was divided into smaller offices to accommodate more staff.

The wood and leather desks in the old chamber room, still in good conditionThe wood and leather desks in the old chamber room, still in good conditionThe east wing will be repainted and will get new carpeting. Des Fountain has also had to make the building disabled friendly, a difficult task as the first two floors are on several intermediate levels.

The mayivuka rooms in the west wing, formerly the mayoress’s rooms, with their fine decorative finishes, have also been upgraded. They serve now as function rooms.

Exterior makeover
The exterior of the building is to receive a R13-million makeover in the next three years. The granite base and sandstone walls need cleaning; the dirt on the walls is the result of the pollution caused by exhaust fumes, and is normal for any large city.

Options are to take off a four to five millimetre veneer, then paint with a protective film; this finish will last for 25 years. Otherwise, a sandstone block can be removed and crushed, and then reconstituted with chemicals and re-inserted into the wall.

Guttering and downpipes need to be replaced. Some roof tiles need to be sourced and replaced. Brass and copper edifices of the dome are to be refurbished. The metal balustrades will be sandblasted and repainted, while missing brass window handles will be specially cast.

A stand-by generator in the basement of the building needs to be upgraded. And it’s the small things too – there are 5 000 lights in the two basement levels of the parking garage that need ongoing replacement.

This aside, the building makes a grand statement in the centre of the city, its half-domed portico facing another once-grand city building – the Rissik Street Post Office, which is also being restored.

The Rissik Street entrance to City Hall originally ushered visitors into a beautiful domed room with moulded edgings, replete with fine mosaic floor tiling and Italian marble lining the walls. It leads to a grand staircase, with decorated ceiling and ornate balustrades, leading to the mayor’s chambers.

Debating chamber
A project in which Des Fountain takes particular pride is the refurbishment of the debating chamber, formerly the courtyard.

The warm colours of the new debating room reflect a new South AfricaThe warm colours of the new debating room reflect a new South AfricaThe tall, double-volume ceiling gives an air of grandness to the room, with four tall African murals taking up the space of the former arches of the courtyard, at the back of the room. The walls are a warm sandy brown, reminiscent of huts, while floor tiles have graded lines running through them, to represent deep-level mining gradations.
Sandblasted glass doors and walls, used to sound-proof the room, contain geometric African shapes. The desks are made of South African wood, with traces of copper and leather. A small rectangular piece of beading behind each chair gives a subtle touch of colour to the muted earthy tones. Thin reed shapes in liquid plastic finish off the desks alongside the Speaker’s desk.

Sophisticated electronics have been fitted, allowing the Speaker to monitor who is present for chamber debates, and for how long each member speaks.

Des Fountain is also busy in the original chamber room, which seats 47. It has wood wall panelling and beautifully crafted original wood and leather oval-shaped desks. It is to be converted into an inquiries room. He has had replica desks made – the only difference is that the leather on the new desks is not worn like it is on the originals – and will be re-arranging the room, but leaving the splendid glass lights and stained glass windows.

The seven-storey City Hall design came out of a competition held in 1909. The winning design was by a Cape Town firm, Hawke and McKinlay. The building contractor was Mattheus Meischke, who built the hall for £503 000. Meischke also built the Rissik Street Post Office and the Meische Building on the corner of Market and Harrison streets, housing the Guildhall Pub on its ground floor. City Hall was completed in January 1915, and occupied by town officials in April of that year.

It was originally five storeys, with two storeys taken by the bell tower. A further two storeys were added in 1937; the tower was painstakingly dismantled stone by stone and then re-erected after the addition. The building is typical of the 19th century town hall building tradition, with its classical columns, portico and high-domed tower.

City Hall has been witness to dramatic events in the country’s history: protest meetings in the 1950s on its steps fronting Rissik Street; a bomb blast outside the main entrance in 1988; a voting station for FW de Klerk’s national referendum to test the white electorate on his negotiations with unbanned black liberation parties in 1992; and a voter education centre in the run up to democratic elections in 1994.

Related stories:

Mayor hands over City Hall to province
City Hall organ to come alive
Beyers Naude Square goes natural
Post Office being restored