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The Barbican was once a beacon of progress and aspiration for the city. Now the splendidly restored building is again a marker for the city.
AFTER 16 long years of neglect, Old Mutual can take a bow for restoring the dignity of the splendid Barbican, one of the city’s iconic buildings.

The restored facade of the Barbican, with repaired concrete moulding and balconiesThe restored facade of the Barbican, with repaired concrete moulding and balconiesThe 80-year-old, 10-storey building looks glorious, basking in the renewal of its freshly cleaned exterior, and floor after floor of new concrete screed floors, sparkling white walls, and restored balconies.
“We see the Barbican refurbishment as the latest of the many strides over the last decade which have firmly turned the inner city away from decline,” said Ben Kodisang, the managing director of Old Mutual Investment Group Property Investments (OMIGPI).

Old Mutual bought the building in 1995, and after clearing it of vagrants, bricked it up, leaving it to deteriorate. After years of pressure from the City and heritage bodies, restoration began in mid-2010, and the fruits of that work were revealed this week.

The building was completed in 1931 in a mix of eclectic classicism and art deco styles. Originally built with ground-floor shop space, a first-floor tearoom with a balcony with canvas awnings, and seven floors of offices, with a studio and servants’ quarters on the top floor, its Corinthian columns and ornamental cornices and railings make it one of the city’s most attractive buildings.

Old Mutual has plans to develop the neighbouring Palace site in the same block, but is reluctant to begin work until it has secured an anchor tenant.

At the Barbican, there is some 2 360m² is available for rent.

The interior of the Barbican building had been stripped of anything valuable – metal heaters, wrought iron banisters, metal door and window frames, and wooden floors. This left gaping cavities in the facade, with cracked and broken windows adding to its derelict look. Damage to the roof meant that the top five floors had been extensively rain-damaged, and the entire roof had to be replaced.

Old Mutual owns 28 buildings in the Johannesburg CBD, and pumped R20-million into the Barbican restoration.

“It stands out as a real marker,” says Eric Itzkin, the deputy director of immovable heritage in the City’s directorate of arts, culture and heritage. “It was a beacon of progress and aspiration for the city, and it is again.”

Lindsay Butler, the deal originator at OMIGPI, acknowledged at the unveiling on Thursday, 7 April that the neglected building was a “very, very, very sad picture”, but said the regeneration of the inner city was gaining momentum.

Kodisang added: “This is a momentum builder; the inner city is ripe for further developments.”

The newly restored Barbican, reborn in its original colour and grandeurThe newly restored Barbican, reborn in its original colour and grandeurHe said the restoration would give impetus to the development of Old Mutual’s Palace site, which involves 25 000m² of office space, 15 000m² of retail space, and 900 parking bays. This would then incorporate three city blocks adjoining the Palace site, making it a retail and commercial precinct. It would include a pedestrianised section of Loveday Street, FNB Bank City, and the provincial legislature.
Old Mutual has partnered with other property developers to convert some of it portfolio – Plaza Place, Persam Place and Royal St Mary’s – into residential units for entry-level tenants.

Old Mutual also owns property in Newtown, where it envisages a mixed-use development, with retail, office and hotel space of 23 000m².

The restoration consisted of installing a new lift, repairing the historic concrete exterior moulding, pressure cleaning and removing the discolouration and pollution of the exterior plaster, and painting the interior.

A breathable cemetitious paint was applied to the facade, thereby allowing the building to release any trapped moisture, says architect Robin Fee of Fee & Challis Architecture, the firm that oversaw the restoration.

“The colour of the paint was selected to match the original colour of the building,” he adds.

Missing steel external balcony balustrades were re-made, using old photographs, and installed on the 6th, 7th and 8th floors. The pergola on the south and east facades of the 10th floor has been re-instated.

The original wooden floors, which were largely destroyed by vandals and the weather, have been replaced with concrete screed floors.

The original bay windows on the first floor had been removed in the 1960s. These have been re-instated, together with a new steel canopy over the pavement.

All internal partition walls have been removed, creating open-plan offices. Two original offices have been left intact on the second floor, as a nod to the heritage of the building when first built.

Stairways have been given new life with new granite treads, new timber hand rails and new terrazzo tiles. Hi-tech solutions have been used in the replacement of the roof slab, with beams and slabs reinforced with carbon fibre strips which have been resin-bonded.

The cramped historic entrance has been opened up and a new reception area installed. The vaulted ceiling has been repaired and new lighting installed. A new fire escape was installed, together with a new fire fighting system, in line with current building regulations.

“It’s been a wonderful experience,” says Fee.

Perhaps the restoration of the Barbican will hasten the restoration of the neighbouring 1897 Rissik Street Post Office, a process begun but making slow progress. The 1915 City Hall, opposite the Barbican, is to undergo restoration, starting this month.

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