Ice Cream and Art Deco in the African ‘Burbs

Yesterday I joined the Joburg Photowalkers on an architectural tour of two towns on the outskirts of Johannesburg: Benoni and Springs.

Benoni and Springs — east of Joburg in an area called ‘the East Rand’ — are to Joburg what Frederick and Manassas are to Washington D.C., or what Hackensack is to New York City. They are small towns outside of big towns — places where people tend to live out of necessity, convenience, or habit, rather than for the culture or nightlife. In America we call these towns the outer suburbs, or more simply, the ‘burbs.

Due to the influx of gold-mining money in the East Rand during the 1930s, Benoni and Springs boast an unusually large number of art-deco-style buildings. Art deco was the main focus of this tour, and the buildings we visited were beautiful and interesting. But I was just as interested in the glimpses I got of what life is like in small-town South Africa.

An ice cream salesman cycles past Benoni City Hall.

Our photowalk, which was actually a photo-drive due to the sprawling nature of the ‘burbs, began at the Benoni City Hall, a stunning art deco structure built in 1937. Architect Jeffrey Cole, who led the tour, gave a great explanation about what makes this building art deco, what materials it’s made of, what the cornices and fittings are, etc. But I know next to nothing about architecture and I didn’t bring a notebook with me on the tour. So I’ll just let you admire the pretty pictures.

City Hall.

City Hall again.

We took a stroll through the neighborhood, sweltering in the heat, to check out some other buildings in the area. Benoni’s streets remind me of streets in midwestern U.S. cities — wide, straight, and flat.

Then we got back into the car and headed to a busier section of town, parking in front of a crazy-looking church that used to be a movie theatre.

This building, which I believe was also built in the 1930s, used to be the town’s movie house. As you can see, it is now the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. It was interesting inside but the security guard wouldn’t let us take photos.

We walked from the church to one of Benoni’s main commercial streets.

Window-shopping on what seemed to be Benoni’s version of Main Street.

Main Streets are all but dead in small-town America. Most American Main Streets are either boarded up completely, or have been taken over by quaint antique shops and restaurants. They are no longer places to do business, but rather places on which to take a stroll down memory lane.

Not so in small-town South Africa. On Main Street in Benoni, you can get your hair cut, have your clothes tailored, buy a cell phone, shop for groceries, or make  a long-distance call. It’s a different place than it was 2o years ago, but still a place to see and be seen.

Telephones for hire. The old-fashioned kind, with cords and wires!

Our most exciting stop of the day was a true Benoni landmark: the Korsman’s Ice Cream factory.

Photowalkers descend on the ice cream factory.

The ice cream people didn’t know what hit them — they couldn’t freeze the soft-serve fast enough for us. I had a cup of Bar One flavor (Bar One is a candy bar, kind of like a Milky Way) mixed with vanilla for R4.50 (about $.60).

The staff opened up the back room for photowalkers who wanted to see the freezers and ice-cream-making machines. I was too eager to stuff my face to go back there though.

The ice cream was very soft so I had to eat fast before it melted. (Photo: Jerome West)

That was the end of the Benoni portion of the tour. We climbed into our cars and motored to Springs, about 10 miles (17 kms) away.

An old-school VW motors through Springs.

The coolest art deco building in Springs is the Central Fire Station. I missed Jeffrey’s lesson about the fire station, unfortunately. But it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that this is the coolest fire station in the world.

Central Firestation.

This large coat-of-arms-like decoration hangs above the door of the fire station. I have no idea what it means, but it’s funny that the fire station is guarded by fire-breathing dragons.

Springs felt larger than Benoni, and the shopping street we walked on was a bit livelier. Also a bit more dangerous, it seems — one photowalker had his cell phone swiped. I only discovered this later, after walking blithely down the street with just one other woman, chatting to shopkeepers and pedestrians without a care in the world. I’ll be more careful next time.

Beating the heat.

Proud shopkeepers. They were less serious in real life than they look in this photo.

A smooth-talking bag salesman.

My afternoon ended with a toasted cheese sandwich in the Springs mall, which is called Palm Springs. Love it.

I’m going out of town for a few days on Tuesday and not sure if I’ll blog again before then. If you don’t hear from me this week, don’t fret. I’ll be back soon.

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  • Reply taxslave February 5, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    Never knew there were art deco buildings in SA – thanks for sharing – must go see them sometime

    • Reply 2summers February 5, 2012 at 11:51 pm

      Thanks! Actually there is tons of art deco, not only on the outskirts but in town too, in places like Hillbrow and the CBD. SA was flush with cash in the 1930s and did a lot of building when art deco was big.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough February 5, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    Even though it’s cold here today, ice cream sounds good. Love the photos, Heather. Hope you’ve had a great weekend, my friend.

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 12:03 am

      There’s never a bad time for ice cream. Thanks Kathy.

  • Reply shahilj February 6, 2012 at 12:05 am

    South Africa has a LOT of Art Deco. Durban is pretty famous for its abundant Art Deco buildings. As a result, the (monstrosity of a) casino in Durban was built using this Art Deco theme. It ended up being rather garish unfortunately. Jozi has a lot more Art Deco buildings spread across the city.

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 12:16 am

      Great minds think alike!

  • Reply Fiver February 6, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Nice summing up of the day, Heather. I love that the fire station motto is Carpe Diem, it makes it sound so gung-ho.

  • Reply Robin Grow, President Art Deco & Modernism Society, Australia February 6, 2012 at 12:33 am

    As a lover of Art Deco who seeks it out around the world, loved this blog – the tour would have been lots of fun. I worked in Australia with a lady who came from Springs – when I told her about the cool architecture there, she exploded in laughter – she couldnt wait to escape from the place! Agree about the firs station – its a beauty, from an era where fire stations around the world were being re-designed in the latest style. Have seen some great ones in Auckland, Melbourne, Montreal, Tulsa. As well as the dragons, note the motto – Carpe Diem – Seize the day!

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 8:32 am

      Hi Robin, thanks for reading and commenting. Glad you enjoyed the blog post. I didn’t know much about architecture before this weekend, but now I really want to learn more.

      I also enjoyed the Carpe Diem motto. Interesting motto for a fire station.

  • Reply eremophila February 6, 2012 at 3:05 am

    It’s my favourite era for architecture – and that fire station has me drooling! Have fun out of town:-)

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 8:29 am

      I know. And it looks so much cooler in real life than in my photos.

  • Reply Jill February 6, 2012 at 3:34 am

    Your eye-catching post brought back fond memories of growing up, in the 60s and 70s, in a neighbouring East Rand town called Boksburg. It seems that the ice-cream salesman on his bicycle (in your first photo) has not changed in over 40 years!! Thank you very much for featuring these often overlooked towns which do have a quaint charm of their own — despite being somewhat disparaged by the more sophisticated Joburgites! I now live in Pittsburgh, USA. Although I left SA 25 years ago, and so should be long past the home-sick stage, I do still miss “home”. Reading your blog has been a source of great comfort to me.

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 8:29 am

      Thank you Jill, that is really wonderful to hear. Pittsburgh is also an often-maligned but very cool city! I hope you’re happy there. I’m from near Baltimore, and still enjoy the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, even from all the way over here 🙂

      I used to stay in Boksburg whenever I was passing through Joburg for the night and needed a hotel near the airport. I’d like to go back and do some explaoration around there too — it’s been ‘on my list’ for a while actually.

      Those ice cream salesmen are still all over this area actually. There are tons of them at Zoo Lake and Emmarentia Dam in Joburg.

  • Reply thirdeyemom February 6, 2012 at 5:27 am

    I love the picture of the city hall looking up to the clouds! So cool! I think the photo walkers sounds like an amazing group to be a part of. How often do they meet? I wonder if there are similar groups in the US ( I am sure there are but maybe not in Minneapolis. Maybe Chicago). I would love to go on photowalks even if I not a great photographer but just to learn. Have a nice few days travel!

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 8:25 am

      Hi Nicole, the photowalkers meet hapharzardly — not necessarily on a set schedule. But there are usually at least 2-3 walks a month, sometimes more. I’ll bet there are groups like this in Minneapolis. Maybe do a search for camera clubs and go from there. Or you could start your own. That’s what Joburg Photowalking rock star Mark Straw did. Now the Joburg Photowalkers Facebook page has more than 2000 fans!

    • Reply Robin Grow February 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      There are lovers of Art Deco and Modernism from around the world who regularly visit cities and towns and organise walking/photographic. Many of them put their results on their own blogs or on Flickr. One I would recommend is my good friend David Thompson’s at

  • Reply Emily Cannell February 6, 2012 at 5:47 am

    I love the art deco style of buildings. I used to live in a super sweet art deco building in New Orleans. Nice pics of the people too.

  • Reply sandy coffey February 6, 2012 at 6:24 am

    Art Deco is/was such a unique style. And like Durban, there are so many Art Deco buildings in Port Elizabeth. Our home is an art deco home and although its not my favorite style of architecture, i still like living in one..

    p.s. the photo walkers adventures sound awesome. Wish they were here.

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 8:22 am

      Thanks Sandy. You should start a photowalkers group in PE!

  • Reply Laurice Taitz February 6, 2012 at 7:29 am

    Beautifully captured

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 8:22 am

      Thanks Laurice. And thanks for organizing the tour.

  • Reply landofnams February 6, 2012 at 8:01 am

    That is most certainly the coolest looking fire station I have ever seen. Also as an aside my engagement ring is Art Deco.

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 8:21 am

      I didn’t know jewelry could be art deco too!

  • Reply Jacki Janse van Rensburg February 6, 2012 at 8:01 am

    I love this and your pics.

    But i do want to take you on on 1 point, though: “places where people tend to live out of necessity, convenience, or habit, rather than for the culture and nightlife.”

    Benoni is a city in it’s own right. It has nightlife, and culture – you came all the way here to photograph it! It is about 40 minutes from Pretoria and Johannesburg, giving us convenient access to a huge choice of culture and nightlife, should we desire it. Yet we don’t have the enormous traffic issues, and property is less expensive. By far the most people who live in Benoni, also work in Benoni or surrounds. We often remark on how many people who grew up in Benoni, choose to live in Benoni as adults. I think many people live in Benoni by choice. And we love it here!

    Anyway, that’s just this Benoni gal’s opinion. Not fighting. Just saying 🙂

    Thanks for visiting our city. Please come again?

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 8:21 am

      Hi Jacki,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I totally understand where you’re coming from and I thought someone might write in about that statement! I myself have spent most of my life living in towns like Benoni — places that are certainly towns in their own right, but also tend to be overshadowed by big cities nearby. Perhaps a better way for me to explain it would have been this way: “If you come from Benoni and travel to another country, you’ll probably tell people that you are from ‘a town near Johannesburg’ because that’s the name that everyone will recognize.” I come from a town called Columbia, but I always tell people “near Washington D.C.,” because it’s just easier that way.

      Anyway, I really enjoyed my time in both Benoni and Springs. I’m sure I’ll be back!


  • Reply Gail February 6, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Thanks for sharing, made me a little bit mad that I pulled out of going on this walk.

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 9:07 am

      Thanks Gail. Luckily there is always a next time with the JHB Photowalkers 🙂

  • Reply laurenbarkume February 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Love the photos, you’re getting better and better!
    It was a fun walk, and nice to see you again 🙂

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      Great to see you too! Let’s do it again soon 🙂

  • Reply Jaco February 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Love the pics Heather! Our apartment in Killarney is also an Art Deco building, and we just got heritage status. Had to pull out of the walk thanks to studies. But soon! Hope you have a nice couple of days away! Say hi to Smokey, the termite exterminator!

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 3:34 pm

      I’d like to do more exploring of these East Rand towns. I find them very interesting.

  • Reply Howlin' Mad Heather February 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Your blog is the next best thing for me since I can’t afford a trip to South Africa. Lovely!

    • Reply 2summers February 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

      Thanks so much! I love to hear things like that 🙂

  • Reply Eugenia A Parrish February 7, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Yes, I grew up in “a town near Akron”. As a child, I would say that Canton is where President McKinley lived. Polite stares. In my teens I learned to first mention “the Football Hall of Fame”, and they would (at least the men would) light up and say “Ooh! Yeah! Gotcha!”

    I too love art deco, would spend my life in it. But I’m mostly a people person, and I am totally charmed by the picture of the five young men so intent (together) on something in the window. That to me said “downtown”.

    • Reply 2summers February 9, 2012 at 9:33 am

      Hi Eugenia, thanks, I’m so glad you like that photo. When I took it I was walking down the street with a gang of photowalkers, and I was just able to snap that frame before the guys turned around, saw all the people with cameras, and started hamming it up for everyone. Posed shots are fun but I was proud of myself for catching the ‘real’ moment before the silliness began.

      I’d actually love to go to Canton someday and visit the Football Hall of Fame.

  • Reply Talitha February 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Reblogged this on My Favorite Spaces.

  • Reply Lu February 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Looks like you had a great walkabout – and I also love that fire station! What is it about the old-school fire stations? They always had such character about them. It’s a shame that many end up being too small for their purpose in the 21st century and newer, replacement buildings are ugly concrete monstrosities. (I’m thinking specifically of Perth, Australia)…

    • Reply 2summers February 12, 2012 at 9:46 am

      Yes. Same thing happened in my home town in Maryland. The old firehouse on main street became a restaurant, and now there is a new huge ugly one next to the highway.

  • Reply Art Deco Hunting on the Wild, Wacky East Rand – 2 Summers September 19, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    […] In February 2012 I went on a tour of Art Deco architecture in the East Rand, organized by the Joburg Photowalkers. I have fond memories of that tour — I loved getting to know this far-flung part of Joburg that I had never visited before. The East Rand was quirky and weird and I liked it. (Read my post about the 2012 tour.) […]

  • Reply Kevin Taylor January 17, 2018 at 3:59 am

    Great Post- I’m an ex-Benonian living in the USA. The church was indeed a movie house- it was last known as ‘The Constantia’. I was in high school when it closed and everyone in our class got free tickets to see the last movie that would be shown there (which was the Kevin Bacon movie “The Air Up There’). There is a lot of interesting history in Benoni- Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron and Princess of Monaco Charlene both lived in Benoni.

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