Art Deco Hunting on the Wild, Wacky East Rand

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.)

When I saw the Joburg Photowalkers were doing another East Rand Art Deco tour last weekend, I signed up immediately. I brought my friend Ruth, a relative newcomer to Joburg who hadn’t been to the East Rand before.

The East Rand, now officially called Ekurhuleni, is the municipality east of the City of Joburg. There are several small towns on the East Rand — Benoni and Springs are the most prominent — which were prosperous gold-mining towns in the early- and mid-20th century. During the 1920s and 30s, these towns produced an inordinate number of Art-Deco-style buildings.

Like many small towns around the world, the East Rand’s towns have declined over the last several decades. Most of the beautiful Art Deco buildings are still there, and many of them are nicely preserved. But many of the buildings have decayed significantly. In some cases the decay is strangely beautiful. In other cases it’s heartbreaking.

Anyway, back to last weekend’s tour. We were supposed to meet at Eastgate Mall and then carpool from there to Benoni. (Mark Straw, the leader of the Joburg Photowalkers, had created a map of several East Rand buildings for the group to visit, starting in Benoni and ending in Germiston.)

Ruth and I missed the exit to Eastgate Mall — not once, not twice, but three times. Eventually we gave up and drove straight to Benoni. We arrived early and drove around Benoni looking for a petrol station. The first petrol station was closed and surrounded by razor wire. The second petrol station was open, but the friendly attendant told us they were out of petrol. The third petrol station was open and had petrol.

I’m digressing, but I have to tell you all this. Because East Rand.

We eventually made it to the first meeting spot, 44 Princes Avenue, and photographed the first group of Art Deco buildings.

John-Craig-Bazaar

John Craig Bazaar. I don’t know exactly when this (or any of the other buildings) were built, but it was sometime in the 1930s.

Walcot-Mansions

Walco Mansions.

Church-theatre

This building also appeared in my 2012 post. It used to be the Benoni movie theatre but now it’s a church. 

Benoni-wall

So much to see on this decaying locked gate.

As we photographed the buildings on this tour, the reactions of the people around us were just as interesting as the buildings themselves. No one could imagine why anyone would voluntarily come to Benoni and take pictures of these crumbling apartment blocks. We received many bemused stares.

Sign-in-building

Inside a building called Elgin House. Many of these buildings have problems with overcrowding.

Building-from-above

I don’t know the name of this building — it wasn’t officially part of the tour. But it conveys the vibe of downtown Benoni. Shot from the top of Elgin House.

From Benoni we headed to Brakpan and had lunch at the legendary Casbah Roadhouse. I’m not going to tell you about lunch though because I’m planning a special post about South African roadhouses.

Hotel-Savoy

Ruth and I happened to spot the Hotel Savoy next to the Casbah. It looks Art Deco but it wasn’t part of the tour and I can’t find it online. Anyway, it seems to be a bedding and upholstery shop now.

Then we drove to Springs, which has the second-largest number of small-scale Art Deco buildings in the entire world after Miami. The Heritage Portal, a popular heritage website in South Africa, recently referred to Springs as “Art Deco’s Love Child”.

Springs-CBD

Regal House, on Second Street in Springs. 

Court-Chambers

This guy asked me to take his picture in front of the historic Court Chambers building. I happily obliged.

We parked in the middle of downtown Springs, next to the train station. It was a public holiday and the street was busy. A pickup truck pulled up next to us and the woman in the passenger seat rolled her window down. “Are you tourists?!” the woman asked incredulously. “You shouldn’t walk around here with cameras, it’s not safe.” We chuckled at her concern and kept walking.

We arrived in front of a building called Doreen Crescent, on a crowded block of Second Avenue. Doreen Crescent was the most dilapidated of the buildings we’d seen so far. We crossed to the other side of the street to get a better look, and a few people pulled out their cameras.

Suddenly we were confronted by a tank-like man, well over six feet tall and half as wide, dressed in black. “Why are you photographing this building?” he demanded. “This is MY building. You are supposed to ask my permission!”

A couple of people quietly challenged the Tank, who didn’t take kindly to being challenged. “Get out of here!” he raged, mirrored sunglasses glinting. “I’ll break your cameras!”

I felt a strong desire to explain to the Tank that the streets belong to everyone and we have every right to photograph them. But I also felt certain that the Tank would, in fact, break my camera. Or worse. The men sitting around the Tank grumbled restlessly. We herded the photowalkers together and hurried away, the Tank still ranting.

I didn’t get a photo of Doreen Crescent and I didn’t get a photo of the Tank. Oh, Tank. You made me sad.

We drove to the Springs Fire Station, the town’s most shining example of Art Deco. The fire station is still functioning and perfectly preserved. I also wrote about the fire station in my 2012 post.

Springs-firehouse

Springs Fire Station.

Springs-firehouse-wide

Photowalkers in front of the fire station. 

We were supposed to head to Germiston from there, but Ruth and I were weary and ready for the hour-long drive back home. So we peeled off early.

On our way out of Springs, we passed a huge field filled with thousands of brick doorways. It was so strange. We had to stop for a look.

Springs-toilets

Strange.

I don’t know what these doorways are, or were, or were meant to be. I posted the photo on my Facebook page and someone replied with this link, which suggests the buildings are unfinished toilets: http://www.sowetanlive.co.za/news/2012/05/10/service-protest-over-toilets-in-kwathema. But I’m not sure.

You’re weird, East Rand. I like you.

The Joburg Photowalkers are organizing a photographic exhibition for Heritage Weekend (19-20 September). All heritage-themed submissions are welcome. Follow the Joburg Photowalkers on Facebook for more information.

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13 Comments

  • Reply K for Kate (@Kate_Els) August 13, 2015 at 9:26 am

    Ah man! This is so awesome, and something I’ve always wanted to do. Will you keep me posted on any other interesting photowalkers goodies please?

    • Reply 2summers August 13, 2015 at 12:00 pm

      But of course, my dear.

  • Reply Gail Wilson August 13, 2015 at 9:43 am

    Great blog, pity we missed the doorways and that Tank had cut our tour of Springs short.

    • Reply 2summers August 13, 2015 at 12:00 pm

      Yeah. Stupid Tank. I hate him.

  • Reply altus momberg August 14, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Those doorways… I vaguely remember a story from the late 80s where the Apartheid government in an effort to show that they built facilities for all races, gave a contract to a company to build toilets in the townships. They basically built a whole field of unfinished toilets. I don’t remember if that was in Springs however.

    • Reply 2summers August 14, 2015 at 4:29 pm

      Wow, that’s so interesting! Thanks.

  • Reply Lani August 15, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Had no idea about the secret art-deco world of Benoni! My friend is from there so now I can drop it in casually during our next conversation…Heh, heh.

    • Reply 2summers August 15, 2015 at 2:11 pm

      Oh yes, she’ll be so impressed if you mention that!

  • Reply autumnashbough August 23, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    I bet those brick doorways are really creepy at night. All I can think of is a book cover. For fantasy or horror.

  • Reply Fiver Löcker September 17, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    I remember that trip to the East Rand in 2012. Such fun, and great architecture. The fire station is glorious. Can’t wait to do another trip.

    • Reply 2summers September 18, 2015 at 3:40 pm

      We need to go back and hit a roadhouse next time. You’ll love it.

  • Reply Dawie June 19, 2017 at 11:54 am

    Hi 2Summers

    Those “doorways” was build about 2 or 3 years ago and was indeed toilets with doors and windows. It was intended for an informal settlement. Unfortunately as with so many things in SA today, things are not always planned well. I regularly pass through the area and just last week saw that they have now completely demolished the “doorways” and it seems as if they are now going to develop low cost housing in that area. I came across your blog looking at art deco buildings of Springs. I grew up in Springs but never knew that the buildings was so significant.

    • Reply 2summers June 19, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      Wow, that’s very interesting. Thanks for the update Dawie — I’m glad you found my blog!

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