About three years ago, I was roaming around downtown Joburg on a drizzly Sunday afternoon with some photographer friends. As we walked along Fox Street near the corner of Rissik Street, just behind Gandhi Square, we noticed an open doorway and walked inside. I didn’t know it then but this doorway led to Somerset House.
I had no idea what I was looking at but I could tell this building was special. My eyes went immediately to the dazzling black-and-white checkered floor and the bright green tiles along the walls. I looked up; the building was three stories tall and the two stories above were painted in various shades of red and blue, with ornate wood and iron railings lining the balconies overlooking the atrium.
I now know the vaulted ceiling is made of glass, but the ceiling was covered in metal sheeting back then so I couldn’t see it. One end of the building was closed off so I didn’t know Somerset House was actually an arcade, with one side opening onto Fox Street and the other onto historic Gandhi Square.
We didn’t stay in the building for long. We weren’t really supposed to be there, and my friends got worried about safety so we left after about 15 minutes of exploring. Looking back now, I wish I’d stayed and shot 1000 more frames.
Looking down from the second floor (Americans would call it the third floor) in 2015. Note the clothes hanging on the railing below and the two children near the stairway; there were several families living in the building back then. I’m standing with my back to the Fox Street side. The then-closed-off Gandhi Square side is in front of me.
Another look at the second (third) floor of the building in 2015. A bit of the metal-covered ceiling is visible. The white and brown rectangle is the old-fashioned lift, which has been out of operation for decades.
Little did I know that three years later, Somerset House would be in the middle of a glorious restoration and JoburgPlaces, one of my favorite Jozi tour companies, would take up occupancy there.
This story has some twists and turns so try to stay with me.
History of Somerset House
Somerset House is one of the oldest buildings in downtown Joburg, built in 1906. The basement and ground floors were originally occupied by the United Building Society, precursor to Absa Bank: The ground floor housed the bank offices and the United safety deposit boxes were in the basement. The bank eventually needed more space and moved out in 1930, at which time the building was renamed Somerset House.
The Gandhi Square entrance was closed off in the 1970s to make more space for the Traffic Square restaurant, a long-term tenant on the ground floor. Like many buildings in downtown Joburg, Somerset House slowly decayed as the inner city declined in the 1980s and 90s.
In 2017, visionary Joburg property developer Gerald Olitzki bought the building — Olitski owns most of the buildings around Gandhi Square and is responsible for the amazing rejuvenation in that area over the past two decades — and committed to restoring it.
(This is an extremely abridged version of more than 100 years of Joburg history. For a far more detailed and fascinating historical account of Somerset House and its surrounding buildings, read this article in the Heritage Portal by Joburg historian Lucille Davie.)
Somerset House Today
In March 2018 my friend Gerald Garner (not to be confused with Gerald Olitski), founder of JoburgPlaces, sent me an invite to visit an exciting new project of his. The invite came as no surprise; Gerald is in the habit of starting exciting new projects. In 2014 he spearheaded the development of the 1 Fox precinct and in 2016 he did the same at One Eloff Street. This time around it’s Somerset House and I think it’s Gerald’s most exciting project yet.
JoburgPlaces is partnering with Olitski Property Holdings on the restoration of Somerset House and eventually has plans to buy space in the building. As usual, Gerald (Garner) is thinking big. Somerset House will become the starting point for JoburgPlaces tours, and will also house a restaurant/bar/events venue called the Thunderwalker. There will be a boutique hotel and penthouse apartments and all kinds of exciting things. But let me not get ahead of myself.
I showed up at Somerset House with my camera at the end of March 2018, eager to see what had happened since 2015. The place was still a construction zone but the changes were dramatic.
Looking down from the first (second) floor, facing the Gandhi Square side, in March 2018. The checkered floor and green tiles were covered up at the time. The Gandhi Square entrance had been re-opened.
The most exciting part of our March 2018 tour was the visit to Somerset House’s basement, which I hadn’t seen in 2015. As I mentioned, the basement housed about 1000 United Bank safety deposit boxes. The boxes are still there today.
Gerald told us the basement would be the future home of the JoburgPlaces Zwipi Underground Bar.
The safety deposit boxes. As you can see, some of them are open but the majority of the boxes are locked and the keys were lost decades ago. No one knows what’s in those locked boxes now but it would be extremely expensive to have them all opened. So for now they’re staying closed.
Opening the Zwipi Underground Bar
Fast-forward about four months to last Thursday evening — the “Imaginary” opening of the JoburgPlaces Zwipi Underground Bar. The restoration is by no means finished so this was a “soft” launch — the bar won’t open permanently to the public until September. Nonetheless, I was blown away by the interior of the building, especially the basement.
How to Visit Somerset House
If you’ve read this far, I imagine you’re excited to see Somerset House for yourself. This link on the JoburgPlaces website explains where things stand at the moment. In short though, I recommend booking a JoburgPlaces “Secret Safari & Underground Dinner” or a JoburgPlaces walking tour (most of which now include a walk through the Thunderwalker venue).
In particular I recommend the “Money, Banks and Vaults” tour, which includes the old United safety deposit boxes and many other hidden bank buildings and vaults around the inner city. That tour is a story for another blog post.
Congratulations to Gerald and the JoburgPlaces team.
Left to right: JoburgPlaces guide Charlie, JoburgPlaces founder Gerald, friend of JoburgPlaces Manuela, JoburgPlaces event manager Koketso, and friend of JoburgPlaces Fiver. Shot in March in what would soon become the Zwipi Underground Bar.