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Restored wall at Rand Steam Laundries shopping centre

The Dramatic Story of Rand Steam Laundries

Once upon a time, about 130 years ago, a group of Zulu men called the AmaWasha ran a business washing clothes beside a stream, on the outskirts of a ramshackle mining town called Johannesburg.

The water in this stream was particularly good for clothes-washing. Soon a bustling laundry called Rand Steam mushroomed on the spot, displacing the AmaWasha. South Africans hotels shipped their linens from from as far away as Cape Town to be washed at Rand Steam.

The laundry closed many decades later but the original buildings — some of the oldest industrial structures in Joburg — received protected heritage status from the city.

The buildings remained until the early 2000s, when a company called Imperial Holdings — to the rage and dismay of heritage activists and other onlookers — illegally tore down the Rand Steam Laundries to build a car dealership.

Enter the heroes of this story: the formidable Flo Bird and her colleagues at the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, who organized a resistance, picketed the site, raised a ruckus with the city government, and ultimately blocked the car dealership from being built.

There wasn’t much left of Rand Steam save a few discarded elements of the buildings and a small, round filtration tower, which now stands like a mini fortress on the site.

More than a decade passed. After endless painful negotiations between the Heritage Foundation, the City of Joburg, Imperial (who was forced to continue paying taxes on the land even though they weren’t permitted to use it), and a new development company called the Moolman Group, a plan was reached to develop the land in a way that satisfied all parties concerned.

In April 2019, the Rand Steam Shopping Centre opened and everyone lived happily ever after.

The end.

Restored wall at Rand Steam Laundries shopping centre
Tribute to the AmaWasha on a re-created wall at the new Rand Steam Shopping Centre. The developers worked to incorporate original elements from the old laundry buildings wherever possible.

The Rand Steam Shopping Centre

Okay, obviously that’s not really the end and the Rand Steam Laundries did not exactly live happily ever after. Not everyone feels a shopping centre on this site — complete with Pick-n-Pay, Woolworths, and Clicks (the equivalent chains to Safeway, Whole Foods, and CVS in the United States) — is a happy ending to this story. I was a bit suspicious myself.

Pick n Pay at the Rand Steam Shopping Centre
The Pick-n-Pay sign stands next to the old ventilators from the laundry, which were installed on the roof of the centre.

But I went to Rand Steam for the first time this week and I have to admit, the place is nice. Joburg has a lot of shopping centres but this is the only Joburg shopping centre I know of that has a blue heritage plaque, a beautiful artistic tribute to the original heritage of the site, and a century-old white-washed filtration tower that has been turned into a hip shoe shop.

The old filtration tower, which stands in the center of the complex.
Inside the filtration tower at Rand Steam
Inside the filtration tower. I love how this space has been renovated and I love these shoes by Six Kings.

I love the mix of retailers in the centre. Yes, the big brands are there; consumers need those brands and they’re essential to the financial success of the project. But the management of Rand Steam has worked hard to create space for small business and entrepreneurs beside those big brands.

Small businesses that have moved into Rand Steam include Bonafide Beards, Re-Trend, Cowfish, and the aforementioned Six Kings.

Inside Re-Trend at Rand Steam
Inside the beautiful Re-Trend home furnishing store.

On my first visit I met a friend at Bootlegger Coffee Company, a small-ish restaurant chain from Cape Town, and really enjoyed my flat white and hipster green smoothie. The restaurant was full, and kids were having a ball playing in the landscaped area beside the restaurant where the AmaWasha tribute wall stands.

A Joburg historical landmark was destroyed — a tragedy that has happened (and will probably continue to happen) many times over in Joburg and other cities all over the world. But some positive things have sprouted from that destruction. The site of the old Rand Steam Laundries is no longer a barren wasteland, but a place where the community can gather and shop and support South African business.

What more can we ask? Well done to everyone who made it happen.

Rand steam blue heritage plaque

Read more about Rand Steam in this article from the Mail & Guardian.

Rand Steam is at the corner of Barry Hertzog Avenue and Napier Road, Richmond.

Somerset House, Fox Street entrance

JoburgPlaces and the Restoration of Somerset House

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.

Inside Somerset House, 2015What I saw when I first walked into Somerset House, sometime in 2015. The Fox Street entrance is behind me. The building’s staircase is somewhere behind those metal grates.

Looking down from the second floor of Somerset House, 2015Looking 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.

Third floor of Somerset House, 2015Another 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, Fox Street entranceSomerset House on the Fox Street side as it looks today. Unfortunately I didn’t shoot any photos of the outside in 2015.

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.

View from the first floor of Somerset House in March 2018Looking 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. 

Ground floor of Somerset House, March 2018View of the ground floor and an unhappy-looking construction worker.

Somerset House first floor in March 2018View from the second (third) floor, facing the Fox Street side.

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.

Somerset House basement stairwayThe basement stairway as it looked in March 2018.

Safety deposit boxes at Somerset HouseThe 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.

Heather in the Somerset House basementMe at the entrance to the safety deposit box room. (Photo: Fiver Löcker)

Future home of the Zwipi underground bar at Somerset HouseThis photo wasn’t shot in March 2018, but just a couple of weeks ago in the first weekend of August. I need to include it though and you’ll see why in a minute.

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.

Ground floor of Somerset House, August 2018The ground floor — still quite rough but getting there.

Basement of Somerset House in August 2018The basement — wow!

Zwipi Underground Bar in August 2018The Zwipi Underground Bar. Remember the photo above of the guy in red coveralls? The space went from that to this in less than a week.

Safety deposit box room in August 2018The new and improved safety deposit box room.

Safety deposit boxes at Somerset House, August 2018Safety deposit boxes, jazzed up with fairy lights.

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.

JoburgPlaces team in Somerset HouseLeft 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.

Oldest house in Johannesburg in Bezuidenhout Valley Park

The Oldest House in Johannesburg

A few weeks ago I visited the oldest existing house in Johannesburg.

I’m a little confused as to exactly how old the house is. The house standing beside the oldest house was built in 1852. At least that’s what the historical plaque on the house says; this article by the City of Joburg says it was built in 1863.

This second house (not the oldest one, but the one standing beside it) is referred to as the Bezuidenhout Farmhouse. It was built by the Viljoen family and later taken over by the Bezuidenhout family when a Viljoen married a Bezuidenhout.

Bez Valley FarmhouseThe Bezuidenhout Farmhouse, built in 1852 (I think) and currently used as a Rotary Club office.

Blue plaque on Bezuidenhout FarmhouseBlue plaque on the Bezuidenhout Farmhouse.

But the actual oldest house, which the Viljoens presumably lived in before building the larger house next door, doesn’t have a plaque. Isabella Pingle, the heritage activist who showed the houses to my friend Marie-Lais and me, says it was built around 1850 — more than 35 years before Johannesburg itself became a city.

Oldest house in Johannesburg in Bezuidenhout Valley ParkThe oldest house in Johannesburg, built sometime around 1850. 

The most interesting thing about this house, to me at least, is that there are a bunch of regular people living there. The house is obviously a significant historical site, but no one really knows or cares about that. For the people who stay there, this is just the house where they live.

The two houses are inside Bezuidenhout Park, a Joburg City park, and I got the impression that at least some of the the people living here are staff of the parks department.

When I visited the house, there were a bunch of kids outside playing with a shopping cart. I asked them if I could go in. I met a beautiful woman named Thandi, wearing a beautiful red coat, and she showed me her room.

Thandi in her room in Bed Valley ParkThandi in her room. The blue jacket hanging behind her is a Joburg City Parks jacket; she told me it belongs to her father.

After checking out the houses, Marie-Lais, Isabella and I walked over to the old cemetery a few hundred yards away. It was the Bezuidenhout family cemetery for several generations.

Bezuidenhout family cemeteryThe cemetery.

Cemetery statueMy favorite statue in the cemetery.

There is a lot more to be said here — about the city’s oldest house, when and why it was built, what has happened to it over the past 160-something years, and the people who live there now.

But like lots of stories in Joburg, most of this story is still a mystery to me. I hope you enjoyed this small piece of it.

The Angel of the North sculpture outside Constitution Hill in Hillbrow

From Mansions to Muti Shops: Exploring Johannesburg’s Heritage

Last Saturday was Heritage Day, a South African public holiday celebrating the nation’s heritage. This holiday is interesting because “heritage” can mean so many things. South Africa has 11 official languages and dozens of distinct cultural groups, each with its own heritage. There’s also historical heritage, architectural heritage, artistic heritage, archeological heritage…Pretty much anything can be heritage.

On top of that, South Africa’s big-brand advertising industry has rebranded Heritage Day as “Braai Day” (braai means barbecue in South African), in an effort to convince South Africans — as if they need convincing — to consume piles of meat and gallons of beer on this holiday.

All this means that there are dozens of different Heritage Day activities to choose from in Joburg, especially when the day falls on a weekend. I was overwhelmed by all the options, but settled on a full weekend of historical tours with the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.

Holy Family Collage in JohannesburgHoly Family College, opened as the Parktown Convent in 1905, where the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tours started and ended. How cool is that intricate latticework?

Inside Holy Family CollegeThe beautiful staircase inside Holy Family.

Flo Bird in Holy Family chapelFlo Bird, founder of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, in the chapel at Holy Family. This woman is a legend and so is her outfit.

The Heritage Foundation set up headquarters at the historic Holy Family College in Killarney and ran walking and bus tours from there all weekend. The tours were affordable — one cost R70 ($5) but you could book three tours for R150 ($11). I went for three tours, of course. Here are the three I chose.

1) Motortown and Music

This walking tour explored a part of the CBD around One Eloff Street, which was the historic center of South Africa’s automotive industry, among other things. I’ve spent lots of time in this area but Saturday’s tour gave me a whole new perspective.

Our first stop was a complex of buildings across the street from One Eloff, which was the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in pre-democracy times.

Bantu Social Centre sign in JohannesburgIf you look carefully, you’ll see where the “Bantu Social Centre” lettering was removed.

Outside the Bantu Men's Social CentreWe couldn’t get inside the actual complex (it’s owned by the city of Joburg and currently used by roads agency staff and police) so this is the best shot I have of the former social centre itself.

The Bantu Men’s Social Centre, opened in 1924, was a place where black people in Johannesburg (mostly men but women too) went for recreation during a time when people of color weren’t permitted to move freely about the city. There were sports fields, a gymnasium, a stage, and a library. Many of South Africa’s most famous athletes, musicians, and artists spent time at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, making it a perfect place to discover on Heritage Day.

Next door to the centre is a building called Dorkay House. Dorkay House was home to the African Music & Drama Association in the late 1950s, and music legends Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba rehearsed there. Nelson and Winnie Mandela reportedly met at Dorkay House.

Muti shops on Eloff StreetThe street below Dorkay House.

The ground floor of Dorkay House is now occupied by an interesting row of muti shops. (Read more about muti and the Faraday Muti Market, which is around the corner from Dorkay House, in this old post.)

Tokoloshe salts for sale“Tokoloshe salts”, a type of muti. It’s colored salt that you sprinkle in your home to keep out evil spirits called tokoloshe. To learn more about tokoloshe, read this hilarious article in the Daily Sun (South Africa’s version of the American National Enquirer).

The upper floors of Dorkay House are a well maintained residential apartment complex. We were lucky to get inside for a short visit.

Inside Dorkay HouseInteresting 1950s architecture.

Hugh Masakela picture in Dorkay HouseA painting of Hugh Masakela in the Dorkay stairwell. There are similar portraits of Miriam Makela and Abdullah Ibrahim on other floors.

 After Dorkay House we walked past Atkinson House, formerly Chrysler House, one of Joburg’s first skyscrapers. The ground floor used to be a huge Chrysler car showroom but now houses a furniture store, and the upper floors have quality affordable housing.

Atkinson House, aka Chrysler HouseAtkinson House, aka Chrysler House.

We hung a right at the old Chrysler House and proceeded a couple of blocks to the magnificent Central Fire Station, which I was especially excited to see.

Central Fire Station in JohannesburgCentral Fire Station, built in 1931. It’s a bit run down these days but it’s still an active fire station.

Fireman slides down the pole at Central Fire StationWe even found a fireman to slide down the pole for us.

We finished the tour with a visit to Joziburg Lane and One Eloff, which used to be an automotive storage and workshop facility.

This was my favorite tour of the weekend. I learned so much. Thanks to tour guides David Gurney and Flo Bird for taking us into this Jozi time warp.

2) Sunset at Northwards

On Saturday evening I took a sunset tour of Northwards, a Parktown mansion designed by architect Herbert Baker in 1904.

Northwards Mansion in ParktownNorthwards. It faces north, obviously, as you can see from the late afternoon sun shining upon it.

The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation was originally called the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust, and tours of houses like Northwards are what the Foundation is best known for. This tour didn’t disappoint. I won’t say too much about the house because everything you need to know is in this great article on the Joburg City website.

Deanna Kirby, Johannesburg Heritage guide, at NorthwardsDeanna Kirby, our guide, dressed in period costume for the event.

Drawing room at NorthwardsThe massive drawing room at Northwards. The life-size portrait on the left depicts Josephine Dale Lace, the original mistress of Northwards. Rumor has it that Mrs. Lace haunts the house, and her portrait often moves of its own accord.

View from NorthwardsView from the second-floor balcony of Northwards, looking out over Saxonwold and Rosebank.

Northwards is wonderfully preserved but not normally open to the public. The best way to see the house is on a Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tour: Follow the group on Facebook to keep up on the tour schedule.

3) The Brow on the Hill

My third tour, on Sunday afternoon, was a walking tour of Constitution Hill, Braamfontein, and a bit of Hillbrow.

Angel of the North, by Winston Luthuli“Angel of the North”, an iconic sculpture by Winston Luthuli standing just below Constitution Hill in Hillbrow.

This tour introduced me to the “Governor’s House”, built in 1908 for the governor of the infamous Old Fort Prison on what is now Constitution Hill. (The Governor’s House is next door to the old prison.) As with many of the buildings in this post, I’ve passed the Governor’s House many times before but never noticed it.

Governor's House in HillbrowThe Governor’s House was badly damaged by fire in 2009 and then fully restored by the Johannesburg Development Agency. It now serves as a community outreach facility for the homeless.

After an informative lesson in the history of Constitution Hill and the nearby Wits Medical School, we crossed over to the Braamfontein Civic Centre, where many of the City’s administrative offices are housed.

Braamfontein Civic CentreA piece of the huge Braamfontein Civic Centre complex.

The Civic Centre was built in the 1960s and opened in 1971, at the height of South Africa’s apartheid regime. The Civic Centre is a prime example of brutalist architecture, which is appropriate given the brutal nature of the government that built it.

Brutalist architecture at Braamfontein Civic CentreA particularly brutal section of the Civic Centre.

Most Joburgers think the Civic Centre is hideous, and I always have too. But there was something pretty about it on Sunday afternoon. Teenagers and young adults were scattered about, peering at their smartphones and taking advantage of the free wi-fi that’s been implemented throughout Braamfontein. The big cement floor tiles creaked as we walked across them, almost lyrically. It was more peaceful than brutal.

City Red Bus and Civic CentreThe City Sightseeing Bus passes the Civic Centre skyscraper, which has one of the strangest building profiles I’ve ever seen. I’ve never looked at the building from this angle before.

We finished the tour on Ameshoff Street in Braamfontein, in front of an Edoardo Villa sculpture called “Last to Arrive”.

Edoardo Villa sculptureThis was the first time I’d seen this sculpture. I love it.

The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tours are fantastic — they seem to get more interesting and innovative all the time — and the organization does great preservation work and is run completely by volunteers. I highly recommend following the Foundation on Facebook, signing up for some tours, and even consider joining as a member. (Members receive a discount on all tours.)

Thanks to the Heritage Foundation for a great weekend.