For a town that started on a dusty, open patch of veld 117 years ago to be able to boast a number of castles seems incredible. But it’s true – Johannesburg has four “castles” around the city and suburbs, the oldest having been built in 1898 and opened by President Paul Kruger, when the town was barely 12 years old and still a rough, raucous place where men believed they would make their fortunes from gold.
But don’t expect to see grand, medieval castles that would have housed kings and princesses and knights, with a moat and impressive battlements. Johannesburg’s castles are very modest, two of them are homes with one or two turrets, one is a hotel and conference centre, the other a burnt-out shell of a building, one of its wings operating as a business.
The Three Castles Building, Marshall Street
The Three Castles Building, on the corner of Marshall and Goud Streets in the semi-industrial rather rundown, eastern end of the city, was home to the town’s first cigarette factory. It was opened in 1898 by Kruger, who was an enthusiastic smoker. It became known as the Three Castles Cigarette Company.
The two-storey building has three turrets in an L-shape with the middle, larger turret positioned on the corner of the street, with edging of stone running up the walls, and battlements around the square tops of the turrets.
The building’s in a sorry state these days. The west wing was badly damaged in a fire five years ago. This wing had been home to various nightclubs over the past decades, and for 25 years a gay club called the Dungeon Club had its home in the wing.
These days the west wing has gaping, blackened holes for windows, and its exterior doors are firmly bolted. The fire destroyed sections of flooring and ceilings. The two shades of beige on the exterior are peeling, giving the building a dilapidated look despite its striking, medieval appearance.
According to Hannes Meiring in his Early Johannesburg – its buildings and its people, the building “is typical of the freedom of architectural styles rampant in the last decades of the 19th century, when flights of fancy were welcomed. Most of the historical styles had been revived, people were getting bored with them, and new ideas were actively encouraged”.
The architects were Carter and MacIntosh, and it’s likely that the building was commissioned with the three turrets to reflect their “Three Castles” cigarettes.
The company was eventually taken over by the United Tobacco Companies, who had their offices in the building until 1953, when they moved to new premises in Industria, according to Johannesburg – One Hundred Years.
The present owner of the building, who wishes to remain anonymous, runs a pipings business from the site, supplying the engineering industry. His father rented space in the building 20 years ago and then bought the building from the owner who used to run a lingerie business called Fashion Form Foundations.
”Fifty years ago they used to make bras upstairs,” says the present owner. Now the east wing is crammed with racks of piping and accessories. Sections of ceiling are collapsing and in urgent need of repairs.
The owner says that tobacco auctions used to take place in the large east wing section, while cigarettes were made upstairs. Evidence of rail tracks are still visible on the floor, leading from the front door into the middle of the building – possibly for a small cart used for loading the tobacco at the door and moving it into the building.
The owner estimates that his father bought the building for around R350 000. The building should be worth around R2 to R3-million these days but he doubts he’d get that amount.
The building was originally painted a bottle green to echo the bottle green cigarette tins of 10cm by 12cm, with “The Green Castles Cigarettes” label on the outside. The following wording appears on the inside of the lid:
Every Genuine Three Castles Cigarette bears the name WD & HO Wills.
There’s no sweeter tobacco comes from Virginia and no better brand than the “Three Castles”.
Three Castles cigarettes were first made by WD & H0 Wills in 1878, in an amalgamation of a cigarette company that was formed by the Wills family in 1786 in Bristol, England. Just before the WW1 the company changed its name to the Imperial Tobacco Company, and today still produces some of the most well-known brand names in cigarettes: Embassy, Regal, Woodbine, Capstan, and Rizla cigarette papers. From 1786 right up until 1969 a member of the Wills family served in the company.
Parkview Castle, Kilkenny Road
Hidden behind Kilkenny Road’s oak trees and a well-established garden, the Parkview castle nestles happily on the hill below Westcliff koppie. It’s a large four-bedroomed house built by Major John Wesley O’Hara in 1907.
The house is a delight – it’s made completely of stone: it has an outer stone wall, a stone fountain in the garden and a long, stone and white plaster verandah the length of the front of the house and running around its east side. A typical castle door beneath a gable greets the visitor - with tall, arched doors attached with large black hinges to its frame. The house has a grey iron roof.
It has 3.6-metre tall ceilings, wonderful wood and tile fireplaces, wooden floors, beautiful pressed steel ceilings with deep cornices, lovely light fittings, and a warm and cosy kitchen with a glorious coal stove, sending out waves of warm air.
It has a two-storey turret in its west wing, now offices for the owner, Richard Beynon, and his wife, Trish Urquhart. Beynon has lived in the house for over 20 years and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, he says.
O’Hara came to South Africa from Ireland in 1893, joined the Imperial Light Horse Regiment and fought as a major in the Anglo Boer War.
He raised his five daughters and one son in the house that was built with stone from the Westcliff koppie behind Parkview. It’s believed that he modelled it on his grandfather’s castle in Ireland, upon which the Kilkenny Castle, a grand U-shaped three-storey castle with four large turrets, was based.
O’Hara gave the suburb its Irish street names: Kilkenny, Kerry, Westmeath, Kildare, Tyrone, Galway being the most obvious ones.
He was an active member of the community. He 1909 he was elected to the town council, and in 1914 became mayor. He was involved in local government until 1930 and remained the chairman of the Parkview and Districts Ratepayers’ Association for many years.
In 1915 he chaired the committee appointed to negotiate with the government for the establishment of a university in Johannesburg.
When the bequest for a university was allocated to Cape Town by the minister of education, O’Hara showed his Irish fighting spirit. He called a protest meeting in the Town Hall, attended by some 2 500 people, including mayors from surrounding towns.
The outcome was a decision to raise the money locally, and the council started the ball rolling by donating the 80-acre site to the west of Braamfontein, which had been farmland and a stone quarry. The foundation stone for the Central Block was laid in 1922 and the University of the Witwatersrand opened the following year.
O’Hara died in 1948 at Kloof in KwaZulu-Natal, apparently while on holiday. His wife Ivy lived in the castle until her death at the age of 73 in 1946.
The home was then sold to Israel and Jenny Targovski, who sub-divided the property, allowing the stone coach stables to become part of the neighbour’s property. In 1953 Judge George Munnik and his wife Marie bought the house, and made further alterations.
They enclosed the east side entrance hall to the stables, making it a pleasant sunny room. They added on a bathroom to the main bedroom, and made various other small changes.
“I took enormous trouble to match the colour of the front stoep pillars to blend with the stone walls,” says Marie Munnik. These days the pillars are painted white.
Munnik describes the original wood, brass and orange tile fireplace in the lounge as being as high as the ceilings, at 3.6 metres. It was in three sections, the bottom section being opened to light the fire, then once the fire was burning, the top section was opened, to allow the heat to flood the room.
She says that the fireplace was ordered for the Rand Club in the city centre but when O’Hara saw it – he was a member – he took it for his house.
Because of its height the top third of the fireplace was removed and placed in the garage, from where it went missing. When the Munniks sold the house in 1961 they took the fireplace with them, and it now resides in their daughter’s house in Parktown.
Munnik says that the bathroom had a bell, possibly to call the butler. In the main bedroom O’Hara had several master switches, one of which plunged the whole house into darkness. He apparently meant business when he said to his family at night: “Lights out.”
Munnik says that she still dreams about the house and in particular the renovations she had planned.
Neither she nor the present owners have come upon ghosts in the house, as rumours suggest.
The house had several owners after the Munniks sold it and before the present owners bought it in the late 1970s.
Kensington Castle, Highland Road
One of the city’s most impressive castles is in Kensington. Constructed in 1911 of stone, it has 10 rooms on four levels and is perched on the hill opposite Langermann’s Kop, in Highland Road. It was constructed with stone taken from the southern edge of the koppie on which it stands.
It was built by Englishman Samuel Scott Wilson for his wife Kate MacKirdie, who agreed to marry him on condition that he build her a castle. On arrival in Johannesburg, Wilson started immediately on the castle, and the couple moved in in 1911.
It’s believed that the castle was modelled on the Rothsay castle in Scotland, with help from Herbert Baker’s architectural firm. Its walls are one metre thick, with battlements and two walk-on roofs, and a ship’s cannon in the garden.
The Wilsons lived in the castle for only a few years, being forced to sell after falling on hard times, according to The Sunday Times of September 1992. Ownership of the castle changed three times, and in 1973 the Van den Spek family bought the castle, and 30 years later, it’s occupied by Marius van den Spek, son of the original Van den Spek, given to him by his father in 1982, who then spent his last days living in Paarl.
Van den Spek senior never actually lived in the castle, despite spending several years on renovations to the building. He demolished an east wing, and added a huge dining room with battlements and a second walk-on turret. He also put up a “Strictly Private, No Admittance” sign on the castle’s wooden front gate, set in the one-metre thick stone entrance wall, to keep the many curious people at bay.
Marius van den Spek loves the castle, according to The Sunday Times. He spends a lot of time on maintenance of the castle, as the lounge is below ground level and constantly subject to damp problems. The dining room his father added also has a leaking roof and damp walls.
Van den Spek has removed the “No Admittance” sign from the front gate, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to speak to him. He’s obviously a very private person – he didn’t want to be contacted despite repeated efforts.
The castle continues to impose its grand but stony presence on the suburb of Kensington, and no doubt still attracts many curious people, hence Van den Spek’s reclusiveness.
The Castle, Kyalami
Joburg’s newest and perhaps most striking castle is The Castle in Kyalami, a 24-suite hotel some 20 kilometres from the city centre. Visible from kilometres around, it’s 12 impressive stone-coloured, angular turrets face west, stretching over an acre or two and reached via a long drive lined with flagpoles and flags waving in the breeze.
It was originally built as a private residence by architect Mike Dinopoulos in 1992, who lived in this expansive building for only nine years before putting it on auction. It was bought by Planet Hotels and opened as a 4-star hotel in 2001.
Dinopoulos originally planned the castle to provide for his extended family, so that when his two daughters and son got married, they would live with their families in the castle.
The original castle consisted of the main house, three self-contained apartments, garages, yacht workshop and stables, stretching over several acres. The main house has now been converted into 11 en-suite rooms, and the self-contained apartments now consist of 13 en-suite rooms.
Room 11 was originally built for Dinopoulos’ son, with a private entrance and a spiral staircase to the kitchen, because, in his father’s words, “boys get hungry at night”.
The hotel’s restaurant, The Bastion, was originally a sunken lounge with a full-size billiards table. The lounge was levelled and the room now accommodates 120 guests. What was originally the entertainment room of the Dinopoulos family has been converted into the wine cellar of the hotel. It now accommodates 20 people as an intimate dinner venue, with its own private entrance.
The original sauna and jacuzzi in a turret have remained, alongside a swimming pool and clay tennis court. The 22-horse stables have been converted into a 500-person conference centre, with a state-of-the-art kitchen attached.
The original garage and yacht workshop have been converted into The Bailey conference facility. Dinopoulos actually completed his yacht in the workshop, and sailed to the south of Spain, where he remains still, because his children grew up and left home.
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