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Johannesburg, South Africa

Once dazzling Chrysler House getting a facelift

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Time was that, back in the 1940s, there was a motor town on the southern side of Eloff Street where those who wanted a dazzling new American car would go, to stroll through showroom after showroom. The Rolls Royce showroom was Chrysler House, taking up a whole block.

 

Those times have long gone, but the 75-year-old Chrysler House hasn’t. It operated as a showroom until the early 1970s when it took on different lesser personas, finally being abandoned to vagrants. Now this heritage building is to be reborn.

 

There will be several firsts in the transformation. The 470-unit development aims to cater for the lowest earners, at R3 750 a month, and will offer the lowest rental for formal housing, at R1 700 for a 20m² studio flat. It will also be the first development in town with communal ablutions.

 

Renney Plit, the chairman and COO of the Affordable Housing Company or Afhco, one of the city’s biggest housing development companies, is the person driving the renovation.

 

I spent an hour chatting to him at his new offices in Siemert Street in Doornfontein last week. He’s an approachable, gentlemanly 50-something guy who talks with sincerity about what his company does. Over the past 18 years Afhco has bought and converted over 60 inner city office buildings, creating 5 500 apartments, accommodating 20 000 people in “decent accommodation”, in a R1,5-billion portfolio.

 

Afhco now owns 45 of those buildings, but this will probably be its most exciting project – taking on one of the city’s iconic but little-known skyscrapers, Chrysler or Atkinson House, its first major conversion of a heritage building.

 

It is modelled on New York’s stunning Chrysler House, with a similar ziggurat tower design, completed in 1938 as a motor showroom and servicing centre over 12 storeys, with several large hoists zipping cars up and down in a central lift well.

 

“Chrysler House reveals a new level of sophistication and competence in the Johannesburg of its day, above all in its core of extra-large lifts, vertical service ducts, air-conditioning (to keep the dust of the mining town off the shiny automobiles) and massive reinforced-concrete structure with cantilevers of six and a half metres on the perimeter (up to the level of the setbacks),” writes respected architect Clive Chipkin in Johannesburg Style, Architecture and Society 1880s-1960s.

 

Its double volume ground floor showroom “once glinted with the latest models of stream-lined US automobiles – icons of Americanisation – on the rubber-tiled sales floor”. Its décor consisted of the latest Bauhaus-style chairs, tables and ashtray stands.

 

“The main Eloff Street frontage is in the Skyscraper Style, with continuous, vertical stainless-steel fins (once highlighted at night with green vertical neon strips) to emphasise verticality,” Chipkin continues.

 

“The audacious use of reinforced-concrete structure, stainless steel, neon strips, a glass window wall twenty-six metres high, and the absence of contrived decoration, all form part of the new vocabulary of twentieth-century architecture.”

 

The 2nd floor was the used-car department, the 3rd the spares department, the 4th quick service, the 5th the service and electrical workshops, the 6th the panel beating and mechanics’ dining room, parking was on the 7th and 8th floors, admin on the 8th, and staff recreation rooms and lounge on the 10th. The 11th and 12th floors were taken up with lift motor room and aircon plant, plus the caretaker’s flat. The narrow 13th, 14th and 15th tower contained tank rooms.

 

Plit says that those stainless-steel fins running up the height of the building have already been replaced, now wrapped in plastic to protect them before the building is completed in March next year.

 

The building has stood empty for years, stripped of all its metalwork, damaging stairways and ceilings along the way. But the essence of the old building is still intact – the lovely terrazzo floors, the unique glass bricks, the rectangular, granite tiles in the foyer, and the two generous winged stairways leading up to the platform where the salesmen sat, lording over the showroom.

 

The revamp has been made possible through the Agence Francaise de Development, a development arm of the French government, which has stumped up a R150-million loan at favourable rates, at a time when finance is hard to get, says Plit.

 

He adds that the communal bathrooms, with provision for privacy within the shower cubicle, is “a breakthrough for the city – there is such demand for affordable accommodation”. Chrysler House will cater for domestic workers, security guards, gardeners and informal traders. The alternative for them is slum and hijacked buildings.

 

Tenants will have a lounge, play areas, crèche, and a shop in the building, and on one of the top floors there’ll be a large laundry.

 

It’s all hard to imagine right now. I visited the building – it’s a mess, caked in dust and piled with rubble and building sand and bags of cement, with workers everywhere. The terrazzo foyer is covered with layers of cardboard to protect it, to be revealed when the job is done.

 

Plit isn’t a person to just put people into buildings and take their rent. He has a holistic vision for the city. “We need more schools, informal trading malls and recreation.” In 2008 he started CityKidz School, which caters for grades 0 to 7, with 300 kids. He says proudly: “We came third in the spellathon in Gauteng.”

 

Afhco has created a large garden on the rooftop of one of its buildings, its lush green spinach leaves a contrast to the surrounding concrete.

 

And Afhco has been involved in a new initiative, begun in mid-September – the transformation of Kerk Street and surrounds on Friday and Saturday nights, when there’ll be food stalls, movies, basketball, free wi-fi, music, poetry reading and choirs on the pedestrianised section of the street. “We want to get the community out on to the street. I’m hoping the retailers will stay open.”

 

He wants too to pedestrianise a block of Albert Street outside Chrysler House, and install a kiddies’ playground, benches, chairs and basketball courts.

 

Afhco has also stepped in where the council has fallen short. Plit has replaced manhole covers, fixed potholes, painted street lines and replaced dustbins. He employs street cleaners and security guards outside the buildings he owns. “We are trying to develop stable communities, it’s an holistic approach.”

 

I wondered what one of Afhco’s biggest conversions was like, at 120 End Street. It has 925 units, with rent ranging from R2 700 to R3 600 for 1 and 2-bedroomed flats. I spoke to several tenants – they are happy with the cleanliness and security, but have minor maintenance issues. One described her flat as comfortable, saying it’s “a well-managed building”.

 

Plit estimates that there are around 80 “decent developers” in the city, who have pumped R10-billion into the CBD, creating 50 000 units, housing 250 000 people.

 

It’s impressive – Joburg was not created as a residential city; it was built as a white-collar city, with block after block of office buildings. What a different city it is these days, thanks to private sector developers.

 

There’s an old Jewish saying, says Plit, that goes like this: “If I’m not for myself, then who is for me?” It continues: “But if I’m only for myself, then what am I?”

 

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