A loud gasp involuntarily left my throat as I crossed Barry Hertzog Avenue into Napier Road, back in 2008. In front of me lay mangled sheets of corrugated iron, chunks of concreted bricks, pipes listlessly pointing skywards, and lonely twirls of smoke rising into the air – someone said you could smell the oregon pine from a block away. It resembled a war zone.
I pass the 1904 Rand Steam Laundries site in Richmond daily to and from work. I'd always found it special to have this historic site in my neighbourhood. I loved the outline of white and red buildings with their unusual steam chimneys and the quaint semi-detached cottages, and the thought that it was an essential if humble cog in the smooth running of the growing town.
The demolition of the site must count as one of Joburg’s greatest heritage tragedies, in a city that for most of its existence has shamelessly demolished some great buildings. And the blame lies squarely with Imperial, the car company.
They bought the landmark site in 2006 with a view to demolishing the structures and building a car showroom, although they were told by the seller that it was a heritage site dating back 102 years, one of the only remaining examples of a steam-driven industrial site in the city. Undeterred, they applied for rezoning.
That energetic saviour of heritage in Joburg, Flo Bird, set in motion the process of having the site declared a provincial heritage site soon after it was sold. It was given protection for two years. This expired, and in January 2008 Imperial’s bulldozers moved in. And despite several orders to stop the demolishers, it took five days to flatten most of the site, in the process tearing to shreds oregon pine and corrugated iron and carting it away. I know, because I heard the hungry bulldozers when I went to bed, still working when I woke up in the morning. It was only on the third order to halt demolition that the bulldozers went quiet.
But now Imperial has redeemed themselves. A few days after demolition, their chief executive Hubert Brody, recently retired, said in a press statement: “However, our people did not give adequate regard to the possible historic and cultural considerations regarding the property. We apologise unreservedly for this error of judgement.”
Imperial has worked closely with Bird and other heritage bodies over the past three years to come to an agreeable solution. Although this came only after Imperial tried to interest five developers in buying the property but because it had the condition of restoring the demolished buildings attached to the sale, they could find no takers.
I saw the drawings last week – it’s exciting news. Looking down Napier Road the profile will be almost indistinguishable from what it was before demolition, with the unusual roofscapes and ventilator steam chimneys in place, and at the end of the block, the semi-detached cottages. Two structures escaped the bulldozers – a circular water tower and a large shed. The shed will be demolished but the tower will remain. The major change will be a gaudy set of car showrooms along Barry Hertzog Avenue.
The restored buildings will be used as offices, parts depots, and admin. The whole site will have a basement parking garage with workshop and service centre, to lessen the traffic on the site and street.
“This is a very happy day. I am thrilled,” said Bird.
The Rand Steam Laundries & Cleaning & Dyeing Works consisted of semi-detached cottages for workers and managers, a blacksmith and farrier for making and maintaining its carts used for collecting and delivering laundry, and a soap making section. It was built on a curve of the Gas Works spruit, and drew water from the spruit for its operations.
But to me the site is even more significant because it was the place where Joburg’s first black businessmen, the Amawasha, set up manual laundries on the banks of the small stream. They were Zulu washermen from KwaZulu-Natal, where they had observed Indian men in turbans washing Durban’s laundry. These enterprising men established themselves as a guild and washed Joburg’s laundry until they were forced out of business in 1914. They had taken the gap in a town with very few women, to do this laborious but necessary task.
The Amawasha are to be commemorated on the site. An old pepper tree alongside the spruit will remain and be the site of remembrance. I would like to see a public art work erected under the tree, a quiet but honourable way to acknowledge their labour and contribution to the city.
The 1,6ha site had been derelict for several years, having operated as a laundry until 1962. The former owners, the Amoils brothers, had bought the property in 1946 when it was still a large laundry. They had 400 employees, making it the biggest private laundry in South Africa.
They used to take in laundry from hospitals from Vereeniging and Boksburg, as well as many hotels in the city. They also collected laundry from some 2 000 homes in central and northern Joburg, something hard to imagine now. “We had 15 vehicles, collecting from our regular customers every week,” said Stanley Amoils in 2006. The operation ran night and day.
But by the late 1950s the laundry business was changing – centralised laundries and dry-cleaning businesses were being established. Sensing changes in the area, the Amoils applied to rezone the site, wanting to build a 16-storey block of flats. They were successful in their application for residential rights but it never happened, thankfully, partly because the council built the A3, taking a corner of the property with a flyover joining Barry Hertzog Avenue. While this dragged on, they let the buildings for light industrial purposes, the laundry having closed. By 2006 they were ready to sell.
Imperial described the site at the time of its purchase as an “eyesore”, saying they would develop it into something “very attractive”. It struck me at the time that the site had all the ingredients for becoming more than attractive, as a mixed use precinct: the large shed could have been converted into a motor showroom, while the cottages could have been converted into craft hubs, and the steam laundry buildings would have made great restaurants and wine bars, spilling out into shady outdoor areas.
While the showrooms are unlikely to be particularly attractive, the restoration of the original buildings along Napier Road is a triumph, and should be a lesson to corporates and developers who buy heritage sites with the intention of demolishing and putting up something out of sync with the history of the city, or the wishes of residents.
The body that sadly comes out of this even more out of sync with the heritage community is the Provincial Heritage Resources Authority Gauteng or Phrag, the supposed protectors of the province’s heritage. Admittedly, they helped halt the bulldozers five years ago. To their credit they instituted temporary protection of the site for two years, but when it came to renewal of that protection, they just faded away.
There were repeated attempts by Bird and others to put the laundry site on their agenda for at least a year afterwards, she says, but it never happened. Eventually, Bird and Imperial just wrote them off, and got on with the business of negotiating the future of the site.
Now, when the process is before the city, who will decide on the rezoning to business rights in the coming weeks, they stand up and say they want a heritage impact assessment to be done. And, they want to take legal advice about the reconstruction. Bird says this would simply be “an academic exercise”.
“They could have prosecuted Imperial, but they did nothing,” she says. She adds that the City has done most for its heritage, not the statutory body set up for the purpose.
“We suggest that the Phrag step back into the shadows where it has been all these years when it should have taken action. And now let the rest of us – the Applicant, the City and the objectors – get on with the healing process and develop the site as has been agreed,” she writes in her submission to the rezoning committee.
Eric Itzkin, deputy director of immovable heritage in Joburg’s arts, culture and heritage department, says he is “broadly in support of the proposal”, although he says a historical study needs to be done, before proper commemoration can be paid to the Amawasha.
Bird is impressed with the turnaround in Imperial’s attitude. “Once they finally decided to use the site themselves, there was a changed attitude, from the odious Imperial, to giving something back.” This is not to say the process has not been long and hard – it has. But agreement has been reached, to everyone’s credit.
The head of Imperial Properties, Thando Sishuba, says: “I feel fairly optimistic that we have reached the end of the road with the rezoning and the possible resolution of this matter.” He stresses that there are still outstanding matters to work through, like the spatial development plan and getting the plans passed , but he expects construction to start in mid-2014.
“I am absolutely elated that we have found a way forward. It goes a long way to putting what we did wrong, right. We can now hold our heads up high. This will be good for the city.”
Imperial bought the property for R20-million in 2006. It will spend in excess of R100-million to reconstruct what it demolished, and build showrooms.