I have a sense it’s going to happen this time - one of my favourite downtown buildings, the once-grand-but-badly-neglected Rissik Street Post Office, is going to get some way overdue love, and wake from its dreadful slumber. Ravaged by theft and a devastating fire, it has sat quietly seething in the CBD.
Last week I stood in the darkened postal hall, with its once-gorgeous, tall leaded glass roof, still there but dark because corrugated iron protects it from the elements. The beautifully tiled floor is still largely intact, and a segment of the long wooden counter is still in place. Light shines in from the row of tall windows on the street side, and the walls retain their ochre and cream paint. I picked up a piece of peeled wallpaper lying among the rubble, a floral pattern in browns. A row of light chains hang down from the ceiling, their fittings long gone.
It could easily be a ballroom. It takes up 400m², and could seat 200 people, perhaps 700 standing. For a nostalgic wedding, perhaps. Or a corporate function, or a dance performance, or a late night party, or an art exhibition, or heritage lectures.
These are some of the plans for the old madala. Built in 1897 when a small metal box that acted as the post office in the middle of the dusty square became inadequate for the growing town, it originally had only three storeys, but within eight years another storey was needed. When this was built the bell tower was replaced by a clock tower, and one of the city’s first civic buildings defined the square – the City Hall was only built in 1915, the library in 1935.
The hall is the best preserved. Other rooms hang with strips of pressed steel ceiling, gaping doorways, with just the pattern of stairways etched against the wall, peeling plaster and paintwork, and broken wooden floors.
I walked into a front room and looked up to the first floor. There was a row of 11 telephone booths on the first floor, with their thick wooden doorframes and empty cubicles, and missing doors. I imagined people rushing up the stairs to phone a lover, or a nanny, or their boss to make some excuse about something. Only the floor under the booths is still there, almost inviting a caller in.
Elsewhere on the ground floor thin classical columns rise up from the diminished floor, a hint of the grandness of the original design by Sytze Wierda, Paul Kruger’s architect.
I went down into the basement and stood among the solid whitewashed pillars and stone walls that hold up the building. The air was cool down there, and with the ceiling punctuated with several hatches from the postal hall above, I could imagine the post flying into a bag or basket from upstairs, to be sorted by busy hands. It could make a great space for a wine emporium business, says Brian Debnam, consultant of Cultures in Regeneration, the company that has been contracted by the Johannesburg Property Company to re-imagine the building.
The post office closed in 1996, and the city-owned building has stood empty since then, with various proposals like a 5-star hotel or the mayor’s or premier’s offices, coming to nothing. The door handles, light fittings, and any other metal fixtures were meanwhile stripped, and in 2003 the clock hands, bells and copper dome were stolen, leaving the building a broken man. In 2005 it awoke briefly from this nightmare to be re-invented as the setting for a TV drama called Hard Copy, filmed in the north hall, with dusty piles of newspapers and untidy desks being brought in to represent a newsroom.
In August 2009 a small fire broke out, but didn’t do too much damage, but this should have been the warning. It was the fire in November later that year that brought the building to its knees. The fire, started by homeless people on the third floor, spread quickly, and most of the wooden floors and stairways were razed, leaving vast four-storey spaces. A year later a restoration plan saw the building cleared and stabilised, with a new roof installed but further restoration ran aground. Two years later a plan to get a developer to spend R350-million on the building came to nothing.
Debnam says one of the major factors in deciding how the building is to be used now is the parking, or lack of it. Consequently, initial ideas are to use it as a weekend and evening venue, when there’ll be less squeeze on the busy streets around the building. Discussions with groups like the Bassline, Dance Umbrella, Vuyani Dance, the Market Theatre, art production company Trinity Session, and private event promoters, have already been held.
Another issue is the toilets and catering. Ideas being thrown around are to expand the toilets in the adjoining Oppenheimer Park, which will also be the future entrance to the building. Rooms on the south side of the building will be used for walk-in catering, with an entrance on Albertina Sisulu Street.
The work is being broken into three phases: the first is to secure the building and make it waterproof. Gaping windows have to be glassed, and floors will have to be restored. But even more basic exercises have already happened: there are no plans of the building, so scans have been done to build up a sense of the structure. The building needs to be rezoned, and its present six stands will have to be consolidated into one. Power and water have to be brought into the building too.
The second phase involves placing steel supports on the walls to strengthen them. The façade will be restored too, and the interior will be refashioned to become a temporary space. Debnam expects it to be open for business in 2016. The costs of running the building will be largely raised from the rental of the spaces, while an application is likely to be made to Lotto for a portion of the capital costs, currently estimated at R108-million.
Restoring and using the other floors will happen in future, once the ground floor has been successfully utilised. The key is not to be too ambitious, says Alan Dinnie, senior manager at the property company. I agree.
I hear that the city is finally moving on the building because it doesn’t want a repeat of the collapse of Orlando Ekhaya in Soweto earlier this year. That’s not likely to happen, as everything of value has been stripped out of the post office, and its entrance is guarded 24/7.
“The Rissik Street Post Office holds a special place in the hearts of many people, and is still of concern,” says the acting director of the city’s arts, culture and heritage department, Eric Itzkin. He is particularly pleased that the neglected façade is to be restored. Heritage champion Flo Bird says the plan will “give the building back some meaning – once people see how beautiful it is, this increases its value”.
Just as Constitution Hill has been wonderfully re-imagined, the post office can become a place where citizens can dream big, and have a big space to fulfil those dreams.