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Rissik Street Post Office Print E-mail
22 November 2002

ONE of Johannesburg's oldest public buildings, the Rissik Street Post Office, is a sad, rundown structure these days, overlooking the City Hall like a benevolent grandfather, waiting quietly to be revived to its former graceful elegance. It is one of the buildings included in a recent heritage buildings report.

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The Post Office today, boarded up and neglected

It has been empty since 1996 when the Post Office moved out, but even before they vacated the building, maintenance on the building had ground to a halt. In the past six years the building has rapidly deteriorated, mostly the result of vandalism and theft. The latest act of theft was the disappearance of the clock hands and bells, which were dropped from the tower and dragged out of the building. Its copper dome has also disappeared. Its brass light fittings and switches, and wooden balustrades and fittings, have been stripped and removed. Floorboards are ruined as a result of a water leak.

Its ground floor is boarded up and many windows are broken, making it a sorry sight. Around the back, its paint is peeling and windows are gaping holes.

The heritage report indicates that the Rissik Street Post Office is structurally sound and could be restored to its previous condition. And, mercifully, unlike the Drill Hall and the Marshall Street Barracks, it is not occupied by squatters.

It was built in 1897 and designed by President Paul Kruger's architect, Sytze Wierda, a Hollander, and was at one time the tallest building in town.

Kruger had made a trip to Europe in the late 1880s and was impressed by the stately buildings he saw there. He came back with the idea of building equally grand buildings as testimony of his government's power. He hired Wierda for the job, and he designed the Raadsaal (1890) and the Palace of Justice (1897) in Pretoria. Both still have a commanding presence in Pretoria's Church Square.

Wierda's only building in Johannesburg is the Post Office, described by Desiree Picton-Seymour in Historical buildings in South Africa as a "solidly utilitarian building". It is a mix of styles: Renaissance, drawing on French, Dutch and other European influences. The handsome building consisted originally of three storeys, fronted by bay windows, with rounded arch windows on the ground level, set in grey plaster. The upper floors are in warm red brick. This was offset by an entrance portico and balcony over the pavement, and a bell tower with two matching rooftop cupolas.

In 1905, barely seven years after it was opened and as testimony to the rapid growth of the mining town, another storey was added, and the bell tower was replaced by a clock tower.

The Post Office was on the first market square of Johannesburg, a busy trading place packed with wagons, oxen, straw bundles and bags of produce. The market subsequently moved to Newtown, in the present day MuseuMAfrica, and remained the city's market until 1974, when it moved to City Deep .

In 1978 the building was proclaimed a national monument. The building belongs to the City and in 1996 it cancelled the Post Office's lease and asked them to move out of the building. In the same year the provincial government, which has offices in the City Hall, expressed an interest in taking over the building, but nothing came of this.

In 1998 a Malaysian property developer expressed an interest in the building, with a wish to turn it into a boutique hotel at a cost of R35-million. The City was keen on this idea, especially after the closure of the Carlton Hotel. But the agreement with them was terminated when they didn't meet the first requirement of supplying a R2-million deposit.

First Post Office

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The first Rissik Street Post Office, with three storeys

The present building is the city's second Post Office. The first was a low, flat building with arched windows and a central balcony and square frontispiece. It was built in 1888 and was the first government building of the growing town, with the Post Office occupying one wing of the building. In 1892 the entire building was taken over by the Post Office. The building served the city for eight years before the town's growth demanded a bigger building. The 1888 building was demolished to make way for the present building.

Before this the Post Office was located at various ad hoc places in the town. The first postal agent in the town was AB Edgson, who kept a canteen in Ferreira's Camp and stored the mail in a gin box. He read out the names on the envelopes while the early town dwellers stood around waiting for their mail. Mail accumulated, and towards the end of the first year of this service there were 10 000 unclaimed letters, 130 of them for the Smith family. Maybe they'd moved town.

The first pillar boxes were erected in 1889 and the first house-to-house deliveries took place in 1896. In 1887 the first telegraph service began.

There's good news for the Post Office. A new security company is now in charge of looking after the building - the previous company is believed to be behind the thefts from the building. And more exciting, talks are on the go for the possible purchase of the building. Estimates for refurbishment of the building are around R30-million.

The Post Office is one of three buildings that make up the attractive civic spine of the city. The City Hall was opened in 1915, a classic colonial building with elements of Roman architecture in its columns and rounded portico. Two further storeys were added in 1937, but its original tower was dismantled stone for stone and re-erected after the addition. It was recently sold to the Gauteng province.

The third civic building is the Central Library, west of the City Hall. Built in 1935, it's an impressive building fronted by three large arches. A meeting was held on 20 March 1889 to establish the library, with the public invited to donate money for the first collection of books. A thousand volumes were ordered from London and were brought by ox-wagon from Kimberley in May 1890.

Impala Stampede

Directly behind the Post Office is the Ernest Oppenheimer Park, once a much-needed green escape for city workers. It used to boast the beautiful metal Impala Stampede sculpture - 17 impala in a graceful arch over a fountain, by artist Herman Wald. The impalas were vandalised - heads and legs were cut off, and the sculpture was removed.

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The graceful arch of the Impala Stampede

The sculpture has now been restored by Wald's son, Michael, and graces the area outside the Anglo American building in Main Street. Several blocks in Main Street have been closed to traffic, and a delightful quiet green boulevard has been created, with rows of variegated groundcover planted down the road, alongside two rows of silver birches.

The Ernest Oppenheimer Park retains its central pond, but the Park is filled with hawkers and stacked with their boxes of merchandise.

 


 

 

 

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