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​The Johannesburg City Library is a splendid building, made more so through the long restoration that has returned it to its glory days, and added some modern elements.
BRONZE window frames, marble columns, Spanish cork tiles, redwood and teak panelling, Georgian wire glass, Canadian maple floors, German silver door handles, Venetian teak floors – sound like a grand palace? Well, it’s not; it’s Jozi’s central library in the CBD.

The fine lines of the Johannesburg Room, finally restoredThe fine lines of the Johannesburg Room, finally restoredThese features were revealed in its recent restoration and renovation. Says conservation architect Jonathan Stone, who did the restoration: “There was no expense spared when the building was constructed.” The library was opened in 1935 and is believed to have cost between £225 000 and £335 000 to build, about R300 to R400-million in today’s currency.

The features now gleam after the restoration work was undertaken. And they have been enhanced by the additions to the building, which have made it a more people-friendly place. “It’s a very, very robust structure. It was intensely engineered to carry the weight of the books,” says Stone.

“I am just so satisfied. It is absolutely what I envisaged. To have it happen was overwhelming,” says Atilla Lourens, the deputy director of library services for the City. She and her staff have started unpacking the books after living with dust and noise in their precious space for over two years.

Called these days the Johannesburg City Library (JCL), this majestic building on the western edge of Beyers Naude Square contains up to two million books, CDs, musical scores, maps, rare collections, patent records, government publications, annual reports, SABS records, and newspapers going back to the 1890s.

The moulded ceiling of the theatre has been recreatedThe moulded ceiling of the theatre has been recreatedThe library, of three and a half storeys and several basement levels, consists of several sub-libraries: the Harold Strange Library of African Studies, the Johannesburg Reference Library, the Michaelis Art Library, the Performing Arts Library, the Newspaper and Picture Library, the Young Adults Reference Library, the Central Lending Library, the Children’s Library and Children’s Book Collection.

The catalyst for the renovation was a donation in 2005 of R14,5-million by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This was used for the acquisition of new books, subscriptions to online databases, digitisation of the newspaper collection, and staffing for adding resources to the library database and the weeding out of redundant material.

This provided the “leverage for the City”, explains Lourens, to pump money into the long-overdue revamp. Over two years, the City spent R69,5-million on the library’s rebirth. More will be spent in the coming months, on climate control, fire, and air-conditioning facilities, to be finally complete in around October this year, she confirms.

The Carnegie Corporation provided a further R15-million in November last year, to be used for furniture and information technology facilities. Over 200 internet stations are being planned, with free internet access but with no hard drives in the computers, a security precaution.

Modern classicism style
The building, in the modern classicism style, is modelled on the Boston Public Library, a beautiful building opened in 1848. They share the same three dramatic, recessed ground-floor entrance arches, although the Boston library has a dozen more arches on the first floor.

The gleaming reading room, where a coffee shop will be createdThe gleaming reading room, where a coffee shop will be createdThe JCL’s entrance opens into an attractive double volume foyer, with marble staircases leading off it on either side. The central and reference libraries lead off the foyer on either side, and with their double volume ceilings and new steel mezzanine reading areas, they complement the grandness of the foyer.

A set of escalators has opened up the library, beginning in the foyer and inviting users up into the new floors. Three new levels have been created above the theatre, supported by four steel towers that have been built in the inner courtyard of the building. The escalators have a subtle elegance to them, not intruding on the grandness of the foyer.

“The building is quite inaccessible in many ways. We have taken the foyer space and extended it into a people space,” states Stone. These new floors give Joburgers much-needed study and reading space.

This new central section of the library is very different from the decorated plaster, marble and wood finishes of the old library. Colourful plastic chairs tucked under fun, wavy-edged tables surrounded by glass walls contrast with the fine brickwork that finished the original inner courtyard, visible from the new floors.

But Stone has been careful to “touch the existing building as lightly as possible”, cleaning floors and walls, and where necessary, replacing ball lights with exact modern replicas. Some elements clearly needed modernising. A new, bigger lift was installed, and the inadequate toilets were given a makeover.

And a coffee shop, to be created in the reading room, will give the library a more sociable face. The reading room is where the public has always had access to newspapers – with papers going back to the early 19th century – and it has also been given a makeover. Now its floors and newsstands shine. There are plans to open its Market Street door, making it a place where Joburgers can stop in for a cup of coffee and a quick read of the day’s papers on their way to work.

Johannesburg Room
Marble staircases and columns and moulded ceilings blend with the new escalatorsMarble staircases and columns and moulded ceilings blend with the new escalatorsOther areas were returned to their original fine spaces. The Johannesburg Room, a generous area replete with splendid parquet floors, arched windows with inlaid metal geometric shapes, and sharp square lines, overlooked by the gallery above it, has been restored.

Over the years it had been partitioned into offices and had lost its simple beauty. Lourens says the room will now get shelving and will house some of the library’s superb Africana collection.

The gallery above it has gorgeous wood panelling and flooring, with bronze-edged balustrade and slate base, the doors finished with German silver handles. The roof above it had Georgian wire glass fanlights, which, over the years, had taken a beating. Above the fanlights is a double-pitched roof with Spanish tiles, lined with copper, which had been damaged in previous interventions.

The fanlights were removed and restored. The copper was replaced and the roof restored.

It lives again in its original splendour, as described by architect Clive Chipkin in Johannesburg Transition: architecture & society from 1950: “But it is the hidden interior light courts that are stunning: Roman-clay roof tiles and light biscuit facebrick walling (to reflect natural light into the interior library spaces) have insets of golden-orange voissoirs to the arched fenestration, semi-circular Roman clerestory windows and radial flat window arches – a feast of historical construction.”

The theatre
When the library was built, an intimate children’s theatre was constructed in the courtyard. It was popular among Joburgers, but was closed about 20 years ago. The racked seats and floor have long been removed, to make way for an accessions section on two levels.

The recessed arches of the facade make a bold statementThe recessed arches of the facade make a bold statementThose levels will remain, and seating will be brought in when needed. It is not quite complete – lighting still has to be installed. Lourens says it will be a busy place – there are plans for recitals, talks, displays, exhibitions, and even book club evenings to take place within its cosy ambience, with its decorative concave ceiling.

Stone says that the original ceiling could not be kept and a new replica ceiling was put in place. Only an expert eye would tell the difference. The library’s grand piano has been in storage, and will soon be rolled out, taking its place again on the stage. Lourens has plans for listening booths for the theatre.

And the theatre’s Sauer Street entrance will once again be opened, allowing easy access.

Flo Bird, a passionate champion of old Joburg, used to go to the theatre as a youngster. She says: “That’s where I learned a love of theatre and the magical moments of the lights going down and the curtains opening.” She watched shows like Whistle Down the Wind and Mango Leaf Magic, describing them as “enchanting”.

A green building
Stone says he is asked about the green elements of the building, and answers: “The biggest energy issue was to keep the building. If you had to demolish and remake the library, it would be a profligate thing to do.”

So instead, he has “conserved energy as well as the fabric of the building”. But its new sections have energy saving elements. The new lifts are smart lifts that use less power, the escalators only move when people step on them, and of course, the light bulbs are energy saving.

One of the new floors with its fun table and colourful chairsOne of the new floors with its fun table and colourful chairsHe adds, though, that has been difficult to make the building compliant with fire regulations. “The building was a ticking time bomb waiting to happen,” he says. The fire systems in place didn’t work, and in some sections they still have to be replaced when the budget is available. Air-conditioning and climate controls systems have to be installed too.

The new sections have had fire systems installed, as well as air-con and climate control mechanisms. “So many have worked on this project,” says Lourens. “We have received so many compliments, many thank yous. People have had patience to wait so long.”

She adds that daily use of the library has increased since its reopening in February.

And there are compliments for her, too. “Without Atilla Lourens’s energy, I don’t think any of this would have happened,” says Stone.

“Joburg should be very proud of that library. Our forefathers really looked after us,” states Lourens, referring to the exceptional collection of Africana that has been gathered over decades. The library receives requests for Africana references from all over Africa, so well known is its collection.

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