​​Joburg's oldest buildings​

hymany3.jpgbezvalleyhouse.jpg

Tom Kelly with his children, in the idyllic surroundings on the Boschkop farm   The Bezuidenhout farmhouse today

thefort.jpgbreestpolicestation.jpg
Just inside the entrance to the Fort                                        The Bree Street Police Station, on the corner of Bree and Simmonds Streets​
windybrow2.jpgdeklerk.jpg
Windybrow today, a jewel among the skyscrapers of Hillbrow   The house attached to the workshop of De Klerk's coppersmith

Human settlement in Johannesburg goes back some 25 000 years, but when were the first brick buildings built, and how many still survive? The first structures to go up on the grassy plains that made up the site of early Johannesburg were a mix of tents and mud and reed huts, followed by iron and wood houses.
It is believed that the first one of the first wooden city buildings was the Central Hotel, on the corner of Commissioner and Sauer Streets, according to researcher and chief city librarian Anna Smith, in Johannesburg Firsts.

There is some dispute as to which was the first brick house in the town. In her research, Smith came across three houses that qualify: a house built in 1887 in the City and Suburban area of the inner city, destroyed by heavy rains in 1891; a "little house erected to serve as an office", a three-roomed stone and brick house occupied by Jan Meyer, in the Natal Spruit camp; a third house, known as Rose Cottage, with a thatch roof, situated near Meyer's Camp and built by land owner Julius Jeppe.

Of course, none of these houses stood for long, as the town grew rapidly, and buildings were quickly demolished to make way for the next wave of expansion, a pattern that has lasted up until the 1990s, when conservationists finally managed to persuade the city bosses to preserve the city's heritage.

But in the countryside surrounding the rapidly growing town were a scattering of Boer farmhouses, which now qualify as the city's oldest buildings.

Hy Many House (1860)
One of the oldest is Hy Many House in Frangipani Crescent, Randpark Ridge, the original structure of which is believed to have been built in 1860, thus making it the oldest brick structure in Johannesburg, at 142 years. The clue to its age comes from the single remaining thick outer wall on the south side of the house, suggesting the original Boer farmhouse, usually just several simple rooms in a rectangular shape.

The house is all that is left of the original farm, and only half of the house remains. The interior of the house has been modernised, and the only remaining element of its former grandness is the attractive double-gabled, whitewashed façade.

In 1903 the farmhouse and farm Boschkop belonged to J Labuschagne. Boschkop (Afrikaans for "bush hill") was obviously named because of a small, distinctive koppie nearby, now referred to as Bush Hill, and mercifully still clear of houses, but surrounded by dense suburbia.

John Dale Lace, a Randlord and owner of another of Johannesburg's famous mansions, Northwards in Parktown, bought a portion of the farm Boschkop from Labuschagne in 1903, extended the house, building two A-framed gables on either side of a veranda in the front, and building a pleasant courtyard around which he placed bedrooms, kitchen, and pantry. He had it as his country estate. In all it had some 25 rooms. He also built a dam, still there, now called Hy Many Dam.

But Dale Lace lost his fortune and in 1911 he and his wife, Jose, went to live at Boschkop for a short time. The house was taken over by Standard Bank and in 1927 businessman Tom Kelly bought the house, and extended and restored it, giving it Cape Dutch gables and changing its name to Hy Many, which refers to the home of the Kellys, originally from Ireland. The farm consisted of some 1 300 acres, with 25 acres of vegetable gardens. Kelly developed the farm considerably.

According to Kelly's daughter Elizabeth Gemmill, now in her 80s, her father was a keen horseman, and established an abundant stable of polo ponies on the farm. He used to ride from his farm to Langlaagte, just west of the CBD, to play polo. He also established game on the farm - wildebeest, zebra, blesbok, duiker and jackals.

The house was surrounded by veld, with a spruit flowing out of the dam, and a long tree-lined avenue running from the present day Beyers Naude Drive to the house.

Gemmill remembers a tennis court, croquet lawn, and beautiful pool that her father built. Water used to spill out of the dam into terraced gardens above the pool. She says that there was a small cemetery near to the present day Hy Many Dam, probably belonging to farmer Labuschagne but now long gone. She recalls taking tea in the gazebo, at the bottom of the garden; just the foundations of the gazebo remain.

In 1951 the house and part of its land was taken over by Gemmill, and she built a swimming pool and pool room close to the house. In 1982 she sold the land and house to Gencor Trust, who had the land rezoned for residential development. She was told by Gencor to take all the windows, doors, floorboards and fireplace mantelpieces, as they were to demolish the house.

She stayed in the house for another two years, and slowly dismantled and removed the fittings. After growing up in the house, and raising her children in the house, was she sad to leave? Yes, she says, but "perhaps it was a good thing".

Dave Gaisford, a Randpark Ridge resident, bought land close to Hy Many House in 1984. Gaisford became a vociferous campaigner to save the house, which was threatened with demolition on a number of occasions. Gencor was the first party in favour of demolition - their development plans didn't include Hy Many house.

Gaisford wrote the first of several letters to the then National Monuments Council, asking them to intervene by declaring the house a national monument. He got a range of people - botanists (interested in saving the old trees) and architects - to submit letters to validate his claims for restoration.


Various alternatives to demolition were put forward for the house - a sports club, an office park, an old age home - but all involved funding which was not forthcoming. The Randburg Council was one of those bodies which was keen to save the house but didn't have funding for its restoration.

In the meantime the house became run down, and by the early 1990s was occupied by squatters. Then the back section of the house was damaged in a fire. This proved to be the solution to the impasse.

The present developers, Hy Many House Developers, had bought the house from the Randburg Foundation (who wanted to convert it into a gentlemen's club) in 1994, with a view to developing a townhouse complex. They were also keen to demolish the house. Gaisford believes they took advantage of the situation after the fire - they brought in a bulldozer and demolished the damaged section, an illegal move because the house was now on the Register of Immovable Conservation-Worthy Property. Gaisford maintains that it was sufficiently intact to be retained and restored. What remains of the house is just under half of its original design.

In 1996 15 unattractive box-shaped townhouses were built in the area immediately surrounding Hy Many house.

The inside of the house has been sadly modernised and its steel ceilings and wooden floors have gone, as have its original fireplaces, now surrounded by modern tiles. The façade, with its matching gables and beautiful front veranda with an indented stairway and oval-shaped windows on either side, remains. It still has a view, over the wooded suburbs to the east, and of Sandton City. It retains its iron roof, and five of its seven original jacaranda trees, probably 80 or 90 years old.

By rights it should be a national monument - the 1994 listing was the first step to becoming a national monument, but because the developers deviated from the approved site development plan, it lost its historical significance and was removed from the Register in 1998.

The house is protected because it is over 60 years old, which means that approval has to be sought for any alterations made to the house. It would be preferable if the house were a declared national monument.

Bezuidenhout farmhouse (1863)
Another of the early white settlers on the Witwatersrand, the Bezuidenhouts, built their farmhouse on the farm Doornfontein in 1863. The 130-year-old house still stands, now in Bezuidenhout Park or Homestead Park, a large green space in the suburb of Dewetshof, east of the city centre.

The farmhouse started as a simple rectangular building with front stoep. Extensions were made in the 1890s to the south side, giving the house an attractive bay window, and a further wing was added to the north side in 1910.


It is still in good condition and is now the home of the community service club, the Lions, although it belongs to Johannesburg City Parks. In consists of thick, white-washed walls, its original thatch roof having been replaced a long time ago by iron.

Frederick Bezuidenhout had settled in the area in the 1850s, and in 1861 part of the farm Doornfontein was ceded to him after he married Judith Viljoen (who gave her name to the suburb Judith's Paarl), whose father owned the farm. The farm was extensive, a beautiful green valley with a vlei or marsh at the bottom of the farm, stretching from Judith's Paarl, up to Cyrildene, over to Gillooly's Farm, and the Kensington ridge in the south.

Doornfontein was one of 20 farms which made up the future city of Johannesburg.

Frederick owned the northern part of the farm, where the farmhouse stands, and because it was cultivated land, it was not proclaimed public diggings when gold was discovered in Johannesburg in 1886.

The Bezuidenhouts were to own most of the land in the area for over 30 years, gradually selling off pieces of it. A popular social spot was the band stand, built around 1913 in what is today Hofland Park.

One of Frederick's grandsons, Barend, who did most of the subdividing and selling, lived in Kensington in a house called Cosmos, now an old-age home.

Willem, one of Frederick's sons, lived in the farmhouse until around 1950. In March 1949 he sold 133 hectares to the city council, stipulating that it was to be a park named Bezuidenhout Park, and that the farmhouse was to be maintained by the council. The park has been developed, and now has a miniature railway, a pool, a caravan park, and multiple sports facilities.

In the 1890s the present-day suburb of Doornfontein, on the western end of Doornfontein, which was considered to be "in the country" then, became the area in which the wealthy Randlords had their offices and built their homes. Barney Barnato had a house in End Street and George Albu had a mansion in Pearse Street. Because a lot of these first residents were Jewish, a synagogue was built, still in Siemert Road.

But ten years later the Randlords found a new luxury suburb: Parktown. Doornfontein went into decline, and some would argue it's remained that way to this day.

In the 1980s the Bezuidenhout farmhouse had a bit of a renaissance when Alan Buff, General Manager of Technical Support and Training at City Parks, lived in it for eight years. He pampered the garden, producing a spectacular wonderland where people came to have their photographs taken, and the mayor held garden parties, and historical societies brought tour groups.

A formal Bezuidenhout reunion was held there in 1982, to which some 50 Bezuidenhout family oldies turned up. One of them, says Buff, was an old woman in her 90s, now dead, the granddaughter of Frederick Bezuidenhout. She was pushed around the house in her wheelchair, pointing out where her grandparents used to sip champagne by candlelight in the study (now a bedroom), gossiping about other family members.

She told other stories. One of the old men in the family shot a lion down in a vlei - now a sportsfield - from the stoep of the farmhouse.

In the same area there used to be a black concentration camp during the Anglo Boer War. The British used the farmhouse as a base during that war, and the grounds housed some 4 000 horses, maintained by a 7 000-strong non-combatant Indian contingent.

She remembered a mural of Cape Town harbour, now long erased by a coat of paint. She recalled the "Dassie Trail". Farmers used to alternate being hosts for Sunday lunch, walking across the veld to one another, and on the Observatory ridge there were lots of dassies, which were shot and taken along to be included in the lunch menu.

The farm had a "walnut walk", an avenue of walnut trees leading to the present-day bowling green. Walnuts only last about 50 years, so the walk and trees are long gone. But what still remains is a curved row of around six glorious large oak trees in front of the house, probably offspring of the original oak trees on the farm which were planted at the same time as the house was built.

Says Buff: "One day one of these trees was hit by lightning, and I was able to trace the history of the area by its rings."

Emmarentia farmhouse (1887)
Another one of the major Johannesburg farms was Braamfontein, and the owner, Louw Geldenhuys, built a beautiful farmhouse for his wife, Emmarentia, in 1887. The farmhouse still stands in gracious style in the suburb of Emmarentia, and is cleverly and lovingly restored. It's an eclectic mix of Victorian fireplaces, wooden floors, almost five metre high ceilings, large interleading rooms, together with Art Deco finishes in the bathrooms. The pantry has been lovingly restored to its Boer farmhouse look of wooden cupboards with chicken wire doors, complete with candle-burn marks at the bottom of the cupboard doors.

In 1858 Gerrit Bezuidenhout was granted title of the farm Braamfontein, an area of 3 500 hectares. Braamfontein was a large farm, stretching from Victory Park around to Rosebank in the north, Killarney in the north-east down to Commissioner Street in the east, over to Mayfair and Coronationville in the south-west, and up to the base of the Northcliff ridge.

The farm was sub-divided several times and the eastern part bought by Lourens Geldenhuys (Louw's father) for £4 500 in 1886, the year the main gold reef was discovered in Johannesburg. He planted vegetable gardens down the valley, and in 1902 he provided landless Boers with work by getting them to construct Emmarentia Dam at the bottom of his property. He settled 100 of these men on smallholdings on his farm, on the present day Emmarentia, Linden and Greenside

The farmhouse sits proudly in the suburb, its whitewashed walls in pleasing contrast to its long red-polished stoep, and green iron roof, and glorious garden, in which Emmarentia planted five palm trees, which today stand proudly in front of the house, gently rustling in the breeze.

An oak was planted in front of the house, and the tree is now on the pavement, the road kinking around it slightly. When the suburb was laid out in 1937 the town planners wanted to cut it down, but Emmarentia put her foot down - the oak was going to stay.

Louw and Emmarentia are buried in the small graveyard in Hill Road, several blocks behind the house.

Barely a kilometre along the road in Marks Park is Louw's brother Frans' house, now the clubhouse of the Park, also in good condition.

Bree Street Police Station (1887)
This two-storey building dates back to 1887 and was possibly the city's first police station. The building has a Cape Dutch-style central gable with tall wooden windows, very thick walls and a pillared entrance. These days the exterior is whitewashed, with red and yellow window fascias, and the ground floor is used as a photo shop.

The upper floor is vacant and has an unhappy atmosphere with its wooden floors covered by linoleum, its wooden banister painted dark brown, set against its tall 4-metre high ceilings.

Rissik Street Post Office (1897)
Although not the first formal post office to serve the city, the Rissik Street Post Office has been in that position since 1888, when an earlier flat building which served as the town's post office, was demolished and the present building constructed.

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. In 1905, with rapid expansion of the town, another storey was added, together with a clock tower.

The Post Office is now thoroughly distressed - it's boarded up, has numerous broken windows, and has been subject to severe vandalism, the most recent theft being its clock hands and workings, which were dropped from the top and dragged out the building.

In 1978 the building was proclaimed a national monument. 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. There are plans in the pipeline to restore it.

The Fort (1892)
The Fort was also designed by Wierda and built in 1892 by the Kruger government to contain and keep an eye on the horde of foreigners who rushed to the Transvaal to get a share of the gold when it was discovered in 1886.

It consisted of little more than heavily-fortified ramparts, covered in earth, and a large gate. Instead of facing outwards to protect the town from invasion, its cannons faced directly into the rapidly expanding town, where Kruger's "enemies", the English-speaking 'Uitlanders', lived. A second bastion in the eastern corner protected the road north to Pretoria, Kruger's base - an acknowledgement of Kruger's mistrust of the British.

But the Fort never played a significant military role, and after the Boer War in 1902, it was used as a grim and foreboding jail, which housed prisoners until 1983.

The Fort incarcerated many anti-apartheid activists, among them Mahatma Gandhi, Nobel Peace Prize winner Chief Albert Luthuli, human rights lawyer Bram Fischer, and Nelson Mandela. Black prisoners were taken down to Sections 4 and 5. White prisoners were held in the cells just inside the gate.

The original building, built on the ridge just north of the city centre, is largely intact, with its ramparts still visible, and its impressive south-facing entrance just recently re-opened on Kotze Street.

Some of the later additions, in particular, the awaiting-trial buildings, have been largely demolished to make way for the new Constitutional Court which is rising steadily from the ridge, and is due to open in August 2003.

The Fort was declared a national monument in 1964. The original Fort cells are looking neglected and derelict these days, with no decision having been taken yet as to their future.

The View (1896)
The View in Parktown was built in 1896 for Sir Thomas Cullinan, famous for producing the world's largest diamond at his Premier Mine, in 1905.
Dominated by two A-shaped gables, red brick, and white carved wooden railings on its double-storey balconies, it's built in the Neo-Queen Anne style. The west wing - a copy of the original house - was added in response to the growth of the family. It retains its large garden, with its original circular driveway.


The house stands grandly on Ridge Road, but no longer has a view to Pretoria, like it originally had. It's still in good condition, with its large wooden-panelled study and beautiful fireplaces. It is now the headquarters of the Transvaal Scottish Regiment.

Lady Cullinan lived in the house until 1963 when she died at the age of 97. The View became a national monument in 1990.

The Windybrow (1896)
Whereas other Randlords moved from Doornfontein to Parktown as part of their upward social climb, Theodore Reunert remained in his sprawling Windybrow mansion in lower Hillbrow. Built in 1896, its striking green and white timbered façade, gracious veranda and conical roof gives it a magical air, particularly amidst the untidy skyscrapers of Hillbrow.

The house, which used to nestle regally on the hill and have a splendid view of the town, still retains most of its former elegance. At present it houses the Windybrow Centre for the Arts, consisting of three theatres, and aims to provide a "cultural space" for upcoming actors, theatre technicians and poets. It is sponsored by the national Department of Arts and Culture.

Every room has a beautiful fireplace (although some have new tilework), pressed steel ceilings and wooden floors. The entrance hall still has its beautiful wood-panelled ambience, and the drawing room with its central domed ceiling is now a small pub. Other rooms have been converted into a coffee shop, a bar, and rehearsal rooms.

A national monument since 1975, the building has undergone several renovations (1983 and 1998), but clearly needs more upkeep to regain its former splendour.

De Klerk's coppersmith house and workshop (1890s)
Larry de Klerk, a fourth-generation coppersmith and one of South Africa's last coppersmiths, operates out of the garage attached to the house in Currey Street, Doornfontein.

It is believed that the house was built between 1887 and 1897. It's a small house, with a verandah and pillared garden wall painted forest green, with green fascias against whitewashed walls, and an iron roof.

It's a national monument but is badly in need of renovation, being a storeroom for the coppersmith operation, piled with old copper geysers and sheets of copper.

Other buildings
There are many other buildings in Johannesburg that were built before 1900 and still stand to remind Johannesburgers of their heritage.

They are spread across the early suburbs of the town, and many still stand in the city centre.

Markham's Building, in Eloff Street, was built in 1897 and remodelled in 1983. The Three Castles Building in Marshall Street, was built in 1898. St Mary the Less, built in 1889 in Park Street, Jeppestown, still stands. The Sunnyside, the original house now absorbed into the hotel, was built in 1894, and was occupied by Lord Milner for four years. The Kensington Sanatorium dates originally from 1897, with an extension added in 1905.

The list goes on.​
Joburg's oldest buildings​