Preserving the memory of Melville

As the artsy Johannesburg suburb of Melville modernises, its rich heritage is slowly beginning to fade. Now, new efforts are being made by those who are fighting to keep Melville’s heritage alive.

It’s a warm Saturday afternoon in Melville, Johannesburg. Spring has come into full effect leaving the streets lined with pink and purple flowers. On 7th Street and 4th Street, women weave through the cars holding hand woven baskets and bags for sale while families, 30-something year old trendsetters, students, and bikers sporting two full sleeves of tattoos people-watch at an outdoor table from one of the restaurants spilling onto the pavements.

A few quaint buildings betray Melville’s age. The suburb is one of the older suburbs in Johannesburg, built in 1905 at the foot of the Melville Koppies by a developer named Edward Harker Vincent Melville, for whom the suburb was named.

Over time, many of the older buildings have been altered beyond recognition or disappeared altogether. However, some have held firm. One of these sits on the jacaranda-lined Second Avenue. A large powder blue late Victorian style home defined by a turret stands draped by pink flowers. This is the Melville Turret guesthouse.

It’s gabled roof, French windows, and original steel pressed ceilings first attracted owner Koos Heymand to the house.

“This house was built in 1906. It’s one of the oldest houses in Melville,” says Heymand. He is a warm, lively man who often stops in his tracks to engage in good-natured conversation with Patricia, one of his six employees working full time at the guesthouse, who has been working at the front desk for the past 10 years.

HERITAGE: The Melville Turret pictured today and
as it stood when photographed by The Star in 1980.   

For the past 13 years, Heymand has been trying to conserve the character and history of the guesthouse. He has renovated areas of it, particularly the kitchen and bathrooms. He has also remodelled each room; one is a modern black and white private loft, another is jewel-toned with graphic African prints hanging on the walls, while another is modest in understated tones of blue and grey.

At the same time, he has kept details such as the original tiled fireplace, wooden floors and private hidden courtyards and balconies for some of the rooms. He has also vowed not to change the exterior.

“There are very few houses like this left. I wanted to keep the original character of the house,” he says.

DETAILS: The Melville Turret still boasts its original steel pressed ceilings and displays chandeliers typical to those of the Victorian era. 

The guesthouse is legally protected under the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999, which is a law aimed at national heritage sites. The Act defines heritage sites as “places with qualities so exceptional that they are of special national significance” and included under this are buildings that are older than 60 years.

Heymand points to 4th Street, a commercial street in Melville not too far from the guesthouse. “On 4th Street there is nothing that has retained its value. Everything is modern. I think it’s sad,” he says.

He is not the only Melville business owner who believes this. Down the road from Heymand’s guesthouse is the trendy 7th Street. A 10-minute walk up the street will take one under canopies and passed iron lattice decorations and thick columns, a mix of modern buildings with Victorian ones, and a mix of people speaking languages ranging from English and isiZulu to French and Arabic.

Most of the buildings on the street were built between 1905-1936 and were originally home to bakeries, butcheries and boutique shops.

Now the buildings house trendy restaurants, clothing stores and bars. A tattoo parlour and a thrift store share the same distressed wooden awnings.

VIDEO: Several Melville residents explain what makes 7th Street special. 

However, the subtle Victorian details are fading under the clash of bright colored paint and neon signs. The pressed steel ceilings are beginning to crack and sag in some areas. In others, they have been painted over altogether so that some of the detail is lost.

New businesses close almost as fast as they open and each new business owner alters the building to suit their needs.

“You can see some buildings on this street have changed the shape and have changed their sides from wood to steel. That’s wrong; it shouldn’t be allowed. It ruins the buildings,” says Kader Bouredji a business owner of the IT Corner Cafe on 7th Street.

ORIGINAL: Victorian architectural details are still visible on 7th Street.    

By law, business owners are required to obtain a permit and approach heritage consultants before making alterations on heritage buildings. However, some of the business owners had no idea that the buildings were heritage sites. As a result, some business owners have made unapproved alterations with no consequence.

“Melville is famous for its buildings, that’s one of the reasons why tourists come here, and that’s being lost,” says Bouredji.

Bouredji has owned his cafe on 7th Street for the past 10 years. Lining its soft pink walls are oil paintings for sale, distressed wood shelves containing yellowing books and the perfectly preserved original Victorian pressed ceilings.

Patrons sit at the tables working from MacBooks and sipping cups of coffee. Chairs and tables placed outside give patrons a view of the street. A regular smokes a hookah pipe while watching people walk by.

“This place was built in 1923. It used to be a boutique shoe shop,” Bouredji says.

At 95 years old, the building falls under legal protection. This limits business owners like Bouredji in a number of ways.

“When you want to fix or renovate the building you have to use the same materials that were used before. So we have window panes made of wood that we need to replace, and we can’t replace it with steel. We need to replace it with wood. It makes it harder, and takes longer. Even now, we can’t close the windows,” he says. It’s a struggle that Heymand knows only too well.

Maintaining the Melville Turret isn’t cheap; it costs him about R100 000 per year partly due to the old pipework made of galvanized steel. He says it’s worth it to preserve the house. “There are very few houses like this one left because Melville is going the Parkhurst route of converting all the houses into modern abodes,” he says. “But we’ve got to be sensitive to [heritage sites]. This is our history and the history of our city.

Heritage consultants and co-authors of the book The Johannesburg Gas Works Monika Läuferts and Judith Mavunganidze are fighting for 7th Street and other heritage sites in Melville to be further protected. In 2015 they declared 7th Street at critical risk in a heritage impact assessment they did of it.

According to their report, 7th Street was declared a “high priority” area because “most of the buildings on the street are at high risk of being altered until they are unrecognisable”.

Läuferts explained that this was because of the high rotation of owners.

“Facades get changed. They replace the original wood with aluminum or paint over the wood. Once you’ve painted over the wood it isn’t easy to restore,” she said.

Läuferts works from her stark white minimalist office in Westdene containing heavy antique furniture and models for buildings she is working on. Originally from Germany, she is the co-founder of Tsica Heritage Consultants, which has been operating since 2008.

“Heritage protection in South Africa is young,” she explained. “[Before 1999] the lack of legal standing made it difficult to preserve buildings and a lot of old buildings were demolished in the 60s and 70s to make way for modern buildings.”

This was later challenged by activists such as Flo Bird, who began protecting heritage sites in 1972 when the government planned to bulldoze eight Victorian-era buildings in Parktown in order to make room for a new motorway.

Bird has since funnelled her passion for preserving heritage sites into founding the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation which provides heritage tours, campaigns to preserve heritage sites, puts blue plaques on heritage buildings depicting their age and history and archives the history of older sites.

“Melville started as a working-class area and what we’ve found is that very rich and very poor areas tend to change very little while middle class areas tend to change a lot,” she explained.

“Most of the houses in Melville were originally builder designs and today they’re completely different.”

“There is no more picturesque or healthy spot in the vicinity of Johannesburg than Melville. Those who have gone there with a view to purchase pronounce it to be situated in the very finest position for suburban residences.

It is situated on elevated ground, with a magnificent view of the wooded country to the north, the blue Pretoria ranges stretching like lines of steel against the horizon.”

 Extract taken from a notice advertising property in Melville placed in The Critic on 23 October 1896.

This adds to the difficulty of tracing the history of heritage buildings in the area. When Heymand first bought the guesthouse from two architects in 2005, he found that the history of the house was not available. Since then he has been trying to piece it together from snippets of information found around the house and obtained from the previous owners.

“I know it was built by Erik van de Berg and he owned a bicycle shop in Braamfontein. I found the original 1906 plans with the city council. I also found an old plaque on the property showing that it was called Melville Mews and it used to be a lodging house,” he said.

However, when looking through the records at the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, an Erik van de Berg doesn’t appear. Like many other houses in Melville, the history of the Melville Turret is one that is passed down through the memories of its owners.

According to the National Heritage Resources Act, a person who alters a heritage site without first obtaining a permit may have criminal charges brought against them. While the state has been proactive about conserving notable sites such as Robben Island, the enforcement of the act for less famous buildings has been laid largely at the feet of proactive people and the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, which has had to step in where the state has fallen short by taking business owners who have demolished heritage buildings without proper approval to court.

“Some business owners are cowboys, they’ll just destroy knowing that the chances of being caught are minimal,” Bird explained.

SIDEWALK: Melville residents gather on the pavement outside stores and sit with friends at the bars and restaurants to people-watch.  

Enforcement of the Heritage Resources Act can also bring challenges for developers. Architect and director of Melville-based Two Five Five Architects, André Krige, says there are various unique challenges that come with heritage developments. “The submission [and approval] process can and has often delayed projects for years. We have projects that have been submitted in 2015 and are still in the process of being approved,” he says.

Another issue that they often face is dealing with buildings that are so neglected that it becomes difficult to determine the actual heritage value of them. The documentation of the building that they have on hand can also differ from the documentation available off-site.

“We have had cases where original drawings show mosaic tiles to the entrance foyer and BELCom, a respected heritage committee in Cape Town, requested that we keep these tiles and incorporate them within the design. The reality however is that none of these tiles or any real heritage fabric exists anymore. We change our designs to accommodate things that no longer exist and the process of appealing these decisions is even more cumbersome,” he says.

Läuferts agrees that practical issues often make historical restoration difficult. “There’s always a massive discussion around money. Business owners come to us with elaborate plans and realise they don’t have the funding,” she says.

FIGHTING BACK: Monika Läuferts (above) is one of the people fighting for greater heritage protection in Melville and beyond.     

Within Melville, Läuferts says that there needs to be a comprehensive plan to preserve the area. “The whole suburb needs a conservation management plan dictating what can be built, what style it can be built in, and how many levels a building can have,” she says.

Efforts are being made to preserve the area by giving 7th Street Hertitage Area Protection. This would mean protecting the original street facades as well as identifying specific stands that have heritage value for protection. This would make it much harder for shop owners and occupants to alter the building permanently. If approved, it will take 3-4 years to be finalised.

One of the buildings that has been identified is the Melville Mansions building that Two Five Five Architects is working on which has been identified for being one of the few clear examples of an art deco style building.

Monika Läuferts and Judith Mavunganidze are working alongside Two Five Five Architects to develop the building while still keeping the heritage elements intact. The building currently stands as a stark white, empty building on 7th Street with the geometric details characteristic of the art deco style still recognisable. Once opened, it will house a boutique hotel, apartments and offices.

“Melville still has charm. It still has the feel of a neighbourhood. You can walk around and even with students moving in and out there’s still a community and an exchange of interesting people,” Läuferts says.

She adds, “Heritage is a big thing in Europe and people always think a building has to be centuries old. You don’t necessarily have to go centuries back. You have it right here and in the most beautiful ways. Johannesburg has all decades from the 1880s and that needs to be protected.”

Walking through buildings like the Melville Turret gives one a sense of that a part of Melville’s memory lives within it. When sipping tea on one of its cozy couches on the verandah, Heymand speaks of how he once saw a picture of the original owners playing chess on the same verandah in 1906. The picture is now gone, but in the past 100 years the verandah has remained unchanged.

As Heymand describes the house, the sentiments of Bird echo through. “Heritage buildings are the landmarks of history. An area without a past is like a man without a memory. It feels unreal,” she previously said.

RENOVATION: The Melville Mansions is a building recognisable for being a clear example of art deco architecture.

FEATURED IMAGE: Melville residents gather on the pavement outside stores and sit with friends at the bars and restaurants to people-watch.  Photo: Naledi Mashishi.