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.
The heritage report indicates that the Rissik Street Post Office is structurally sound and could be restored to its previous condition.
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 Museum Africa, 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.