Gerald and Charlie’s Favourite Secret Jozi Places

Joburg Places

I’ve always been amazed at Gerald Garner’s knowledge and passion for Jozi and most of all by the insightful historical connections he makes.  I went on my first tour with Gerald in 2012 when he first started.  So it was an immediate “Yes, please” when Landi and Wynand asked if I was interested in going on Gerald and Charlie’s [Charlie Moyo] tour of their “Favourite Secret Jozi Places”.  I was keen for a few other reasons. Up until about 3 years ago I enjoyed visiting places in Joburg Central; I revelled in Jozi’s regeneration; I was proud to recommend the Red City Bus Tour to guests staying at Liz at Lancaster; and I loved the buzz of so many parts of the city.  Buzz there still is, but in the last 3 years, the city has fallen into the most terrible state of decay and disrepair … more of that in a future post. I wanted a booster injection of positivity from Gerald and Charlie, which I got!  Plus, I had also never been to Joburg Places‘ amazing new events venue The ThunderWalker on Gandhi Square.  

From United Building 1906 to Somerset House 1930 to Thunderwalker 2018 

The ThunderWalker is an intriguing space. The name refers to the small building fronting onto Gandhi Square with the original front entrance on Fox street.  It was built by United Building Society in 1906 (according to Shorten in his unspeakably turgid and badly written tome aptly named The Johannesburg Saga). (The United Building Society was to become United bank and finally merge with other banks into today’s huge conglomerate ABSA). In 1930 it was renamed Somerset House and housed a law firm and later a property company.  In 2017 Gerald Olitski who was the mover and shaker in regenerating Gandhi Square, bought the building, along with the neighbouring high court building, and started renovations.  Garner, ever the one to see a jewel in the city, moved Joburg Places into the building where the heritage aspects were sensitively renovated (a work in progress).     

The entrance of the first United Building Fox Street, Johannesburg built in 1906 according to Shorten (The Johannesburg Saga page 1043 …. yes I did say it is a tome .. with a shocker of an index!!) With thanks to Lucille Davie for alerting me to this image.

When the building was sold in 1930, the name was changed to Somerset House and the building took on a commercial role with the front arched windows being replaced by shopfronts.  The banking hall became the auction room and there was a barber shop in the central courtyard.  

Fox Street facade of The ThunderWalker ca 2017 (originally United Building and then in 1930 renamed Somerset House)
Somerset House Facade on Gandhi Square 2017. Courtesy The Heritage Portal

Like many early 20th Century buildings, Somerset House was built around an indoor  courtyard, which, according to Hindson, was covered and converted into a public passage or arcade, running from Fox Street through to the current Gandhi Square. In 1972, the exit into Gandhi Square (which was by then known as Van der Bijl Square) was blocked by the addition of a kitchen for the restaurant Traffic Square, already a tenant in the building.

This photo taken by 2 Summers in 2015 shows the kitchen on the ground floor at the Gandhi Square entrance and people living in the rooms on the first floor (their washing hangs on the balustrades).
And here the 1972 structure has been removed to restore it to its 1932 space. Again thanks to 2Summers for this 2018 image.
The interval glass roofed ceiling (with wired Georgian glass) was a very successful way of allowing for light and ventilation. 2 summers’ photo shows the current roofing of  perspex and metal sheeting.
The green wall tiles and original floor are intact. Source: The Heritage Portal


And it was into the arcaded space which we entered when we met at 12.30 for a pre-tour drink and bite to eat at Scatterlings (the lunch venue – pre-bookings only).  We avoided the temptation of the larger dishes such as the braai platters, bunny chows, fish and curries and instead ordered Ethiopian Coffee and a delicious pita snack with olives and feta. 

Gerald gave is a pre-tour overview of the fascinating history of Joburg

Town Treasures PopUp Shop

While waiting for our food to arrive we explored the Town Treasures pop-up shop on the first floor in the Town Square Banqueting Hall which can accommodate 200 people seated, when operating.  I had to restrain myself when I saw so many wonderful rare books on Old Johannesburg from Collectors’ Treasury and James Findlay … but rare means pricey!  

Lots of temptations in the Town Treasures Popup Shop currently in what is usually the Town Square Banqueting Hall

Zwipi Underground

And of course any self-respecting bank building has a vault which is where Joburg Places has opened Zwipi Underground … an amazing dinner venue with cosy tables in the various spaces.  The 1000 safety deposit boxes are still there – 40 of them opened and the remaining 960 have been closed for 30 years. With various vault rooms, some small ones accommodating only a table for two, lit with fairy lights and candles, this is the ultimate romantic dining experience!

Vault rooms vary in size in this unique restaurant space of Zwipi Underground
Only 40 of the 1000 safe deposit boxes have been opened. Records of the owners of the other 960 boxes have been long lost.
The door leading from Zwipi Underground Bar to the various vault rooms of the restaurant.

For the future: Balcony Gardens Hotel

And returning to the arcade at ground level we looked upwards to the 2 floors of rooms overlooking the ground floor. Over the next year these 14 rooms will be turned into the Balcony Gardens Hotel. What a task but one which will be stunning when finished.  

The 14 rooms on the 1st and 2nd floors will be converted to become the Balcony Gardens Hotel

Secrets revealed

In his introduction, Gerald had given very clear guidelines about the tour in terms of timing, keeping up and protocol at each venue. First: order drinks; then go the loo if needed; and only then take photos!!  So after finishing off our time at The ThunderWalker we got onto the bus and were off for our next adventure (but more on them in another next blog post): 

  • First 15 a brewery at 66 Carr street in Newtown
  • Little Addis in the Medical Arts Building 220 Jeppe Street 
  • Maboneng North to see a new public art work
  • And finally, the rooftop bar and deck at Hallmark house on Siemert Street.

We returned back to The ThunderWalker at 7 pm sharp having had a sobering, but not necessarily sober (!), fun, interesting day. Any future tours are highly recommended. 

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