Jozi heritage site: Windybrow
A few months ago I set off to Doornfontein on the edge of Hillbrow, to join a tour of the revamped and restored building which I used to know as the Windybrow Theatre. (My source of all that is really new and happening within the city is often Laurice Taitz of Johannesburg In Your Pocket fame – and this was no exception.) I was very keen to see how the restoration of this heritage building had been managed. While I remember it as a theatre in the late 1980s, it has had many incarnations: from the private mansion of the early Johannesburg Randlord, Theodore Reunert (1896 to 1899); to an officers’ mess during the South African War; a boarding house after Reunert sold it in 1921; one of the 3 nurses’ residences as part of the B.G. Alexander nursing college post 1945 under the Transvaal Provincial Council; a theatre in 1986 (after it was restored as part of Johannesburg’s highly controversial Centenary celebrations); a cultural centre focusing on community outreach post 1994. In 1996 it was declared a National Heritage Site and after further restorations were completed in 1998 it housed the Windybrow Centre for the Arts, consisting of three theatres, and aiming to provide a “cultural space” for upcoming actors, theatre technicians and poets. At this stage it was sponsored by the ational Department of Arts and Culture. But it never quite worked. There were some disastrous capital works programmes in 2010 and in 2014 the Market Theatre Foundation was appointed as the administrator of the Windybrow Theatre. So this is why we were meeting Christine MacDonald the CFO of the Market Theatre who was to be our tour guide for the morning.
Prior to the Randlords moving to the Parktown Ridge with its commanding view and northern light, the wealthy mine owners and industrialists lived in mansions in Doornfontein. Along with the Ecksteins, Cecil Rhodes, Sir George Albu and others, Theodore Reunert built his mock Tudor style mansion in Doornfontein. Reunert who, with Otto Lenz, founded the engineering firm Reunert and Lenz was responsible for early electrification of East London and Port Elizabeth as well as supplying equipment to the Rand mines. Designed by William Leck, Windybrow was named after the home of the English Romantic poet Robert Southey. And the grand late Victorian days are beautifully preserved in this building which remarkably has survived virtually intact (fireplaces, glass panes, ceiling work) and what needed to be restored has been incredibly sensitively handled.
Historic details beautifully preserved
We met in what would have probably been a front parlour with the most exquisite pressed ceiling patterns and stunning glass work in the windows.
The intricately carved woodwork of the staircase in the entrance hall bears the motto ‘Welcome Ever Smiles and Farewell goes out Sighing’ (from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida).
The fittings and furnishings were apparently brought from England and the décor is in a style known as Anglo-Moorish. Most of the ingle fireplaces and wonderful tiles are either extant or restored and there were apparently lots of oriental carpets, saddlebag chairs and canopied beds. According to Christine there are 91 internal doors (some rooms have 3 or 4 doors) and there were schoolrooms, nurseries, a billiard room in the basement and a ball room with an Oregan pine sprung floor for dancing.
History makes men wise … it does??
In the library the carved mottoes come from Bacon’s Essay on Reading (1597): History makes men wise; poets,witty; mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; logic able to contend. (The images in the shelves of the photo on the left are all temporary ‘fillers’!)
The garden was landscaped in a formal manner and contained a tennis court and one of the first private swimming pools.
The value of conserving
While clearly this house is a signifier of white power, class, wealth and privilege in the early days of Johannesburg’s mining history, it is also an important physical reminder of the very values that underpinned the colonial era. And in its current adaptive re-use (rehearsal studio spaces for the Market Theatre and as a meeting and function venue) it is a viable re-make of this extraordinarily well-preserved and sensitively restored building. In a city which continually tears down evidence of its material past, this is an extremely refreshing change.