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Wits Technikon building to be restored

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26 Nov 2009

The Wits Technikon building in Johannesburg will be undergoing a R20m restoration process.

When City Property Administration's Alec Wapnick and Jeffrey Wapnick – already well-known for their revitalization efforts in Pretoria's inner city – saw the early 20th century property, they not only realised the potential for restoration but also the opportunity to create a distinct node for learning and education.

The building is owned by IPS in which leading JSE-listed companies Premium Properties and Octodec Investments are stakeholders.

"Alec had the vision to purchase the Wits Tech buildings, and Jeffrey had the foresight to restore and redevelop them to a standard way beyond the basics," says City Property's acquisitions manager Max Katz.

"The whole project is in line with City Property's comprehensive approach to the inner city – with all the elements of everyday life, from working, to living and shopping, to schooling."

The restoration project includes the east block of the campus, which fronts onto Eloff, Plein and De Villiers Streets.

The buildings originally housed the Witswatersrand Technical Institute, established in 1903 to support the city's flourishing gold mining industry. The institute underwent a number of changes over the years and eventually transformed into the Technikon Witwatersrand in 1979. In 2006, the property was sold by the University of Johannesburg, which had by then absorbed Wits Tech, when it relocated to its main Auckland Park campus.

Inscriptions and mouldings bearing the letters TUC – Transvaal University College – indicate that the east block was erected in 1907, although no drawings of the building could be found in the City's archives.

A key question for City Property was how best to re-develop the site to optimize its use.

"We explored a number of options for the re-development, from conversion to residential apartments, to large-format convenience retail, to a shopping mall," says Katz.

"But the Wits Tech building wanted to educate!"

And educate it will. The west block was already occupied by Johannesburg Polytech and for the east block, enter Basa Educational Institute, an inner city school which was looking for a new home.

"The school was already located in Johannesburg's inner city, close to the Wits Tech building, in a building that had been identified as part of the Johannesburg station node and earmarked for re-development," elaborates Katz.

Basa will be taking up some 8,500sqm in the east block.

"The Wits Tech building is, and will continue to be, an educational landmark in the Johannesburg CBD," says Basa Institute spokesperson PL Sekoakoa.

"Basa considers its new home as a great step towards the construction of an education precinct in the Johannesburg CBD. As the city reclaims its renowned status with great mining, government and banking institutions, Basa forges ahead with its dream to create an educational precinct closer to Park Station."

The restoration of the Wits Tech building was something of a labour of love for the Wapnicks.

Before the school could occupy its new home, a lot of work had to be carried out. The building had been vacant for several years, with the result that fittings had been stripped, the structure itself vandalized and left in a state of disrepair.

Architecturally, it was originally designed in the classic Greek revival style, an aesthetic that was popular in Johannesburg at the time: the nearby Supreme Court building is a good example and dates from around the same time as the Wits Technikon building.

"The neo-Classical style is very typical, very ornate and a reference to renaissance architecture," says City Property project manager Anita du Plessis.

"It's been designed on a breathtaking scale in a style specific to the time."

She points to the three different architectural orders used in the building concept: the plain Doric columns on the ground floor, to the distinctive scrolled Ionic columns on the first floor, to the leaves of the Corinthian columns above.

Original fittings, like the marble floors, have been carefully restored and repaired; the original viewing panes in the doors were replaced with safety glass; and the stained glass windows were repaired.

Although the grand architectural style needed to be restored, a key outcome for the project team was an updated space suitable for a contemporary user. For this reason, modern features were worked into the project.

"For a start, the building is now compliant with all the modern building standards and criteria," says Du Plessis.

The entrance hall and atrium are equipped with security systems, while the air of a tranquil and dignified place of learning has been carefully maintained.

"After all, it's not a museum – the space must be relevant to the people who use it today," he adds.

Wapnick's architectural labours of love have played a role in revitalizing the urban landscape in his home city of Pretoria. With a long history of restoring architectural beauty, he is an ardent art lover and believes that buildings are themselves works of art.

In 2008, he was responsible for the rehabilitation of Tudor Chambers, a turn-of-the-century property on Church Square in Pretoria in the neo-Gothic style. After years of neglect, regular flooding and a complete lack of maintenance, the building was restored to the tune of R20m. He involved specialist museologists and architectural heritage specialists as part of the professional team that returned Tudor Chambers to its former glory. – Eugene Brink

Readers' Comments Have a comment about this article? Email us now.

RENEW the face of the earth, is the command of the Creator of all. Your efforts are doing just that. We need much more HISTORY in our world -class AFRICAN city. I highly commend all your ingenuity, intelligience and financial outputs. A NEW -creation IS TAKING PLACE, AS A LASTING heritage for the FUTURE GENERATIONS. – Anonymous

I have always loved that buildings and I am glad that the it will be restored. I hope the developers will also take into consideration the fact that the area is not one of the pleasant at the moment and they will by all means try to clean up the surroundings.

Is the area around Park Station gonna be upgraded because it's at a very sad state. – Pule

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