Have a heritage weekend

[Image] Herbert Baker’s own house was constructed from the stone on the ridge.

(Image: Lucille Davie)

Flo Bird
  Chairperson, Johannesburg Heritage Foundation
  +27 11 726 7528.

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Lucille Davie

Old buildings, struggle sites, gracious homes, green spaces, mine dumps and the city’s first farms – these are just some of the tours available in Johannesburg on the first weekend of Heritage Month.

The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation‘s annual heritage weekend runs on Saturday and Sunday, 7 and 8 September, and the pick of tours is broad and fun. The walking and bus tours start and finish at the 108-year-old Holy Family College in Oxford Road, Parktown.

To start, take a tour of the college buildings, the museum and the heritage classrooms, where you can write with a dip pen in real, old-fashioned ink.

“I am hoping for beautiful spring weather and hopefully we’ll get 800 to 1 000 people. Some loyal souls come for the entire two-day period,” says Flo Bird, the chairperson of the foundation.


The Randlord suburbs of Parktown and Westcliff are full of gracious old homes, some over 100 years old. There’s Northwards, designed by British architect Sir Herbert Baker for mine owner John Dale Lace, and completed in 1904. Baker’s most famous design is the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

It is perched on the top of the Parktown ridge overlooking the M1 freeway and the northern suburbs, and has views all the way to the Magaliesberg mountains on clear days. His wife, Jose, lived in grand style – when she went shopping, she would have one of her servants blow a bugle as she left her home. She rode around the suburb in a cart pulled by four zebras, and took milk baths in a marble tub.

The 40-roomed mansion, now a national monument, combines decorative Dutch and Flemish gables with Baker’s beloved arts and crafts style. It is an imposing presence on the cliff, with its façade constructed of quartzite rock taken from the site. The south side is dominated by an impressive entrance portico topped by a Cape Dutch gable, with its architecture an eclectic mix of styles. The windows are a mix of Tudor, Palladian, and English styles. There is even a window in a chimney.

Inside the mansion are further treasures – the large wood-panelled, double-ceiling entertaining hall with minstrel gallery, and opposite it, a delicately carved Juliet balcony, a sandstone fireplace, teak ceiling, large brass chandeliers, and intimate dining area off the hall, with tall windows opening to the view northwards.

Room after room is a delight, and it’s rumoured that the ghost of Jose occasionally appears on the grand stairway. The mansion has been immaculately maintained, and the curator, Neil Viljoen, conducts tours with all the affection he has for the old home.

Just up the road is Stone House, the house that Baker built for himself, with its generous garden overlooking the northern suburbs, and stone used from the ridge. Then there are other lovely houses to peek at nearby: Emoyeni, Villa Arcadia, Etunzini, The View, and the homes along Pallinghurst Road.

Take a bus tour of the parks suburbs, with their historic homes of pioneers and celebrities. Enjoy the profusion of trees, part of the 10 million trees in Joburg’s urban forest. Some large trees are remnants of the original Sachenwald forest, planted to supply the mines with underground support posts.

Down south

But it’s not just these grand old suburbs. You can head down to Kliptown in Soweto to take in the place where the Freedom Charter was ratified by 3 000 people, in the struggle tour. Then see where Marshall Square once stood, the site of the incarceration of many struggle activists, and the famous escape of four Rivonia Trialists. The bus moves to Beyers Naude Square, the heart of Joburg and the starting point of many protests – even today.

“I am really pleased that we are going as far afield as Kliptown in the south and Bezuidenhout Park in the east. Bez Valley is one valley further than we have done in the past and it gives us a chance to show off a stunning laundry in Lorentzville. Magnificent brickwork in the gables which are free standing,” explains Bird.

While in the city, sign up for the walking tour taking in Ferreirasdorp, where Joburg started, Chinatown, Chancellor House, where Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo had their law offices, and Mary Fitzgerald Square, where Fitzgerald protested against mine owners, now a place of concerts and fun events. Take a walk around the inner city, admire the impressive Rand Club, the old stamp battery in Hollard Square, used to crush gold-bearing rock. It will go up Main Street to the Leaping Impala sculpture, now restored and giving an elegance to the art deco buildings in the street.

Or hop on a bus to the southern suburbs, where you can learn about the haunts of mine owner Sir Abe Bailey, the infamous Hanekom brothers and their reign of terror, and the notorious murderess Daisy de Melker. At the same time, you will drive past the last remaining, and fast disappearing, mine dumps, and reflect on what defined Joburg for many years.

Or head out on a bus east to the Bezuidenhout Valley farm, one of the city’s first white farms. Head back through Doornfontein, which is littered with historic sites. Food and books will be on sale at the college in Oxford Road, and you can sign up to become a member of the foundation, and go on its popular weekly tours. All tours cost R50, and no booking is required.