6 January 2004
Cape Town has its low, flat, Table Mountain. Johannesburg has the long, thin, Hillbrow Tower, one of the tallest towers in Africa.
The Tower dominates the Johannesburg skyline, visible to visitors long before they reach the city itself. It’s a tribute to the tower’s symbolic power that it has been incorporated into the city’s official logo.
The tower, named the JG Strijdom Tower after a former South African prime minister (1954 to 1958), was built over three years between June 1968 and April 1971. It cost around R2-million (a rather modest office block costs that much today). It is 270-metres (or 90 storeys) high, making it one of the tallest man-made structures with a lift in Africa.
During the years of its construction it gave the flat-dwelling residents of Hillbrow some headaches – construction took place six days a week, 24 hours a day – but also much fascination, as it grew taller and taller.
Heather Dharsey, who lived in Hillbrow between 1963 and 1982, says: “As I grew up in Hillbrow (fondly known as Hillies), I watched the Tower grow like a concrete mushroom.”
She continues: “We didn’t understand the enormity of the Tower, we thought it was just going to be another building – the Highpoint building was being built at the same time – so we were used to building activity, but this was unbelievable. We watched this thing grow between the buildings.”
The first 178 metres went up at an average of 18cm per hour, and to ensure the Tower went up perfectly vertically, a laser beam was used for guidance as the Tower lifted from the ground. The walls of the Tower are 84cm thick at ground level and 38 cm thick at the top.
The Tower belongs to telecommunications parastatal Telkom. With the burgeoning of tall buildings in the city in the 60s skyscraper era, the new telephone tower had to ensure that it stayed above the height of the tallest building. There’s another reason for its height: it was to be a microwave tower.
Microwaves travel in straight lines from one transmitter to another across comparatively short distances (40-50 kilometres) and hence are not subject to any interference. Because of this, they provide superb clarity of reception. Microwave was the latest technology in the sixties, and Telkom was keen to use it, and avoid further expensive laying of underground cables.
Previously a radio wave system of transmission had been used, but radio waves are subject to interference from magnetic thunderstorms, a weather pattern Johannesburg is particularly subject to in the summer months.
The Tower has become an emblem of the city, although it wasn’t the first telephone tower to reach into the skies of Johannesburg. The Brixton or Albert Hertzog Tower was built in 1962, taking 20 months to complete. Today it transmits radio and television broadcasts. It is slightly shorter than the Hillbrow Tower, at 240 metres. It once housed a restaurant at its base but this was closed in the 1980s and is now used as office space for Sentech, the present owners of the Brixton tower.
Johannesburg’s other tall landmark is the 50-storey Carlton Centre, completed in 1973, and the tallest office block in Africa.
Hillbrow Tower was closed to visitors in 1981, for security reasons. But for ten years before that, it was one of the city’s great tourist attractions.
At the top of the tower, from 131 metres upwards, were six public floors. One of them housed a revolving restaurant, called Heinrich’s Restaurant, the highest restaurant in Africa at 197 metres, which seated 108 people in “luxurious comfort”, says a promotional brochure from the period.
It offered an unrestricted 360-degree view, as well as “superb service . with at least one waiter to every 10 visitors – a very high proportion by even the most specialised standards”.
The floor revolved at between one and three revolutions per hour in an anti-clockwise direction. When the restaurant was full, it weighed 64 metric tons, yet its movement was “so smooth and well-balanced”, that it required only a three horsepower motor to turn it.
If you couldn’t get into the restaurant, there was an alternative – the Grill Room, which provided “superb cuisine”, seating 113 people, also in “luxurious comfort”. The Grill Room had an open grill, allowing guests to see their meals being prepared.
The restaurant and grill room each had their own bar and lounge, with a bar service being “one of the very few in South Africa which is licensed to serve visitors with any drink at any time between 11am and 2am the following day”. There was another public, but more exclusive room – the VIP room.
It was a “spectacular room decorated in the Louis XVI style” available for parties, seminars and meetings of up to 50 seated or 100 standing. When not being used for private functions, it was open to the public as an “exclusive, intimate table d’hote restaurant”.
The public observation deck could accommodate 200 people, and provided a 360-degree view of the city and surrounds through 24 large windows. There were seven coin-operated telescopes available, as well as hot and cold drinks, and snacks from a self-service counter.
Unbeknown to visitors, when they were sitting eating at the restaurant or having a drink at the bar, they were swaying, by up to 41cm on a windy day. This wasn’t as far as is normal in a building of this height – normally it would sway several metres, but due to “special structural techniques”, which included taking the foundation down 42 metres, the sway was reduced to just under half a metre. A full sway would take eight seconds. Too much sway would put the Tower out of alignment with other towers.
The sway at the mast at the very top of the Tower was 86cm, with winds at times reaching 190 kilometres per hour. The windows were wind and storm resistant. This mast, according to Dharsey, was put in place by a helicopter, a remarkable spectacle she remembers watching.
Visitors reached the top via two high-speed lifts, shooting upwards at six metres per second. A third lift was for staff.
No corners were cut. The interiors and furniture were specially designed by celebrated South African artists, and the decor was “the ultimate in comfort and luxury”. The restaurants and lounges were decorated with “magnificent Ernst Ullmann applique wall tapestries depicting South African bird life, the history of communications and scenes of early Johannesburg”.
The tapestries and furniture have been removed, and now reside in Telkom buildings in Pretoria.
For Dharsey, and for many other Johannesburgers, the Tower become a “wonderful tourist attraction”, so it was a “great shame” when it closed to the public in January 1981. It was closed because in the turbulent eighties when strategic points around the country were becoming targets for guerrilla attacks, it was felt that the Tower was at too great a risk.
Unfortunately, the tower is not likely to be re-opened to the public. It is now used as an office block for Telkom employees.
Source: City of Johannesburg website