HISTORIC GANDHI SQUARE REVIVAL
Two historic buildings on Gandhi Square will be getting a makeover
THE remaining two ugly-duckling buildings in the vibrant Gandhi Square are in the process of being restored to their former glory.
The historic High Court and Somerset House buildings were recently purchased by Gerald Olitzki through his company, Olitzki Property Holdings (OPH), which played a large role in restoring buildings on the square.
Speaking passionately about the buildings – their history and architecture, and what the restorations will do for the square and the city centre – Olitzki said these two gems had become his “baby” and his personal project because of the heritage attached to them.
The High Court, built in 1904, initially housed magistrate’s courts in what was then called Government Square.
The original building was demolished in 1948. It had become rundown and derelict because it stood empty for years after the courts relocated. After the demolition of the building the area was turned into a bus terminus and was named Van der Bijl Square for next 50 years.
In 2003 it was renamed Gandhi Square in recognition of Mahatma Gandhi’s presence as a lawyer in the original court before his return to India in 1914.
A new, five-storey building was constructed and named High Court Building because it had small, partitioned offices on the ground floor where lawyers would consult their clients on street level. The advocates occupied the upstairs floors.
Well-known writer Herman Charles Bosman, accused of murdering his stepbrother, David Russell, rented a secondstorey office in the building in the 1940s.
This was after he had been taken there after accidentally shooting his brother in Bellevue. Bosman spent four months at the Old Fort prison in Hillbrow, where he was convicted and sentenced to death.
He spent nine days on death row at Pretoria Central Prison before his sentence was commuted to 10 years’ imprisonment, of which he served three years and nine months.
The next-door Somerset House used to house the United Building Society. It also had almost 1 000 safety deposit boxes in a basement vault.
The bank closed its doors in 1930, but retained the safety boxes until 2000. The upper floors of the building had tenants until fairly recently before it was sold to OPH.
When renovations started last year, some of the deposit boxes were found, some intact, but containing mostly old papers, which Olitzki is going to preserve.
The vault’s 25cm-thick, double-based steel door still exists and will be retained, as will all the heritage features.
“I have worked very closely with the heritage authorities and specialised architects to retain as much as we can,” said Olitzki.
The newly revamped buildings will house retail on ground-floor level and offices.
Olitzki has been instrumental in the square’s revamp. In the 1990s he started buying buildings in the derelict square.
At first he faced resistance from the former Joburg council, but eventually talked them around and the square was transformed into a vibrant, busy, clean and safe area.
NEW LEASE: Gandhi Square in the Joburg CBD. The two historic buildings currently being renovated can be seen to the right of the traffic circle.
PET PROJECT: The Millews Fashions building is being converted by Olitzki Property Holdings.
HISTORIC: Somerset House, built in 1906, used to house the United Building Society.