The Durban CBD was, once upon a time, the place to be with swish establishments in buildings designed to stand out. Although some of those edifices still stand, many have taken on decidedly less fashionable reputations in the last two decades, some falling into ruin, as the character of the city has changed and businesses have moved out to the suburbs. We take a tour down memory lane.
ADDINGTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL
The imposing white edifice of Addington Children’s Hospital is a landmark on South Beach, albeit one that has been slowly decaying over the past 30-odd years. Built in 1928 through the fundraising efforts of then Durban mayor Mary Siedle, it was the first facility in Africa dedicated to the treatment of infants and children and, notably, cared for patients of all races. Despite its grand architecture, the inside of the building was decorated with cheerful artworks aimed at making the young patients feel better.
In the 1980s, the apartheid government objected to the work being done for all of Durban’s children and cut the funding, leading the closure of the facility and the building’s degeneration. In 2010, it was renamed the KwaZulu-Natal Children’s Hospital and, slowly but surely, it is being restored to its former glory.
The first work began with a laying of hands by the partners renovating it to cement the new vision for the hospital next to the statement: “Discarded in the past, healed by the present, for the future, with love.”
NATAL MILITARY COMMAND HEADQUARTERS
Officially closed down in November 2000, many of the former buildings of the Natal Military Command no longer exist. The façade still stands but, like a set on a movie lot, the imposing white building looks robust from the front but a walk around the back reveals weeds rising through the concrete remnants of the once-bustling military headquarters.
Once decommissioned, the building was handed back to the eThekwini municipality via the Department of Public Works and sold to film producer Anant Singh who, rumour has long had it, plans to turn it into Durban’s Hollywood.
It was an institution, a glamorous department store reminiscent of swanky European high street establishments, half shop, half museum of excess and aspiration. Greenacres’s history extends back as far as the 1880s and predates the arrival of cars and electric lighting in the city. Its tearoom was legendary, with an organist playing background music as patrons enjoyed delicate pastries served by gloved waitrons.
Greenacres’s façade still presides over West Street but as an Edgars store. The back of the building was modernised in the ’80s and, although it wasn’t structurally feasible to preserve the frame and interior of the building, the Victorian façade was renovated and integrated into the new one.
Did you know Durban has some of the best examples of art deco architecture in the world as well as an active Art Deco Society which aims to keep appreciation for these architectural gems alive?
Berea Court is one such jewel, situated on a busy road and a familiar landmark to most Durbanites. Built in 1937, it has the classic art deco details of fluted pilasters that rise through the façade to a crenellated parapet with lion features. The central balcony is richly decorated with a classic art deco sunburst pattern. The surround mouldings to the entrance have an African feel and it features sumptuous stained glass in the lift shaft and stairwell.
It was a sought-after address for its first 50 years but it fell into disrepair from the late 1980s. It has recently been painted and the foyer restored by a new owner who is using it for student accommodation.
The Metro cinema was the place to be on a Saturday, whether for a matinee or the evening show. One of Durban’s most popular cinemas, it had lace-lined glass doors, jackets and ties had to be worn for evening screenings, and the large foyer was a place to mingle and natter before the film began. At interval, a piano was raised from the stage and was played while patrons sang along. A magical experience, by all accounts.
On Saturday mornings, The Metro ran a kids’ club. Many a Durban schoolchild would while away time at the “bioscope” buying “tickey candies” and boxes of popcorn.
THE LONSDALE HOTEL
The Lonsdale was a posh family hotel, in its heyday, with a pub called El Castilian which hosted many festive evenings for locals and guests alike. The hotel had a ballroom which was the venue for grand events, including weddings. It was decorated with mirrors and chandeliers which were sold off when the hotel was converted to student accommodation.
Owned by the Gooderson family, it was the first hotel in what was to become a successful hospitality chain that’s still going strong today, having been in business since the Lonsdale opened in 1957.