Fancy a drink in a historic bank vault? Visit Zwipi Underground Bar in Jozi

An ambitious project called Thunder Walker sees one of Johannesburg's neglected architectural gems, Somerset House, get a new lease on life

27 November 2018 - 00:00 By Catherine Black
The vault inside Somerset House, which was originally built for the United Building Society (later Absa Bank), has been transformed into Zwipi Underground Bar.
The vault inside Somerset House, which was originally built for the United Building Society (later Absa Bank), has been transformed into Zwipi Underground Bar.
Image: Supplied

From the creative minds behind inner-city tour company JoburgPlaces comes an ambitious new project: Thunder Walker.

It’s located at the historic Somerset House building on Ghandi Square that was built in 1906 and housed the former United Building Society until it closed its doors in 1930.

Now, JoburgPlaces owner Gerald Garner and his team are reinventing this once forgotten location into a “traveller’s destination” that will consist of a restaurant, events venue, bar and hotel.

In doing so, they aren’t refurbishing or renovating Somerset House as much as cleaning it up and making it health and safety compliant. “In essence, we’re trying to preserve the look and feel of Somerset House as we found it, so that it still remains very much as it was when it was first built,” says Gerald.

Beneath the building, in an old bank vault, is the Zwipi Underground Bar. Given this unique venue, it’s fair to say that Joburg bars probably don’t get edgier than this. As Gerald says, “It works perfectly for our storytelling”.

From December, the Zwipi Underground Bar will have secured its liquor licence, at which point it will open to the public with a range of artisanal drinks and food.

For now, though, it’s one of the venues for JoburgPlaces’ Safari & Secret Underground Dinners that take place on select evenings throughout the year. (The next one is happening on Friday, November 30.)

At these unique “dinner safaris”, guests enjoy a three-course dinner with gin, wine or port pairings, while moving between venues in the inner city.

Interspersed with dinner, Gerald and city guide Charlie Moyo take guests on a guided walking tour while telling them stories about the history and culture of their surroundings.

It's been difficult to find contractors who appreciate heritage and who understand that something that is old must be kept looking old and not 100% fixed up
Gerald Garner of JoburgPlaces

For Gerald, Thunder Walker has been a nine-month adventure to create the perfect authentic atmosphere – and it hasn’t been without its challenges. “Besides the bureaucracy involved in getting approvals, it’s also been difficult to find contractors who appreciate heritage and respect it, and who understand that something that is old must be kept looking old and not 100% fixed up!” he says.

As the Thunder Walker project grows, it will hold more and more independent events too — keep an eye out for them on the JoburgPlaces website.


This article is adapted from one originally published in the Sunday Times Neighbourhood: Property and Lifestyle guide. Visit Yourneighbourhood.co.za


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