Horror houses: The public mourning of heritage treasures

08 November 2017 - 13:52 By Ufrieda Ho
Hospital Superintendent's House, Johannesburg.
Hospital Superintendent's House, Johannesburg.
Image: Supplied

Sometimes you just have to be sad, grieve a little even. Sadness and frustration have pushed the Gauteng Heritage Action Group to launch its Black Plaques Campaign as public mourning for the state of some heritage treasures.

The group is a collective of 10 heritage interest groups from across the province. They decided on the campaign to publicly name and shame building owners and developers who have allowed their heritage properties to slide into neglect and decay.

In many cases owners have dragged their feet or have deliberately allowed the buildings to deteriorate to such a state that they can get a demolition order
Flo Bird

Flo Bird of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, one of the 10 organisations backing the campaign, says reckless owners - private and government - have for too long dodged their responsibilities.

"The National Heritage Resources Act is not being followed and in many cases owners have dragged their feet or have deliberately allowed the buildings to deteriorate to such a state that they can get a demolition order," says Bird.

She believes saving heritage buildings and structures enhances modern, urban living. She cites the Hospital Superintendent's House in Hillbrow- a red brick double-storey beauty with bay windows and impressive chimney that was once the home of the superintendent of Johannesburg General Hospital.

"We live pressured, insecure big-city lives and something like this house that is not a grand mansion is a reminder that one person's story from another time matters," says Bird.

There's also massive opportunity for job creation and skills development in heritage preservation, Bird believes.

"The City of Joburg could train and skill builders and tradesmen in heritage building and repair."

The foundation's Heritage Month tours were mostly all oversubscribed for bookings - an indication of the potential for commercial heritage tourism ventures.

"We are in mourning for these buildings and that's why we need public markers to identify owners who are not playing by the rules," says Bird.

Marshall Street barracks, Johannesburg.
Marshall Street barracks, Johannesburg.
Image: Supplied

James Ball of the Heritage Portal, which is also part of the group, says telling the "horror heritage story" through the plaques will hopefully shame owners into action.

The heritage portal at will maintain an online list of buildings that have been given Black Plaque status. It means even if owners remove the plaque before they've made efforts to save and restore their buildings, the list will still be available online.

Ball says: "This initiative has been a long time in the making. The black plaques are the opposite of the prestigious blue heritage plaques. Many of these owners have made big promises over the years but have failed to deliver."

The Black Plaque horror heritage list includes the 1895 Rissik Street Post Office, the Hospital Superintendent's House in Hillbrow, the Marshall Street barracks and the neo-classical Gordon Leith building on Fraser Street, Johannesburg.

• This article was originally published in The Times.