PICS: Have you ever heard of Northwards, the 114-year-old mansion in Parktown?

2018-06-24 00:00 - Dina Venter
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northwards house

Have you heard about Northwards House in Parktown? (Photo: Dina Venter)

Joburg is characterised by its eclectic, albeit haphazard skyline. As a result, several architectural gems stand proud, yet unnoticed in the shadow of new developments and recently gentrified spaces.

While colonial South Africa was a place of abject black poverty and racial segregation, many early white settlers lived in luxury and erected the grand buildings that still stand today.

One such building is Northwards house, a fragment of history on the edge of Parktown. In 1902, architect Herbert Baker started construction on this grand mansion. By Joburg standards it’s quite old, considering that gold was only discovered on the reef in 1886.

Well-known Randlord John Dale Lace and his wife José commissioned the design, moved in in 1904, and spent the next seven years of their stormy marriage here. The Dale Laces appear to have been one of those couples who couldn’t live with or without one another, and Dale Lace is believed to have said of their relationship that “Life with José is hell, but without her it’s worse hell”.

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Their flamboyant lifestyle at Northwards came to an abrupt end when they had to give the house up, partly due to damage caused by a fire, and partly to bankruptcy.

Following on their stay, the founder of General Mining (later to become Gencor), George Albu, and his wife, née Ginny Rosendorff, took ownership of the house and had it restored by German architect Theophile Schaerer.

The most notable addition during this phase was the dining room, big enough to accommodate Albu’s large family. Albu’s son, George junior inherited the property, and it remained within the family until 1954, when it was sold to the SABC.

northwards house

Well-known Randlord John Dale Lace and his wife José lived in Northwards during the seven years of their stormy marriage. (Photo: Dina Venter) 

Standing in the parking lot in front of the former entrance, it’s easy to conjure romanticised visions of carriages dropping off esteemed guests and Johannesburg socialites for some important event. Had it been José in the passenger seat, the carriage would have been drawn by zebras.

What’s a little harder to imagine is the fact that 8 hectares of garden used to surround the mansion where the M1 motorway now snakes its way towards the centre of town. This, along with a string of other developments, left its mark on the site. First in the hands of the SABC, then operating as a university residence and an office block, the focus of its caretakers shifted to functionality rather than the preservation of history.

Apart from losing its sprawling lawns to a highway, the mansion’s magnificent stables were demolished. A seemingly insignificant part of this living monument, but scholars of Baker architecture may disagree.

northwards house

Northwards House. (Photo: Dina Venter) 

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Baker is known for buildings typical of the Arts and Crafts movement, a style of design and architecture developed in England as a protest against mid-Victorian manufactured products. The movement became an international revolt against mass-production and argued that the places in which you live and work build your character – hence the focus on artistry.

For Baker, decoration became part of construction. Detailing can often be seen even on outbuildings such as garden sheds and it would’ve been notable, of course, on the former stables.

Fortunately, ownership was transferred to the Northwards Trust and, thanks to a massive financial injection from Gencor, the space was restored with the aim of recreating the condition it was in during the time of the Albus.

Northwards curator Neil Viljoen explains that the exterior, gardens and interior, including furnishings, were restored in the process, and that upkeep of the property is an ongoing battle. The project came with some challenges that simply couldn’t be overcome.

For example, masonry on buildings such as these is a lost art, and it was discovered that the stone couldn’t be cut with machinery, but that each one had to be worked at with a chisel and mallet. Unfortunately, there’s no one in South Africa who possesses such a skill any more, and the stone work couldn’t be restored to its former glory.

northwards house

Today, once a month, classical music concerts are held at Northwards in support of young South African musicians. (Photo: Dina Venter)

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However, the trust acquired the original rosewood Steinway piano that had belonged to the Albu family, and a R300 000 restoration was undertaken by a Steinway expert with great success. Once a month, classical music concerts are held at Northwards in support of young South African musicians, during which the sound of this magnificent instrument often fills the house.

These concerts give the public the opportunity to experience the mansion as it would have been more than a hundred years ago. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the grand ballroom, one can almost see José soaking up the winter sun in the large bay window (that would be after hours of bathing in milk, if the rumours are true).

Our tumultuous, imperfect history makes efforts that preserve our heritage so worthwhile, if only to get an idea of a bygone era.

So, who built it?

By Grethe Kemp

Johannesburg, as we all know, was built around gold mines. But what many people don’t know is that Joburg’s gold deposits were particularly difficult to mine.

Due to a meteor that struck the area more than 2 023 million years ago, rich veins of the precious metal sat very deep underground, which meant more expensive equipment was needed to reach it.

To keep gold mining profitable, mining magnates needed increasingly cheap labour, and much of this came from black migrant labourers from all over the country. Housed in crowded, unhygienic compounds, these workers were prone to death and disease on the mines.

ancient northwards house

Northwards House in its early days. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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Parktown mansions like Northwards were part of the wealthy residents’ attempt to get away from the noisy, dusty mines.

According to the invaluable Who Built Jozi? by Luli Callinicos, the first mansion on the hill was the 40-room Hohenheim, which was built by British mining magnate Sir Lionel Phillips and Lady Florence Phillips.

Callinicos says: “Joburg society called the project ‘Phillips Folly’. But not for long. It was discovered that the north-facing aspect, south of the equator, captured the sun and was a shelter from the southern winds.

“Soon enough, the newly rich in Doornfontein, the ‘Randlords’, began to become attracted to the idea of graduating from highly successful businessmen to more cultivated ‘landed gentry’, like the land-owning aristocracy of Europe.”

The whole idea behind Parktown was to emulate the country estates of England.

And who would build it? Poor black people, of course.

As Callinicos says in her book: “Gardens burgeoned and bloomed, blessed by an abundance of cheap African labour. Small armies of blacks fetched soil and carried away rocks. Rows of young trees marked off the road street frontages. Terraces, lawns, shrubberies and rose gardens were laid out.”

They might have been far away from the seat of the Empire, but Joburg’s Randlords had one thing in common – the propensity to extort colonised labour for their own enrichment.

 Who Built Jozi? is available for R245 from 

northwards house joburg slavery
'Who Built Jozi's - by Lulu Collinicos - book cover. (Photo: Supplied)

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