View of a Joburg we have forgotten

Johannesburg - Thomas Cullinan would get out of bed and stand on his balcony and gaze all the way to the Magaliesberg. It’s little surprise his home, if you could call the imposing double-storey Randlord mansion that, was called simply “The View”.

These days it looks straight onto the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital. Between the two are the equally ugly nurses’ home blocks where, says my friend, former colleague and press-ganged guide James Mitchell, young officers of the Transvaal Scottish would in bygone years try to shoot beer cans using thunderflashes thrust down the barrel of a World War II anti-tank gun in the garden.

The View, Sir Thomas Cullinan's mansion on Parktown Ridge, seen at night with the Hillbrow Telkom Tower in the background. Pictures: KEVIN RITCHIE. Credit: INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

The Jocks, as they are popularly known, now inhabit the Cullinan mansion. Sir Thom is best known for his development of the Premier Mine outside Cullinan, east of Pretoria, which provided South Africa with some of its most stunning diamonds. Two of these live on in the British crown jewels – to the chagrin of South African nationalists, black and white alike.

The View is the best remaining example of the Randlord mansions that were once a feature of Parktown Ridge. Designed by Joburg city engineer Charles Aburrow, it was built with no regard to cost, from the beautiful parquet floors imported from Sweden to the exquisite hand-painted murals in Art Nouveau style, plastered ceilings with cherubs and flowers and delicate balcony woodwork.

Most of the ridge was destroyed by the twin National Party bids to build perhaps the world’s ugliest state hospital and run a four-lane highway through the middle. Rampant development of businesses and flatlands did the rest.

The regiment, one of the most famous in the country, took over the residence in 1977, spending much of its own funds to restore the building to its former glory.

The regiment and the Parktown Heritage Association had to fight long and hard to win national heritage status for the building but today, thanks to ongoing support by the regiment and a major donation from the national lottery, the entire complex has been restored, from the murals to the ornamental Victorian gardens in the front.

It is no longer the regimental headquarters, which have now moved to the garrison in the east of the city along with other part-time regiments, but The View remains the home of the regimental council and the association of former members of the regiment.

The good news is that it is also available for business meetings or functions, with a wonderful, convivial bar, a cheerful host in retired Sergeant Ian Hooper who is also an incredibly adept chef, assisted by his small team of willing helpers, who can lay on everything from snacks to banquets.

The View is a must for anyone interested in Joburg history, particularly the architectural history. For military buffs, the regimental memorabilia in almost every room is fascinating, but none more so than the Delville Wood exhibition upstairs.

As always, it’s best left to the experienced guides to point out the gems. James, apart from being a former books editor of The Star, is also a writer and penned the third volume of the regimental history.

“You see that plaque over there,” he says, pointing to a bronze triptych of the names of the casualties from the regiments of three World War II battalions.

“Notice anything? See the 3rd battalion… that’s right, they almost all died in one afternoon at Sidi Rezegh (in Libya).”

The world is remembering the centenary of the beginning of World War I this year.

In two years’ time it will be the turn of Delville Wood.

The men of the Transvaal Scottish served there with honour and died in droves.

Upstairs at The View, the vista is within. As it should be.