Church Street, Pietermaritzburg, looking north-east with the City Hall in the background.
Church Street, Pietermaritzburg, looking north-east with the City Hall in the background.

The heart of the capital

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published Apr 3, 2021

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THE old pictures this week take in two views of the commercial heart of Pietermaritzburg. Both show Church Street between Peter Kirchoff (Chapel) Street and Chief Albert Luthuli Street (Commercial Road) in the early 1900s.

The first looks north-east showing the Colonial Building on the left and the City Hall in the background. The second is looking in the opposite direction and shows the street from City Hall.

The street houses some of the oldest and most historic buildings in the provincial capital, which was founded in 1838.

The City Hall, whose clock towers over the scene at a height of 47m high, is reputed to be the largest brick structure in the southern hemisphere. The hall has the largest pipe organ in the southern hemisphere. It is the third structure to be built on the site. In 1893, the original Raadsaal gave way to the first City Hall, but this was destroyed by fire in 1895. The new hall was opened in August 1901 by The Duke of Cornwall and York.

The three-storey public building of red brick walls with plaster bands and elaborate quoining features a main roof in copper and subsidiary roofs in pitched corrugated iron. It was designed by the architect R Street-Wilson and takes its architectural style from the Flemish Renaissance. The building has a magnificent interior with a Grand Hall, many stained glass windows of the period and well fitted-out council chambers, including the mayor's office.

It was declared a National Monument in 1969.

Church Street, looking north-east, in Pietermaritzburg, with the old Colonial Building and the City Hall. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad African News Agency (ANA)

Just outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall, and hidden by the trams in the second old picture, stands a 5.5kg naval gun known as the One O’Clock Gun, which used to fire every day at one o’clock, with the exception of Sundays. The gun’s history is rich, starting with its journey during the 1840s on the HMS Fawn, a ship that captured slave ships and released their human cargo.

Church Street, Pietermaritzburg, looking south-west with the Colonial Building.

The square opposite the City Hall on the corner of Church and Albert Luthuli streets commemorates a number of military campaigns. The War Memorial Arch commemorates those who fell in both World Wars and the Zulu War Memorial those in 1879. Visible in the second old picture with the winged figure of Victory on top is the Natal Volunteers War Memorial commemorating the 134 locals who died during the South African War. It was erected in 1907

The spire in front of the City Hall is that of one of the oldest buildings in the city, the Presbyterian Church, built in 1851. Today it is no longer used for services, and forms part of the Tatham Art Gallery complex.

Church Street in Pietermaritzburg, looking south-west, today with the Colonial Building. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad African News Agency (ANA)

The grand Edwardian Colonial Building was built in 1899 with its colonnaded front façade completed in 1901. Housing the colonial administration, it was designed in the late English Renaissance Style and the design is attributed to William Henry Powell, who won the princely sum of £100 for it in 1894. The foundation stone was laid in 1887. Powell died in 1900, before the building was completed.

In the late 1990s a contract was awarded to renovate the building, which had been vandalised by thieves stealing copper sheeting from the roof, the cast-iron Victorian fire places and lead lining from the toilets.

Shelley Kjonstad’s modern pictures show a very different and bustling city, with many modern buildings dwarfing their early counterparts. It was also difficult to match the same spots for the photographs because the road has changed dramatically, with Kjonstad at one point filming in the middle of traffic.

The picture facing City Hall was shot considerably closer to the original. As a result, it doesn’t capture the bronze statue of activist Mahatma Gandhi which today stands outside the Colonial Building. The statue commemorates the incident of 1893 when Gandhi was evicted from a first class carriage at the Pietermaritzburg railway station.

The Independent on Saturday

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