At the entrance to the university’s main Hatfield campus is the Kya Rosa building or Alumni House; a reconstruction of the late Victorian house where the first lectures of the Transvaal University College were held.
But it is also the former house of the first editor of the Pretoria News, Leo Weinthal, that once stood in Skinner Street.
According to the University history, Kya Rosa was erected more than 100 years ago at 270 Skinner Street in central Pretoria by Weinthal, a confidant of such diverse figures as President Paul Kruger and JB Robinson, the Rand mining magnate. In 1898, Weinthal founded the Pretoria News.
Weinthal often took coffee on Oom Paul’s stoep, and usually backed the government in the Boer-British struggles of the 1890s - which prompted rumours that his paper was secretly funded by the government.
Weinthal enjoyed entertaining on a lavish scale, as we can see today by the spacious reception rooms he built off the Kya Rosa verandah. It is said that he leaned on his friend JB Robinson to bankroll the parties.
Distinctive Transvaal characters and friends, like the sculptor Anton van Wouw, wheeler-dealer Sammy Marks, and the financier AH Nellmapius - owner of The Press - enjoyed the merry gatherings presided over by Weinthal’s vivacious wife, Rosa. (Weinthal named the house after her in a clever African-Jewish coinage - khaya is, of course, Zulu for house.)
Kya Rosa is a typical nouveau riche home of its period: a wrap-around stoep, large sash windows fronting high-ceilinged front rooms, and ornate embellishments.
Yet the house has a grandeur of dimension, and the mouldings, cornices and verandah rails in wood and iron boast an unusual degree of artistry. The crescent-moon motifs atop the roof give the house a quasi-oriental air, and suggest the flamboyant character of its first owner.
Both Weinthal and Kya Rosa were buffeted about by the events in the Transvaal at the turn of the century - the Jameson Raid, the Anglo-Boer War, and the subsequent British occupation.
In 1902 Weinthal’s house was taken over by the new colonial administration. Weinthal retired soon after World War I and moved to England.
Kya Rosa was earmarked “for educational purposes” and it was there on February 10,1908, that the Pretoria centre of the Transvaal University College (the TUC) first opened its doors.
There were four professors, 32 students but no furniture, desks or laboratory equipment. A new chapter in the history of the house had begun.
The fledging college, which became the University of Pretoria in 1930, soon transferred to other premises in the city. Kya Rosa remained a student hostel, and meeting place of the student’s council until 1916.
The house then entered a dull phase. It played unwilling host to various government departments and in the process lost much of its fine tracery and decorations.
By 1980, when the university was celebrating its 50th birthday, Kya Rosa was a sad shell of its former self.
Even the striking sash windows had been replaced by that ultimate post-war insult - steel frames. Then began a remarkable rebirth. The university council decided that year not only to restore the house, but to move it from the noisy city centre to the Hatfield campus. Local architect Albrecht Holm and builder Jan Scheffer were charged with the task.
When the new Kya Rosa was opened on August 25, 1985, the precision and delicacy of Holm and Scheffer’s handiwork drew high praise.
Not only had they rebuilt the house using the original koppie-stone foundations, much of the brickwork, and all of the tiling; they had lovingly replaced tracery, cornices, light fittings and wall plastering. Weinthal’s interior colour-schemes and wallpaper designs shone brightly once again.
Today, this charming Victorian house hosts the Office for Alumni Relations and is also used for the executive management’s and faculties’ social gatherings and lunches.