The caretaker slips the crisp R100 into the pocket of his worn, blue overalls. He gestures for us to follow. “The entrance is this way … just act like you’re supposed to be here,” he mumbles. A clumsy, homemade iron gate bars our entrance to a once-elegant edifice. He fumbles and fiddles with a mess of unlabelled keys. Finally, the giant padlock budges. We’re in.
Yellow Joburg sunlight cascades into the cool cavern. From outside, a cacophony of a thousand hooting taxis, “R10 double burgers”, and “onetime nice price, siyangena!” sale loudspeakers disturbs the resting pigeons and decades of dust. Our strained eyes adjust to the darkness and a collapsed ceiling that has littered the marble lobby. Grand reception desks are unmanned, chandeliers dulled, escalators stilled.
Whether it’s the shattered tiles, decaying debris and rusting barbed wire of a long unproductive factory or the mothballed luxury of an apartment block that would have fitted nicely into the Upper East Side in a past life — abandoned, ignored spaces capture our imagination.
Explorers interested in forgotten buildings become urban archaeologists hoping to discover something beautiful left behind; fascinated with the promise of what a forgotten shell could become. And, it’s not just the pursuit of budding property developers hoping to strike it lucky with some old relic. It’s deeply trendy travel-wise. Pripyat, the Ukrainian town abandoned after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station meltdown, is a (radio) active tourist destination. The same goes for the sandflooded houses of Kolmanskop in Namibia. Exploring a ghost town is a thrill.
Over the past 30 years, the degeneration of Johannesburg has produced its fair share of abandoned and unoccupied spaces, cast aside but with their own fascinating history. Wanted compiled a list of some of our favourites, all begging to be remembered… and even, perhaps, explored.
Johannesburg’s first multiplex was built in 1969, at the corner of Claim and Plein streets. The complex housed three luxurious commercial cinemas: the Cine 1000, Cine 700, and Cine 300. The exclusive Cine 100, at the penthouse level, previewed the hottest ’70s celluloid to select members of the press. Ster City was constructed in the mid-century brutalist idiom, and the undulating organic concrete and glass mosaic façades beckoned patrons with the promise of wine gums, hot popcorn, and glamorous cinematic escape
Anyone who regularly travels along the M2 North will be familiar with the dilapidated shell of Newtown’s Transport House. It was built in the 1940s, and abandoned more than two decades ago; today, most of the building has been gutted, leaving any intrepid visitor with the feeling they have stumbled across a disused set from Mad Max, complete with broken windows and overgrown plants. Drive slowly enough along the highway and you can catch a glimpse into long-deserted offices, with graffiti snaking its way over the decaying skeleton of this grand structure.
Vertical window bands of a Manhattan-esque persuasion shoot up the Art Deco façades, catering to the 1930s obsession with height. No Deco building would be complete without a soaring flag mast and this grand dame of Commissioner Street has two. The unusual and beautifully articulated name, Shakespeare House, remains proudly resolute above the shuttered entrance.
THE NEW LIBRARY HOTEL
If you stand on the corner of Commissioner and Fraser streets and cast your eye over the overgrown foliage and razor wire, you can imagine the beauty that the New Library Hotel once exuded. Clean lines, retro signage, and peeling layers of wallpaper (black and red stripes competing with oriental bamboo designs) are all clues to the building’s layered history. There’s no doubt that this hotel, once a beautiful modernist lady, is patiently waiting for a new life.
Twenty-two years after the legendary institution shut its doors, The Westin International Carlton still captures Joburg’s imagination. The distinctive, inverted Y-shaped hotel oozed five-star glamour in the 1970s and ’80s. The dark-panelled timber lobby with its potted palms and glitzy mirrors provided a spot to rub shoulders with the jet-set. Patrons included a broad segment of society, from Hillary Clinton, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson to less elite teenagers ascending the ballroom escalators for débutante balls, matric dances, and a new world of independence.
Nothing screams forgotten ’80s excess like Jeppe Street’s locked-down, blue-tinted, mirror-glass Johannesburg Sun. Together with Tollman Towers, the hotel complex provided 1 300 five-star rooms, more than any other establishment in the Southern Hemisphere. It welcomed its last guest in the late 1990s.