In early 1900s – 1920s various yards emerged in the Jeppe area and adjacent in what was termed ‘New Doornfontein’. A yard (or slumyard) was an area that housed workers from around the city (mostly black domestic servants like ‘house boys’, ‘kitchen boys’, coachmen and cooks). There was a communal area or courtyard surrounded by small rooms that were rented out, often with 2-10 people per room. The yard was also acted as a social hub and its tenants and nightly and weekend visitors played music, danced, brewed and drank beer and played cards. It is said that MARABI culture started in these yards and is often referred to as the home of MARABI. They had names like MOLEFE, MAKAPAN AND BROWN YARD. One called ROOI YARD was the subject of a master thesis in the 1940s.
Another called MVUYANA YARD was not a slum yard and had no part of the MARABI culture. This yard housed legally married couples in eight rooms at the back of the property. The property, as I’ve recently discovered more than two years after writing this post, was No. 24 Lower Ross Street which was the African Congregational Church.
Pastor Mvuyana, who the yard is named after, took over the church from 1917. It was originally a wood and iron structure from 1910 and the new building above was designed by W. Paynter and erected in 1924. The first pastor was Rev. MS Dube. Pastor Mvuyana then took over in 1917. The foundation stone reads: To the glory of God, The African Congregational Church (I BANDHLA LAMA AFRIKA) in the memory of the founding of the above church Sep 3 1917. This foundation stone was laid by Rev Gardiner Mvuyana President Jan 20 1924. It was used as a church up to the 1960s and still stands today.
By the 1930s, Doornfontein was a slum area. The tenants of the yards were eventually evicted and the yards were flattened and replaced by warehouses – many of which still stand today. It appears that these yards were centred around Staib, Angle and Van Beek streets. Info on these yards came from the Journal of Johannesburg Historical Foundation and a chapter written by Alkis Doucakis on the history of Doornfontein with contributions and recollections in the article by Modikwe Dikobe (born in 1913) who grew up in the yards. Nothing of the yards exists today except for the church in Lower Ross Street.
A little know yard and an important one for Jewish history was on Buxton Street and was known as Shamus’s Yard. Shamus is a Yiddish word that means beadle. A shamus performs the same function in a synagogue that a beadle performs in a church (ceremonial officer of a church).
The yard was started in 1905 by the shamus of the old Fox Street synagogue who felt he was being underpaid and decided to cash in on the influx of new Jewish immigrants arriving in Johannesburg. His first yard before moving to Doornfontein in 1905 was in Marshall Street. 80 traders moved with him.
Shamus’s Yard was also once the headquarters of Jewish peddlars. It operated on the premises for 64 years before being demolished in 1969 to make way for a modern building. In its last days there were only two traders left: Mr H. Eliason and Mr I. Schneider.
The now demolished Anton Van Wouw house in Sivewright Avenue dated back to 1902. The famous Dutch sculptor lived and worked there for over 30 years from 1907 to 1937. The house appears to have originally been owned by Swiss architect Theophile Schaerer who submitted plans for a wood and iron studio presumably for Van Wouw around 1910 (Schaerer worked on the Lutheran Church in Hillbrow and the Great Synogogue and later had a house in Willie Street near the Hillbrow Fire Station). In 1913 further additions were added including replacing the wood and iron structure with a brick structure. Architect Gordon Leith later extended this structure which eventually became 7 metres high.
Artefacts claim the house was built in 1913 and designed by Schaerer and then demolished and replaced by a Gordon Leith designed house in 1927. Other sources seem to disagree. After Van Wouw moved to Pretoria in 1937 it changed hands a few times and eventually fell into a state of disrepair. It was restored (losing much of its original charm and character) and became the Anton Van Wouw Restaurant which opened in November 1983 (and closed in the 1990s as the area declined).
The house was demolished around 2013 apparently abandoned and falling apart. The studio appears to have survived. The picture below is taken from the carpark next to the Lions Shul behind the original stand. It’s the building behind the bus which can also be seen from the front on the picture above.
The Alhambra Theatre was built between 1919 and 1921 and designed by Samuel Victor Mann (who also designed the Poswohl Synagogue in Mooi Street).
Other pictures of Doornfontein:
The building below on the corner of Rockey and Davies Street may be oldest remaining in Johannesburg. Above the door on the facade it shows 1887. Unfortunately there are no plans or documents to back it up. As of 2015, the front of the building has been altered and the last of the evidence lost.
Marlborough House was built in 1905 and designed by Sydney Percival Hill Mitchelson. It was a Beit Street landmark and one of Johannesburg’s first apartment blocks. It appears to have been demolished in the early 1970s after the Harrow Road flyover construction.
*Click on images for larger view
Today Doornfontein is largely industrial with the University of Johannesburg and all its converted student accommodation around it. Ellis Park stadium and sport complex is a destination when sport or some other event is on. The houses I’ve posted here and the other parts are pretty much all that is left. I’ve not done every leftover house as the others are either similar examples to what I already have or have been altered beyond recognition. There were also a few areas that were inaccessible or too dangerous to photograph at the time – mostly on either side of the train tracks that run through the area.
The next post will focus on the other short-lived early wealthy areas just south of Doornfontein known as Jeppestown and Belgravia.