When City Prop’s Alec Wapnick and Jeffrey Wapnick – well-known for their revitalization efforts in Pretoria’s inner city – saw the historic early 20th century Wits Technikon building, they not only realized the potential for restoration but also the opportunity to create a distinct node for learning and education. Alec had the vision to purchase the Wits Tech buildings, and Jeffrey had the foresight to restore and redevelop them to a standard way beyond the basics.
The project is in line with City Property’s comprehensive approach to inner cities, encompassing all the elements of everyday life, from working, to living and shopping, to schooling.
Established as a technical institution in 1903 to support the city’s flourishing gold mining industry, the building fronts onto Eloff, Plein and De Villiers Streets. It will continue to educate. The west block was already occupied by Johannesburg Polytech the east block will house Basa Educational Institute, an inner city school with excellent credentials, which was looking for a new home. Its focus is on the melting pot that is inner city schooling in Johannesburg today, something that dovetails well with City Property’s holistic approach to local development. They teach in all eleven official languages, as well as a number of others, including Portuguese.
The restoration of the Wits Tech building was something of a labour of love for the Wapnicks, whose long history of restoring architectural beauty show they believe that buildings are themselves works of art, to be shared and enjoyed. A lot of work had to be carried out. The building had been vacant for several years, with the result that fittings had been stripped, the structure itself vandalized and left in a state of disrepair. Architecturally, it was originally designed in the classic Greek revival style, an aesthetic that was popular in Johannesburg at the time: the nearby Supreme Court building is a good example and dates from around the same time as the Wits Technikon building. “The neo-Classical style is very typical, very ornate and a reference to renaissance architecture,” says City Property project manager Anita du Plessis. “It has been designed on a breathtaking scale in a style specific to the time.”
She points to the three different architectural orders used in the building concept: the plain Doric columns on the ground floor, to the distinctive scrolled Ionic columns on the first floor, to the leaves of the Corinthian columns above.
Original fittings, like the marble floors, have been carefully restored and repaired; the original viewing panes in the doors were replaced with safety glass; and the stained glass windows were repaired.
Although the grand architectural style needed to be restored, a key outcome for the project team was an updated space suitable for a contemporary user. For this reason, practical, modern features were worked into the project. For a start, the building is now compliant with all the modern building standards and criteria.
The entrance hall and atrium are equipped with security systems, while the air of a tranquil and dignified place of learning has been carefully maintained. The large, bright airy classrooms with sash windows create a positive learning environment, while the solid structure of the historic property blocks out the noise of the city.
Fellow Wits Tech alumnus 1974 – 1978 Steve Reed wrote: Hope they keep the alternative entrance to Kleinman’s classroom – the ledge along the outside…
“We are the custodians of these magnificent buildings and it is our responsibility to return them to their former glory,” says Wapnick.
These okes are eye pasiente of Brauer’s.
Wonder if he’ll claim he gave them their vision and foresight.