Building an Icon: Ansteys Building

WORDS Brian McKechnie PHOTOS Brian McKechnie; Jo Buitendach and Johannesburg Heritage Foundation

Join architect Brian McKechnie on a journey through 1930s Johannesburg as we continue our series on South Africa’s most iconic buildings. This time we visit an Art Deco jewel – the Ansteys Building.

Last night, I dreamt of downtown Johannesburg. The dream stretched out across acres of grey, a mirage of thousands of square concrete paving blocks – crooked, marked with pieces of chewing gum and mottled by tens of thousands of footprints. Frantic blurs of colour enveloped me – trousers, skirts, shoes, shopping bags, all offset against the concrete. The pavers began to chart a meticulously scaled map of the city centre.

Llooking east over the CBD, past the old Johannesburg Sun Hotel (left) and Carlton Centre (middle).
Looking east over the CBD, past the old Johannesburg Sun Hotel (left) and Carlton Centre (middle).

An enormous living page of graph paper, anchoring urban intersections, movement and latent possibility. The dream felt like late afternoon; the sun’s rays hung long and low, heavy with that particular Highveld luminosity. I close my eyes again; the image ascends above the street and the city haze calms. A lone edifice emerges, suspended above the fever, ethereal. Ansteys.

The basics

Ansteys is located at the corner of Rahima Moosa (formerly Jeppe) and Joubert Street in downtown Joburg. The 1936 design was penned by Emley and Williamson Architects as the flagship location for the famous Norman Anstey and Company department store. The skyscraper sits atop an elegantly curved podium, clad in green terrazzo with ribbon window bands. Two ziggurat- shaped towers rise above the base, with cylindrical glazed windows at their intersection. The towers – topped by a dramatic Art Deco flag mast – accommodated offices for the store, as well as lavish penthouses on the top levels.

Not many people know that…

At a time when Johannesburg was obsessed with being the most modern, up-to-date and luxurious city, Ansteys was the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere. Playwright, activist and secret uMkhonto we Sizwe member Cecil Williams kept a penthouse on the 16th floor. When Nelson Mandela was captured by apartheid police in Howick in August 1962, he was travelling the country posing as Williams’s driver.

At its zenith

The department store was famed for its artful window displays, carefully curated behind plate glass-and-chrome shopfronts, which were curved to avoid reflections from car headlights. Evening strollers could marvel at the latest fashions from Paris and London after dining at the Carlton or an evening of theatre at His Majesty’s. The fourth floor housed a tea terrace, where waiters in tan suits and red sashes attended white-gloved ladies, while models – known as “mannequins” – discreetly presented the threads on sale in the store below. The building’s careful design provided upper-floor residences with ample sunlight, views and airy, spacious interiors. Select penthouses included floor-to-ceiling bay windows and linear balconies, opening out to sweeping vistas across the city, past golden mine dumps to distant rocky ridges.

The state of play today

The decline of high-street shopping and exodus of capital from the city centre left Ansteys with an uncertain future. After a failed bid for demolition, the building was donated to the National Monuments Council, and sectionalised in 1994, providing the first affordable inner-city housing in Joburg. At the close of the 20th century, it again became a pioneering development – no longer the tallest or most luxurious in Africa, but rather a place where people of all races and different incomes could own a home in a much-loved heritage monument in the heart of the city. Today, the building accommodates a diverse array of residents, from professionals to clothing designers, artists and ordinary inner-city families.

Why the building matters

Almost 90 years after its opening, Ansteys remains a design icon. Its resilience is testament to the enduring quality of good design.

We love it because…

Ansteys is one of South Africa’s most recognisable Art Deco structures – a steadfast anchor and an enduring monument to the faded glamour of the once Golden City.

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