Preserving a gem

On more than one occasion, usually in the early hours of the morning, studying broken fingernails and a pile of wet cement within the cavernous interior of the Gem Bioscope, I have felt empathy for Don Quixote and his tilt at windmills.

In the past three years I have come to realise that the passion my partner and I share for the restoration of one of South Africa’s few remaining art deco cinemas is a foreign concept to banking institutions, government heritage and film organisations and architectural bodies. The Gem was opened in 1941 by American financier Isidore Schlesinger’s Africa Consolidated Cinemas and is one of the last remaining examples of a chain of about 150 bioscopes in the region. The others having been demolished to become parking lots or for the construction of both architecturally and structurally inferior buildings.

The Gem, which serviced a working-class neighbourhood before its closure in 1976 after suffering the double whammy of the arrival of malls and television in South Africa, has diluted art deco features, a consequence of the burgeoning war in Europe and the rationing of resources by South Africa’s government of the day.

The building’s ziggurat profile, clearly seen travelling east on Commissioner Street, is a watered-down version of New York’s Chrysler Building’s stepped facade, while the terrazzo brass-jointed flooring in its foyer is reminiscent of the Madison Avenue Cinema’s lobby.

There is a hidden beauty to the bioscope, beyond its exterior aesthetics, and that is its structural strength that allows us to construct a twin-screen, 200-seat exhibition space for African film and documentary products on the internal balcony and an art gallery on its ground floor.


The cinema was built in the era before the philosophy of “disposable” structures, when such quaint practices as allowing cement to “cure” were the norm, instead of the building practices prevalent today of giving structures a shelf life and therefore providing developers with a 15-year demolish-and-rebuild cycle.

We acquired the place a few days before Fifa announced South Africa’s successful bid for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, a coincidence that has given us an insight into the probable destruction of much of the area’s eclectic architecture.

Gandhi’s old abode is across the street from the Gem; David Webster’s home a few streets away; Beryl Court — a well-kept art deco block of flats traditionally favoured by artists — is also nearby; while the story of the Foster Gang entwines the Troyeville streets, as does Herman Charles Bosman’s lament that as soon as a building in Johannesburg becomes historic it is torn down. The equation for the destruction of heritage assets, according to international comparisons, is simple. Restoring a building gives a 30% profit margin, while to demolish structures and then build on their graves pockets the developers a 120% profit, plus change. In Bertrams, down in the valley, that equation is firmly embedded in the Johannesburg Development Authority’s plans to expropriate, at below current market prices, and then demolish a whole city block, which includes examples of Edwardian, Victorian and art deco housing.

Johannesburg, after New York and Miami, has the greatest number of art deco buildings in the world. At the rate things are being knocked down, it is a title that the city is unlikely to hold for long.

The Gem Bioscope is at 1 Roberts Avenue, Comissioner Street, Troyeville

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Related stories

Covid-19: Cancelled performances cost Joburg Ballet R1-million

Don Quixote was cancelled after only four performances. The M&G talked to the Joburg Ballet’s chief executive and artistic director about the implications

Joburg Ballet’s Brazilian flavour

The Joburg Theatre is defying the conventions of classical ballet by not giving the lead roles to white men in Don Quixote

Birth of the e-reader

It is almost 40 years since Roland Barthes announced the death of the author and called for the "birth of the reader" in that annus mirabilis of French history, 1968. For Barthes, it was the reader who should decide literary meaning. To a degree, authors were already playing this game before Barthes.
Advertising

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

DRC: Tshisekedi and Kabila fall out

The country’s governing coalition is under strain, which could lead to even more acrimony ahead

Editorial: Crocodile tears from the coalface

Pumping limited resources into a project that is predominantly meant to extend dirty coal energy in South Africa is not what local communities and the climate needs.

Klipgat residents left high and dry

Flushing toilets were installed in backyards in the North West, but they can’t be used because the sewage has nowhere to go

Nehawu leaders are ‘betraying us’

The accusation by a branch of the union comes after it withdrew from a parliamentary process
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…