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

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