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A Bird’s eye view of Parktown

‘Join us for a late-autumn potpourri of architecture, history, gardens and personalities as we wander down Escombe Avenue and up Loch Avenue.” This is the slightly cringe-inducing invitation on the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust website. I think of it again as I wait for the tour to begin, watching dry leaves and twigs blowing up Escombe Avenue, looking a lot like potpourri.

Flo Bird, chairperson of the trust, is our guide for the day. She’s taking money from a few latecomers, R100 from non-members like me. Most of our group are in their 60s or older and sport Cape Union khakis and sunhats. There is a gay couple in Polo shirts and Rayban sunglasses; the kind of people who live in this suburb actually.

A grey-haired lady who shares the shade of a jacaranda tree with me wouldn’t be out of place in the local library. She loves these tours. Will I be joining the upcoming Taking Back Berea? “The buildings are so beautiful” — she licks her lips as if she can taste them — “and they knock them all down.” She looks a bit teary thinking about the beautiful buildings being demolished. She brings her overseas guests there and takes them to Pretoria, too. She loves Herbert Baker. Have I seen Pretoria Station? “The cloakrooms are from another era.” She puts a hand to her chest. “Whites only.”

“Yes,” she continues. “Baker was very busy … the Union Buildings … I think he did the South African Embassy on Trafalgar Square. Ah, where we’ve all been when we were homesick to look at the Pierneef murals.” I nod, but I have never been inside South Africa House.

Bird asks the group: “Will we need a mike?” She has permed grey hair under a rainbow cap. New York is scrawled across her T-shirt.

“No, this part is relatively quiet,” says an older man with a floppy white cricket hat.

Bird says she doesn’t have her name tag; she’s moved lately. “Silas, you’ve left the cellphone in the car.” Silas is about 45 and the only black person in the group.

We are herded to the first house on Escombe Avenue. The Braamfontein Company developed this section after the first Anglo-Boer War. Bird tells us the houses are on small stands; many are designed by well-known architects and quite a number of them by Baker. Bird describes Baker’s revolutionary style — not too fussy, unlike the Victorians who came before him, and he liked to use local materials. Baker, she tells us, became known as a classicist.

The architect, critic and writer Clive M Chipkin describes in his book Johannesburg Style: Architecture and Society 1880s — 1960s how the well heeled separated themselves from the huddled masses that had formed in the city centre during the gold rush, moving into Parktown, which “was to be where the new class founded a segregated residential reserve … these members of the haute bourgeoisie, rapidly forming into an instant patrician class …”

Chipkin compares the seeking out of Baker houses in Parktown — which is what we are doing on our tour, after all — to how early Frank Lloyd Wright houses are sought out in suburban Oak Park, Chicago. Baker (1862-1946) and Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) were contemporaries who, although their styles are centuries apart, are comparable in terms of their fame. Chipkin says Baker is regarded by the architectural establishment as one of the greatest British architects of his generation.

“Is this a Herbert Baker house?” someone asks while we stand in a small yard as Bird goes on about Baker. “No, it’s one of his successors — SV Man,” says Bird and, without lingering, she continues describing the carefully pointed brickwork.

We cross the road to Anworth, 39 Jan Smuts Avenue, which was built in 1905. The original owner, CJ Price, was an American engineer who, during the Anglo-Boer War, fixed railways after the Boers blew them up. Bird points to where the tramlines used to lie on Jan Smuts Avenue before the new bus lane was added in 2010. She says her father went into town for work and came home for lunch every day on the trams.

She leads the group down Escombe Avenue, briefly pointing out a small house — the architect, Hermann Kallenbach, was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi. “No, you people can’t take such a stroll,” she shouts at the stragglers and turns down jacaranda-lined Pallinghurst Road.

I hear a red-haired lady say that Bird used to be a teacher. She is well known as a champion of heritage conservation and a thorn in the side of anyone who wants to renovate ­historic buildings in the area. She is sturdy and, well, unbirdlike. “We are going through this way because Jan Smuts is hideously noisy,” she says. We stop at No 11 Pallinghurst Road, ring the bell and go inside the garden. The owner, Bird tells us, has applied for subdivision, like many large property owners in the neighbourhood. She points out the terracing in the garden and we file out of the back gate into the sanitary lane. Prior to 1931, sewage was emptied into containers on the back of a donkey-driven cart, she says, adding that these lanes were important socially; children played in them and black staff networked in them.

We follow her down the sanitary lane and on to a closed-off street where we come to Deneys Reitz’s house. He was a Boer who fought under Smuts and later served as high commissioner in London. Leila, his wife, was the first female member of Parliament. The owner allows a quick look around the garden and Bird hurries us out to Loch Avenue. “Come along. We still have a lot to see.”

Further down, Bird turns on the mike and introduces Kitson House, dated 1903. (Henry Harry Austin Kitson won Olympic gold for tennis in 1908 and 1912.) The house was part of a series designed by Baker and Sir Francis Macey, his sometime partner. They are modest, with slate roofs, one column and a stoep.

“Silas, I don’t know why you have it so loud. It sounds like I’m shouting.” Bird says we are going to have to hurry things along. Clouds are gathering and it seems there might be a shower.

A few doors down, Bird hands around a newspaper article about Ethelred Lewis, who co-wrote Trader Horn in 1927, the accounts of a man who came to this very gate looking like a vagrant. I later find out about his adventures in equatorial Africa, among them, apparently, wrangling Cecil John Rhodes from the jaws of a crocodile.

And the area is not short on literary inhabitants; Margaret Ballinger, Nadine Gordimer and a once popular Sarah Gertrude Millin, who wrote a biography of Rhodes, have all lived in Parktown.

No surprise that his name keeps coming up. Chipkin says building impressive mansions north of the city, but also on a ridge with a view of the north, was suffused with Rhodes’s vision of colonising the whole of Africa for England. Baker himself was a Rhodes protégé, building Groote Schuur for him.

We visit the interesting house and gardens of a female architect, Carmel Back, at 35 Loch Avenue, and around the corner we find No 2 Escombe Avenue, which was designed by Gordon Leith, a student of Baker. Across the road is the house of Peter Rich — winner of the “world building of the year” at the World Architect Festival 2009 for his Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre. The former chairperson of the heritage association would stop his car on the street outside Rich’s house and shake his head at the progress of the apple-green, blue and white paintwork.

Further up the avenue is the lovely house of another Baker partner, Ernest Willmott Sloper, but the tour is winding down. Our group has fallen in number and so has the temperature. Our last stop is the house of one of the committee members.

We all stand around looking as though we’re at a church cake sale, taking tentative bites of scones and resting them delicately on the edges of institutional-white ceramic saucers. I decide it is time to go, say a quick thanks to Bird and hit the road.

“It’s better up north,” some Brits say, and I’m sure there are some here that would agree.

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