Jul 23, 2007:
Land-hungry developers and home owners in the Eastern Cape who demolish or alter listed properties without first obtaining permission from the Provincial Heritage Resource Authority (PHRA) could face criminal charges - instituted against them by local residents.
That's the warning from architect Bryan Wintermeyer, chairman of the Mandela Bay Heritage Trust (MBHT) in Port Elizabeth. The MBHT is a voluntary organization formed to, amongst other goals, support the East London-based PHRA, on the back of Port Elizabeth's development boom.
Commenting on the pending cases, Wintermeyer said the defendants, if found guilty, could face up to three years in jail or fines of up to R300 000. He also pointed out that apart from the municipality and the province, members of the public in their personal capacity had the right to lay charges at their local police station against anyone transgressing the National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999. "People need to be aware that any buildings older than 60 years, no matter what their architectural style or state of repair, fall into the category of "listed" and are therefore protected under the Act," he pointed out.
Wintermeyer said he believed that these personally initiated cases were indicative of a growing awareness by Eastern Cape residents of the value of their unique architectural heritage and their concomitant desire to protect it. "Since the formal laying out of Port Elizabeth in 1815, the city has become widely regarded as the seat of some of South Africa's finest examples of Victorian, Colonial, Regent and Georgian architecture," he said. Fine examples of these architectural styles, which had arrived mainly with the 1820 Settlers, lay dotted throughout suburbs such as Mill Park and Walmer where many of the homes have been, or are in the process of being, renovated. There are also numerous historically significant buildings in the city's Central, North End and Park Drive areas, although many require substantial upgrading to return them to their former glory.
"Port Elizabeth's architecture is what gives the city its unique character and prevents it from ending up as another shabby industrial port", he said. He added that while people were most familiar with Victorian architecture with its wrap-around verandas, frilly metal lace work, decorative steel boundary fences and bay windows, there was a growing awareness of other styles. These included the "plain" block-like Georgian with its white walls and pitched roofs, and the Art Nouveau/Colonial permutations most commonly found on Cape Road.
Yet, continued Wintermeyer, the stance on protecting the province's heritage should not be seen as dogmatic since each application to effect alterations to a listed building would be examined on a case-by-case basis. "In instances where a building is less than noteworthy, or not part of a group of buildings that makes the area special, permission for alterations could well be granted. Demolition, in most instances, however, is regarded as a last resort."
He added: "We are not against development if it is appropriate and due care is taken of the surrounding environment and the character of the street. Any new development must enhance, and not detract from the area." Citing examples of recent and successful upgrades to listed buildings, he said that the Grey Institute on Belmont Terrace in the Central area underpinned what expert restoration could do to enhance not only a building but also the surrounding locale. In Bird Street, he noted further, the old MOTH Institute had been bought and beautifully upgraded by Old Mutual. Special attention now needed to be given to buildings in places like derelict Donkin Street, with its ramshackle terraces of houses (all of which are national monuments) since these buildings are a vital part of the city's irreplaceable heritage, he said. – Ingrid Smit