THE days of the historical gentlemen’s club will be remembered when the old Union Club building in Bree Street, Johannesburg, comes up for auction later this month.
Sir Abe Bailey was the founding member and first and only president. Other prominent figures associated with the club include Jock of the Bushveld author Sir Percy Fitzpatrick; the governor-general of the Union of South Africa in 1937, Sir Patrick Duncan; and Leander Starr Jameson of the ill-fated Jameson raid in 1896.
The Alliance Group will auction the building, which now offers 72 renovated one- and two bedroom flats and 12 retail shops.
Built on the corner of Bree and Joubert streets, it is considered a good position for pedestrian shoppers. The shops and flats incorporate the former Palm Court, the Abe Bailey Room, and what was the first-floor dining room, described as a “spectacular hall with a full ceiling supported without a single pillar”.
It was in the Abe Bailey Room that the race-going members met for drinks around the huge fireplace before departing for the race course.
The original building, which cost £40000, was built in 1913 and designed by Herbert Baker.
In the 1930s the roof of the building was raised, and 40 flats for members were added in the three additional floors.
The club’s second rebuilding programme was financed by Rand Mines in 1973, when a row of shops was added, and according to the Sunday Times, “an office block was superimposed at the back of the third floor”. The club provided a side entrance in Joubert Street for members.
Sadly, these measures did not return the club to financial health, and it was unable to cover the rates, which by then amounted to R26000 a year. This contrasts with the gross income of the building today, which is R366000 a year.
The club was sold in 1973, fetching R1,3m. Carel Birkby wrote in the Sunday Times of September that year that the buyer was granted a mortgage bond of R800000 for 10 years. In return, the club was allowed to remain on the premises for 10 years.
At one time the Union Club had more than 3000 members. By the 1970s, however, there were a mere 500 members left, with only about 200 of them active. Yet in the beginning its members were counted among the cream of South African society.
In those days the code of conduct for members was strict, and unconventional behaviour frowned upon. One member who enjoyed standing on his head on the bar counter was suspended for overstepping the boundaries of propriety. In 1964, Jannie le Roux, the then vice-president of the Transvaal Rugby Football Union, was blackballed for not meeting the club conditions.