Fire and romance in the story of the Pretoria Train Station
In 1892 a 30-year-old British architect arrived in South Africa to start a career which had a profound effect on architecture in South Africa, due almost as much to the powerful friends he made here as to his art.
Herbert Baker was born in Kent in 1862 and was much influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement. He came to South Africa to visit his brother. Here he met Cecil John Rhodes, then Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, who commissioned him (Baker) to re-model Grootte Schuur, the house donated by Rhodes as the official residence of the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and later, the Union of South Africa.
Another powerful friend Baker made in South Africa was the then British High Commissioner, Lord Alfred Milner. Couldn't have been bad for his career to have such powerful pals!
Baker moved to the then Transvaal Colony in 1902, after the end of the South African (Boer) War. He set up an architectural practice in the flourishing gold mining town of Johannesburg.
The origin of the building
In 1910 the Transvaal Colony, about to become a part of the Union of South Africa, had surplus funds in its Treasury which the colonial government did not want to surrender to the Union. The government decided to build a new railway station building in Pretoria with the funds and appointed Baker's firm to design it.
The foundation stone was laid by the Honourable H.C. Hull, Colonial Treasurer and Chairman of the Railway Board, on 21 May 1910, just days before the Union of South Africa came into being on 31 May 1910.
Baker had by this time also secured the contract to design the headquarters of the new South African Government to be erected in Pretoria and used the station design as almost a practice run for the much bigger project which would result in the Union Buildings which were put up on Meintjieskop.
The Pretoria Station building looks down Paul Kruger Street towards the central business district of the city.
In the apartheid era, in the spirit of the total separation of the races, the station was declared to be for white use only and a second station to the west of the Pretoria Station was built in Bosman Street.
Fire and romance
When democracy was achieved in 1994 the station was again opened to all races.
The upsurge of economic activity in South Africa during the late 1990s and early 2000s led to a dramatic increase in the number of commuters using the trains, which in turn caused many delays and a certain amount of chaos on the trains.
On the evening of 19 February 2001 the anger of commuters boiled over and a small group of them set fire to the station building, causing damage of some R50 million to it.
Government and Transnet,.the company running the railways, set about restoring the building, which was re-opened on 24 June 2002 by the then Minister of Transport, Dr Dullah Omar..
The restoration was beautifully done and I visited the building on South African Heritage Day, 24 September 2010, when the building was 100 years old, and took the accompanying photos.
An interesting item that was discovered during the restoration work was a swastika in the recess above the clock in the central tower. This discovery has led to much debate as to its origin and the reason for its existence. The most colourful reason (and the one I accept as true, on the basis of absolutely no evidence at all!) suggested is that Baker had a secret passion for a Hindu woman and that he had the swastika placed there in tribute to her. The swastika is an ancient Hindu religious symbol.
When I took the photos I did not know about the swastika so didn't take a photo of it. I will return soon to try to get a shot of it.
Update 28 October 2010 - photo of the swastika added
Today I went back to the station building and took the photo at right which shows the famous swastika above the XII of the clock. My equipment is not that great for taking such a small detail far away - but I did my best!
Map showing location of Pretoria Train Station
Pretoria Station is at the southern end of Paul Kruger Street and looks down towards the City Hall and the Central Business District of the city
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010