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Durban’s Grand Old Dames (Part Two)

By 8th January 2020February 20th, 2020Articles

Last week we looked at a number of Durban’s oldest buildings, including our very own Old Court House Museum. This week we continue the theme detailing the history of some of our city’s most iconic buildings:

The Durban Playhouse

Locally known as the Playhouse, this nearly century-old building is actually better described as a complex, linking a number of theatres together. Originally two separate buildings, a renovation in the 1980s saw the combining of two of the city’s most famous landmarks. The Picture Palace dated back to 1896, but was rebuilt in the Tudor revival style as the glamorous Prince’s Theatre bioscope in 1927. Sitting adjacent to the cinema was the Playhouse, which first opened its doors in 1935 and is purported to have been designed by William Mitcheson Timlin. Both businesses were originally owned by African Consolidated Theatres (1935-1985).

In the early 1980s the two buildings underwent an impressive renovation that faithfully preserved many of the buildings’ original architectural features. Renamed the Natal Playhouse when it reopened in 1985, the complex incorporated the old Playhouse along with the Prince’s Theatre, and is now home to the Playhouse Opera, with its ornate Elizabethan décor and atmospheric ‘starry sky’, the Drama Theatre, and the more intimate Loft, which seats just over a hundred theatre goers.

Howard College & Memorial Tower

Visible from miles away, Memorial Tower at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is one of Durban’s most outstanding landmarks. It sits adjacent to Howard College, which was completed in 1931. Natal University College (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) originally only had a campus in Pietermaritzburg, but in 1923 they extended tuition to Durban, using the premises of the Natal Technikon. By the mid 1920s though the university was looking to establish its own campus in Durban, and local businessman, TB Davis, donated £140 000 for the construction of the first university building, which was built on 50 acres of land in the Stella Bush. The building was named in honour of Davis’s son, Howard, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme in WWI.

While Howard College was built to commemorate WWI, Memorial Tower honours students who died during WWII. The building, with its strong art deco influence, was a massive undertaking with the £235 000 construction beginning in 1948 and only being completed in 1972.

Both Howard College and Memorial Tower were declared National Monuments in 1986 and are now listed as Heritage sites by the South African Heritage Resources Agency.

Juma Masjid Mosque

At one point the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere, Durban’s Juma Masjid Mosque was much smaller than it is today when it was first constructed. The site was bought by Aboobaker Amod Jhaveri in 1881 for the princely sum of £115, with Aboobaker’s estate buying the land next door in 1884, in order to expand the mosque.

In 1889, Hajee Mahomed Dada, the only surviving trustee of the mosque, bought the adjacent plot so as to accommodate the steep rise in the number of Muslim worshipers in Durban. Over the course of the next few years two minarets were added, along with ablution and shower facilities, and rooms for travelers to use. It’s hard to believe, but at one point the minarets were two of the highest structures in the city! Accomodation was also built for the Mu’adh-dhin‎, the crier who calls the faithful to prayer. Rather cleverly shops were built alongside the mosque in order to provide an income for its maintenance, resulting in a series of interlinking buildings, arcades and corridors, in which commerce, religion and community exist in equilibrium today.

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