Joburg's historic inner-city - Commissioner Street and Library Square

01 Mar 2019
created 02 Sep 2016
Commissioner Street is one of Joburg's most historically significant thoroughfares and a treasure trove of architectural landmarks including wonderful examples of Edwardian and Art Deco architecture. Arguably the most impressive section of this historic street is the area bounded by Simmonds Street in the west and Rissik Street to the east and just around the corner from Library Square. This area is also particularly well served by public transport with two Rea Vaya bus stops and a Gautrain bus stop.

Easily one of the grandest buildings on Commissioner Street is Cornerhouse (corner Simmonds Street). Built in 1903 for the Anglo mining company (headed by Ernest Oppenheimer, one of the most significant mining figures of the 20th century), when it was completed it was the tallest commercial building in South Africa. The meticulously preserved interiors are splendid with a wrought-iron staircase lined by majolica tiles greeting visitors at the entrance and a beautiful coffee shop, Capital Cafe, where the ceiling is a magnificent stained-glass cupola. The building, owned by Urban Ocean, which also owns several neighbouring buildings along Commissioner Street, is now home to a mix of start-ups and a coding school, Capital Café, a slick hair dressing salon and the co-working and hot-desking space, Urban Collective, (open Mon–Fri 08:00–17:00, Sat by appointment only) the perfect place for local and visiting entrepreneurs.

Two doors down at 85 Commissioner Street is City Central, formerly the headquarters of Barclays Bank in South Africa. Built in the early 1940s by leading architect Gordon Leith, it is an example of the early-modernist style in Joburg mixing an understated neoclassical facade with a towering triple-volume marble banking hall, above which hangs a giant brass-and-glass chandelier. Inside you’ll find the recently launched City Central Food Hall offering freshly baked croissants, doughnuts and cupcakes, gourmet burgers, curries and dim sum, plus smoothies and fresh-pressed juices – a great destination for an inner-city weekday lunch (City Central Food Hall open Mon–Fri 08:00–18:00).

Upstairs on the mezzanine floor overlooking the hall is Bridge Books, an independent bookstore selling new and second-hand books with a focus on African writers. In a short space of time Griffin Shea’s bookshop has become a literary hotspot hosting regular book club meetings with local authors on Saturdays at lunchtime, and other book events (open 09:00–17:00, Sat 10:00–16:00. Closed Sun). Next door to City Central is the Pop Up Arcade which connects Commissioner Street to Library Square. Slated to open in spring 2016, plans for the arcade include a collection of pop-up clothing and accessories boutiques.

In Joburg’s early years Commissioner Street was the territory of Cecil John Rhodes and his fellow mining magnates, known as the Randlords, who spent their evenings at the member’s-only club, Rand Club (corner Loveday Street). After more than 128 years the club briefly closed its doors in 2015 but has since reopened, complete with all its century-old colonial-era interiors intact, as a venue offering function and conference space and for regular events. It's worth keeping an eye out for events at the Rand Club as this is your best opportunity to glimpse the building's fabulous interiors. Highlights include the beautiful entrance hall with an impressive stained glass dome and grand staircase, the vast mahogany-panelled bar (said to be the longest in Africa) where beer is still served in tankards and the billiards room decorated with the taxidermied heads of dozens of African animals.

Beyers Naude Square (also known as Library Square) is dominated on one side by the grand Johannesburg City Library. This stately building with its marble columns, silver door handles and Venetian teak floors first opened in 1935 and was recently given a spectacular facelift with funding from the City of Johannesburg and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. With architecture in the Italianate style the building is one of the most prominent structures built in the city in the 1930s. It was also the first South African public library to admit all races - from 1974. The library has 1.5 million items, among them an impressive music collection and 700 000 books. Visitors can also enjoy free wifi (not always on) and regular art exhibitions.

Facing the library on the other side of the square is Johannesburg City Hall, now the seat of the Gauteng provincial legislature. Built in 1915, the building is a national monument and a good example of the colonial Edwardian style.

Although much of the corporate world has moved out of this historic part of the city to new offices in Sandton, First National Bank still has a big presence. The sprawling head office complex, FNB Bank City, two blocks away from Commissioner on Pritchard Street is built around a series of courtyards that have been designed to function as a kind of outdoor lounge with fountains, trees and comfy seating set up for employees and you can find excellent coffee and the freshest croissants at the Flight cafe


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