Germiston Fire Station
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The Germiston Fire Station was an integral part of the modern municipal facilities provided in Germiston (and in other similar towns on the Witwatersrand) in the mid 1930's. These developments were in part facilitated by the phase of significant economic expansion sparked by South Africa abandoning the gold standard in December 1932.
The Germiston Fire Station is a fine example of regional Art Deco architecture and is a significant landmark in the Germiston cityscape. Carefully considered architectural details including setbacks, shadow lines, cantilevered canopies, moulded parapets, vertical fluting, recessed edges, light fittings, tall flagpoles on cantilevered brackets and modernist corner windows, all strongly articulate the rectangular massing of the building. The overall design of the north (street) elevation suggests that the architects used a clearly defined proportioning system and associated setting out lines to regulate the design of the facades.
The strongly symmetrical north elevation provides the building with a commanding presence in the street scape. The central, double-storey portion of the building was defined by the scale and dimension of the Fire Engine Room.
On 8 June 1935, thirty years after the establishment of Germiston's first Fire Brigade, the Fire Station was officially opened. This was reported on in great detail in the Germiston Advertiser during the following week, all of which is reproduced verbatim et literatim below:
NEW FIRE STATION OPENED
The Engine Room was designed to accommodate three Fire Engines. Each Fire Engine bay was provided with a large scale door opening onto the street on the north side. The east and the west bays were each provided with a second door on the south side of the Engine Room – thereby enabling vehicular access for the Fire Engines to the rear of the site.
The Engine Room was the anchor around which the rest of the building was designed. Single storey lateral wings on either side of the Engine Room accommodated the ancillary and support functions for the fire station in various cellular spaces accessed directly off the Engine Room. The external windows and doors to the rooms on either side of the Engine Room – which predominantly face east and west - were protected externally with a substantial cantilevered concrete canopy.
Living accommodation for the single Firemen was provided at First Floor (over the Engine Room) with broad external terraces on the east and west sides over the single storey wings below. Access to the First Floor was provided via an external stairway at the southeast corner of the building. The traditional fireman's pole was provided at the rear of the Engine Room to allow immediate access between First and Ground floor in an emergency. The external windows and doors to the rooms at First Floor were protected with another cantilevered concrete canopy – albeit narrower.
The flat roof over the central portion of the Fire station building was only accessible via the square tower attached to the south side of the Fire Station building. The flat roof was surrounded on all four sides by a parapet wall and enabled relatively easy to access the two timber flagpoles mounted on the front face of the north parapet wall.
The glazed fenestration to the building comprises standard steel-framed windows together with outward opening French doors at First Floor. These were almost certainly manufactured by the well-known Crittall factory in South Africa. Many of the windows are composite assemblies of two standard windows – joined with a heavy-duty horizontal transom with sloping external projection for weather protection of the lower sash. In the absence of parliament hinges the externally opening French doors were mounted flush with the external face of the plastered wall, to enable these to open out against the wall surface.
ENGINE ROOM DOORS
The original doors to the engine room each comprised of a substantial set of glazed hardwood folding-sliding doors – each set comprising of four door leaves, further divided into two separate pairs of doors. Each set of doors was flanked on either side by a substantial pier with champhered external edges. Of the five original sets of doors, four sets have unfortunately been removed and replaced with glazed aluminium doors. Fortunately however, one set of original doors survives intact in the door opening on the southeast corner of the Engine Room.
A robust but sophisticated set of hardware was provided for each set of doors. A horizontal flat-bar rail was mounted internally at lintel height, from which the doors were supported on travelling rollers. Each door adjacent to the jamb was hinged with substantial cast iron hinges bolted through the door. A narrow semicircular brass track was set flush with the floor finish to provide a hard wearing surface for this door to bear on. The glazed panels to the individual doors each narrowed three times over their full height – the styles of the doors being manufactured to accommodate the resultant steps. This was a detail typical of the Art Deco style. The surviving door set is a significant heritage component of the building.
GLAZED BRICK DADO
Within the Engine Room, the internal faces of the west and east walls - up to door head height - was constructed in a fine salt-glazed face brick laid in stretcher bond. A plinth to this face brick dado was formed in the same salt-glazed face brick, using a soldier course of bull-nosed bricks on a deep coved grano skirting. A special double-bull-nosed glazed brick was used at the junctions of the plinth with the door openings. A carefully detailed string course of two corbelled quarry tiles (unfortunately now painted) formed the interface between the face brick and the plastered wall surface.
STEEL SUMP COVERS
Each of the three Fire Engine bays was provided with an opening in the floor – just within each entrance door on the north side. The original function of the three openings has not been determined. The three opening have all been solidly closed with a heavy steel plate fixed in place into the sub-frame with four heavy slotted countersunk-head screws.
A fireman's pole (approx. 100mm dia.) was placed on the central axis of the building at the south side of the Engine Room. This pole originally provided direct and immediate emergency access for Firemen from the circulation passage in the Single Quarters at First Floor down to the Engine Room. The top of the pole was fixed to a circular pipe flange bolted to the underside of the concrete roof slab; the base of the pole was secured to a much larger circular steel baseplate – set flush with the Engine Room floor. While the original function of the pole has been lost with the installation of a security gate across the opening at First Floor – the pole is nevertheless an integral feature and significant component of the building.
A set of timber pigeonholes - for distribution of Incoming Mail - is mounted on the west wall of the Watch Room. A particular feature of this timber fitting is the small, carefully carved Fireman's Helmet with crossed axes over, which projects from the top rail. It is perhaps not unlikely that this timber fitting is a fragment of the earlier Fire Station, but this has not been confirmed.
A large rectangular commemorative plaque in polished brass, mounted on a hardwood backing board, is attached to the internal face of one of the columns on the north side of the Engine Room. The engraved letters of the inscription are picked out in black paint to improve legibility. A small Germiston City Council coat of arms (circa 1960) is engraved centrally between the Afrikaans and English text. The plaque commemorates the achievement of L. S de Villiers who served as a fireman in the Germiston Fire Brigade for a period of thirty-one years.
A transcription of the plaque is provided below:
HIERDIE PLAAT IS AANGEBRING
The name of the building is recorded twice on the fire station – in English as 'FIRE STATION' and in Afrikaans as 'BRANDWEER STASIE'. The two names flank the centrally placed coat of arms and are an integral feature of the street elevation. The two names are formed in large, projecting plaster letters - in a typically Art Deco style font - painted red. The names are sited directly above the left hand side and the right hand side Fire Engine bay doors respectively.
COAT OF ARMS
A pseudo-heraldic coat of arms for the City of Germiston – presumably made of moulded concrete or plaster - is mounted centrally on the street elevation, directly above the central door and between the two building names. A detailed description and history of this coat of arms is provided below (transcribed from Macmillan, 1933):
"One of the first acts of the township 'Fathers' when Germiston was declared a township, was to acquire a common seal. The problem, however, was what it should represent. It was admitted that the seal had to have not only an historical significance, but it also had to be indicative of its industrial standing. On the whole, an admirable design was conceived, and this now forms the Municipal seal...It was not until early 1904 that designs for the seal were called for.
The seal is quartered, and shows four scenes on a shield. The one in the upper left-hand corner indicates the historical aspect of Germiston, and represents an eland drinking at a fountain...Next we come to the scene pictured in the upper right hand quarter of the shield. This gives a view of the head-gear and engine room of a gold mine, signifying that Germiston, like all the towns along the Reef, owes its existence to gold mining. Attention next becomes concentrated on the scene represented in the lower left quarter of the shield, which shows a railway engine and train proceeding along an embankment, clearly indicating the town's importance as a railway junction. In the last quarter of the shield is a rural scene – an ox wagon in the open veld.
Partly historical, it also represents Germiston as a farming and agricultural area. The credit for the adopted design is due almost entirely to Mr. T.A. White, who was a member of the first Town Council of Germiston. Salus Populi Suprema Lex . This is the Municipality's motto on the seal, and literally it may be rendered 'The welfare of the people is the supreme law'. It is certainly a motto of which Germiston is proud."
Originally the full width of three central bays of the street facade (and the short return to the lateral wings) were provided with a low dado of thick black slate surface mounted onto the external plaster, which formed a robust and hard wearing base to this portion of the building. This slate dado has unfortunately been removed in the recent past; with the exception of the short return on the west side which survives intact and which would provide the necessary detail to enable the correct re-instatement.
TIMBER EXTERNAL DOORS
The original external hardwood doors of the Fire Station were ledged, framed and battened hardwood doors. The two doors on the north elevation survive intact, with their original Art Deco style solid brass door handles. The external doors to the various door openings on the tower are all later replacements – none of which is in good condition.
A total of four original Art Deco style light fittings form a significant feature of the street elevation. These light fittings were constructed of a light metal framework (now painted black), which supports the white glass faces of the light fitting.
The two more substantial Art Deco style light fittings flank the coat of arms. Each of these light fittings comprise of a central rectangular light block (oriented vertically), flanked by two smaller rectangular light blocks (also oriented vertically). The central rectangular glazed light block was capped at each end with a stepped metal block. One of these light fittings has unfortunately been removed but the original metal base plate survives intact on the wall.
The other two original Art Deco style light fittings are each mounted (oriented horizontally) in a rectangular recess in the plastered wall. The recess for each fitting is directly above and matches the width of the external doors to the two lateral wings of the building. These two secondary light fittings comprise a simple horizontal rectangular glazed light block and are also capped at each end with a stepped metal block.
CENTRAL PANEL ABOVE COAT OF ARMS
The rectangular recessed panel above the central door opening is articulated with five vertical plaster bands. Each plaster band projects a short distance from the face of the panel and the width of the projecting band is twice splayed. This architectural device creates a surface on which natural light is captured in differing ways over the course of the day.
MOULDED PARAPET WALL
The parapet walls to the two side terraces and to the roof are finished with a carefully detailed moulded plaster capping - an imaginative visual termination of the vertical wall plane. The capping comprises two sloping planes at slightly different angles and two equal setbacks. The lower (and steeper) sloping plane is approximately one third of the height of the upper (and slightly shallower) sloping plane. This architectural device also creates surfaces on which natural light is captured in differing ways over the course of the day.
The windows on the north, east and west facades were provided with solar and weather protection with the use of elegantly detailed cantilevered concrete canopies. The levels of the canopies were related to the level of the concrete floor slab directly behind the adjacent parapet wall and are thus not optimally placed in relation to the window openings below. The exposed external edge of these canopies was articulated with a deep rectangular shadow line, which further emphasised the expressed horizontality. Such canopies are a typical detail of Art Deco and Modernist architecture and comprise a significant heritage component of the building.
As part of the original design of the building, rainwater was discharged through the parapet walls into rectangular rainwater heads (presumably of galvanised iron) with applied horizontal shadow lines. The rainwater heads functioned as a launder or collection point, prior to discharging into the surface mounted rainwater down-pipes on the façade. Unfortunately, when these rainwater heads reached the end of their usable life, they were not replaced; a right-angled bend was inserted though the parapet wall instead.
The character of the street elevation is significantly enhanced by the two slender, tapered timber flagpoles mounted at high level on either side of the central bay. Each flagpole is supported with a set of three, square flat cantilevered concrete brackets – which project from the parapet wall. Each flagpole starts as turned cylindrical pin which passes through the two upper brackets, a short portion which reverts to the original square section from which it rapidly transforms into the tapering circular section. A large wrought iron cleat-hook is mounted on the rear face of each flagpole to secure the rope in position. Both poles were capped with a circular timber capital which accommodated the pulley arrangement. These two flagpoles are a significant heritage component of the Fire Station building.
The tall square-plan concrete framed tower - attached to the south side of the building - was clearly designed to accommodate three primary functions i.e. firstly to provide some high level look out points over the town scape of Germiston, secondly for enabling access to the roof over First Floor and thereby access to the two flag poles, and thirdly for creating a suitably sized, indoor facility within which the lengths of canvas fire hoses could be hung to dry.
Vertical circulation inside the tower was achieved via a series of three independent steel cat ladders, attached on alternate sides of the internal south face of the tower. Each cat ladder rises up to a narrow, intermediate concrete landing. The next cat ladder is then offset from the previous one. A fourth cat ladder was attached to the internal west face of the tower, rising from the final landing to provide access to the underside of the roof slab.
The cat ladders each comprise of two robust vertical flat-bar steel rails, drilled to accommodate the solid round-bar steel rungs. The ends of the round-bar rungs were forged after assembly to form a rounded head thereby creating a secure and durable attachment to the rails. Both cat ladder rails were edge rolled at the upper ends to form a quarter-round return, the end of which was cast into a concrete anchor-block in the wall surface. The rails of each cat ladder were cast into the concrete floor at the base of each ladder.
Each intermediate concrete landing within the tower was provided with an external door on the south facade. The first internal landing provided access onto a small cantilevered balcony; the second internal landing provided access onto a cantilevered perimeter balcony around all four sides of the tower and the third internal landing provided access onto another small cantilevered balcony. The perimeter balcony at the second landing also provided access via a short flight of stairs on the north side to the flat concrete roof over the First Floor. A series of later welded screens has been installed into the tower to provide protection from falling when using the cat ladders.
All three sets of balconies were provided with simply detailed welded tubular handrails with heavy-duty pipe flanges as brackets at the base of the uprights. The two minor cantilevered balconies were provided with additional structural support with a pair of threaded bars, one of which passed through each of the top rails of the handrails and which in turn passed through the brick wall of the tower and were anchored with square steel plates on the inside face of the wall.
The tower was provided with natural light and ventilation by a series of narrow fixed pane windows and fixed louvres in identically sized vertically proportioned linear openings. A steel C-channel beam was suspended across the East - West width of the tower, a short distance below the underside of the concrete roof slab. It is presumed that pulleys were attached to this beam to enable the fire hoses to be raised, hung in place and lowered once dry – although this mechanism has since been removed.
The four external corners of the tower were modified at the upper levels with a 45-degree champher, which tapered from a broad face at the top of the tower, down to nothing at the tower corner at the lower balcony. This architectural device created the impression that the tower tapered, visually reducing the bulk of the tower as the height of the tower increased. Two overlapping projecting vertical panels rise almost the full height of the north, east and west faces of the tower - they also emphasise the soaring verticality, create definite shadow lines and frame the window and louvre openings. A single projecting vertical panel on the south face of the tower frames the four door openings and also reinforces the verticality.
MODIFICATIONS OVER TIME
The Fire Station building is remarkably complete for its age. However certain changes – albeit all reversible - have already taken place, including:
STATEMENT OF HERITAGE SIGNIFICANCE
Completed in 1935, the Germiston Fire Station is a significant landmark in the Germiston cityscape. The Building was constructed as an integral part of the modern municipal facilities provided in Germiston (and in other similar towns on the Witwatersrand) in the mid 1930's. The development of such facilities was in part facilitated by the phase of significant economic expansion sparked by South Africa abandoning the gold standard in December 1932.
The Building is a fine example of regional Art Deco architecture, based on carefully considered architectural details including setbacks, shadow lines, cantilevered canopies, moulded parapets, vertical fluting, recessed edges, light fittings, vertical flagpoles on cantilevered brackets and modernist corner windows – all of which strongly articulate the rectangular massing of the building. The overall design of the north (street) elevation suggests that the architects used a clearly defined proportioning system and associated setting out lines to regulate the design of the facades. The strongly symmetrical north elevation provides the building with a commanding presence in the street scape. The central, double-storey portion of the building was defined by the scale and dimension of the Fire Engine Room.
The Building furthermore stands as a monument to all who served in the Germiston Fire Brigade, from its formation as a volunteer unit in 1905, and subsequent transformation into a municipal service in 1908. The historic association, in particular, between the Building and the firemen who served as members of the Fire Brigade since the completion of the Building in 1935 contributes to the significance of the Building.
The value of the Building as a heritage resource is augmented by the authenticity of the original design, including building fabric of the Building, and is strengthened by the exceptionally high integrity or quality of the views of the Building. This, and its landmark qualities, makes the Building of notable contextual significance.
In summary, the historic associational importance of the Germiston Fire Station, coupled with its special value from an architectural viewpoint, make the Fire Station Building an important heritage asset of the citizens of Germiston, and in terms of its conservation status as a heritage resource, an integral part of the National Estate.
Germiston Advertiser, 8 June 1935.
Macmillan, A. (Ed.). Environs Of The Golden City And Pretoria, Cape Times Ltd., Cape Town, 1933.
Martinson, W and Bruwer, J. Heritage Assessment and Conservation Policy Guidelines for the Fire Station Building situated on a Portion of the Remainder of Erf 808, in India Street, South Germiston Township, Germiston. Compiled for Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality by Osmond Lange Architects & Planners + Heritage Resources Management. May 2016.