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Pearson Conservatory - Restoration
Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), Eastern Cape


Date:1882 : 2011
2011SAIA EC Award for Architecture
2012SAIA Award of Merit


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33°57'55.77" S 25°36'21.79" E Alt: 76m

Description of Project by Architect

In 1882 the Pearson Conservatory arrived in South Africa as a 'kit of parts' and was constructed in St Georges Park, Port Elizabeth. John X Merriman opened it on 12 September. This glass framed Victorian Conservatory, was imported from England, and pioneered the local concept by being the first of three such buildings in South Africa at the time. The double volume central atrium is flanked by two wings to the East and the West with perfect symmetry along its two axes.

Having narrowly escaped demolition in the 70s, and having undergone various minor refurbishments to maintain the building, it was decided in 2009 to embark on a comprehensive reconstruction of the building to re-instate the conservatory to its former grand character.

The architectural approach followed for this Grade II listed building, was to create longevity and limit future maintenance. This guided decisions on material selection, installation method and overall specifications for the building, especially the timber substructure and the glass. Cognisance was also taken of its Mechano-like structure. A large portion of the building and its components were in disrepair and required either complete replacement or extensive restoration work. It was decided to follow a 'kit of parts' approach for the dismantling of the building and its reconstruction. The original cast iron structure was retained, but the rotten timber sub structure was replaced by galvanised steel tubing, into which hardwood Meranti handmade window panes and doors (replacing previous Pine components) were clipped, and moulded fibreglass added to mimic the elaborate profiles of the original timber mouldings. The new "old" elements can only be identified on close inspection. Contemporary technology was also introduced with the replacement of the glass and the floor finish.

Client's comment

The Pearson Conservatory which is situated within Port Elizabeth's St Georges Park , is 128 years old and has just undergone a R5,5m renovation. Over the years the building has been upgraded many times due to the deterioration and weathering of its construction materials by the extreme variation of internal and external temperatures and moisture that it receives. To date it is believed that this particular renovation has been the most extensive where the entire structure was removed, refurbished and reassembled to its former glory. Using old photographs and records for identification purposes it is intended to display similar plant material to that of the earlier days and is expected to become a 'must see" tourist attraction for both locals and visitors in the Metro.

Award for Architecture Citation

Pearson Conservatory constructed in 1882, and the first of its type to be erected in South Africa, epitomises the skill and innovation with which the Victorians translated the possibilities of industrialisation and mass production for application in everyday life in general and in architecture in particular. The relative scarcity of examples of this building type in South Africa and its landmark value within St. George’s Park and Port Elizabeth lend this building considerable heritage significance.

The architects are commended for the rigorous manner in which they have responded to the brief by successfully marrying the long-term maintenance needs of the client with the requirements for the meaningful preservation of the architectural character of the building.

The recording and analysis of the original structure and the detailing and execution of the new galvanised steel sub-structure, critical aspects in preserving both the form and refinement of the structure, have been executed with an admirable degree of care and discernment. This new armature provided through this process formed the basis for the successful re-assembly of the conservatory on insertion of the replicated hardwood windows and doors. The impression of refinement and fitness for purpose is a measure of the overall success of the restoration process.

The use of colour was interpreted as both reference to Victorian predilection for the decorative and as a means of articulating the structure: it has imbued the restored building with a refreshingly bold new presence in St. Georges Park.

The role of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality is also commended. Their commitment to the conservation of Pearson Conservatory, seen against the background of pressing social needs, and the realisation that extensive reconstruction had become necessary to ensure the building’s future survival are hereby recognised with gratitude.

Award of Merit Citation

The Pearson Conservatory, located within Port Elizabeth's St Georges Park, is 128 years old and has recently undergone exceptional refurbishments. In 1882 this glass-framed Victorian Conservatory landed in South Africa from England, as a 'kit of parts' pioneering such structures in South Africa at the time. The restoration of the double volume central atrium, flanked by two wings to the east and the west with its perfectly symmetrical dual-axes, is a state of the art achievement given its ingeniously subtle fusion of the historical with the modern; practically visible only to a seasoned eye.

In terms of the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999, the building is listed as a Grade II structure of significance, which means all the refurbishments are to meet as much of the briefs modern necessities with as little impact as possible. It is evident that the restoration successfully attempts to create durability and limit future maintenance, given that the 'kit of parts' was originally designed for a very different climate and natural environment. This is witnessed in how, for example, the moulded fibreglass mimics the elaborate profiles of the original timber mouldings. Moreover, whilst the original cast iron structure has been retained, galvanised steel cubing, into which hardwood Meranti handmade window panes and doors have been installed, retain the original fenestration rhythm.

The integration of new elements with the original is seamlessly done, giving a visitor a sense of what the space may have been like in the 19th century. Detail has been given flawless attention considering that the nature of the project necessitated it so. The overall architectural significance of this building has been successfully retained and revealed by adaptive re-use of the traditional structure's system and utility for which the Conservatory was originally intended. The resulting achievement is one of a captivating structure that uplifts and gives stature to the surrounding park and the experience thereof.

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

Herholdt, AD (Editor). 2013. Coastal Contemporary : Architecture of Nelson Mandela Bay : 2000 - 2013. Port Elizabeth: DOT Matrix Publications. pg 156-157