The Colonial Mutual Life Building West Street.


Natalie Nel posted three pictures on FaceBook of the Colonial Mutual Life Building when it was being constructed. They looked like purposely taken photographs. I contacted Natalie and she agreed to send me copies so that I could post them here on FAD.

The pictures Natalie says are undated and were about to be binned when she claimed them to preserve them. The photos are the building under construction, the building complete and then what appears to be a previous building with Adams and Co as tenants. The CML building itself in 1938 is listed as being at 328 West Street but in 1965 listed as 330 West St. It flanked Mark Lane on the right hand side.

Referring to my 1938 Durban Directory the building of eleven floors was already fully occupied. I searched amongst all the buildings listed and no building had more floors than the CML. I would venture to say it was Durban’s tallest building of the time and probably the first to be constructed of steel beams. The photographs probably date to the early 1930s and if one looks at the pavement there still appears to be some building material there. From my memory, the lift shaft was on the left of the building as you entered the foyer and this would tie in with the picture showing the lift shaft being constructed.

By 1938 doctors had already moved in to the building for their practices and it was no different in the 60s with many doctors and dentists based in the building. I recall my own doctor at the time Dr Colin Black having his rooms in the building on the 8th floor. Which brings me to the lift. In the 60s it was I think, still the original lift installation. The lift had two expanding trellis gates one on the exterior and the other on the interior. An African lift operator was at hand to do the necessary. I do recall though that it was a “terrible” lift as when it took off it gave a downward lurch before going up. Everyone in the lift who had no experience of it would take a gasp but relaxed once it trundled upwards. Likewise I recall the lift did a “bounce” once it reached the appropriate floor.

Looking through the list of tenants in 1938, there was a wide mix of doctors, dentists, dressmakers, and some interesting ones such as The Rapid Results College which endured in the 1960s. Other tenants were the Thervac and Paplint Syndicates which conjure up strange ideas as to what they were about. Doctor , later Professor Hugh Grant-Whyte had rooms on the 9th floor. On the 11th floor the “Engineer Caretaker” , Mr W. E. Dutton had a room.

When the subject of the building came up on FaceBook, Mr Dave Upfold, posted that he was manager of the building in the 1980s and has the original plan drawings. I have asked him to try and find out from them who the architect was and which construction company was tasked with the building.

As can be seen in the photo of the completed building, it is lovely in its white exterior. It appears that it was not quite complete though as a workman is at work on a scaffold at the front and there appears to be rubble or material on the pavement.

What is of interest in the photo as well are the buildings which flank the CML Building 328 West St. On the right hand, Mark Lane side is Embassy House (326) and Arthur’s Chambers (322) with next to it Lennon’s Chambers (320 ) not in the picture. On the left are two smaller buildings which are unnamed in the directory. The building closest seems to have a name, undecipherable, on the gable whilst the one next to it is indicated as G Dalton and Son. It is difficult to interpret the stand numbers because the 1938 directory indicates G Dalton as being 334 West Street which is 3 stands away from the CML Building. The Moore Shoe Company must have moved away from the premises shown in the photo as they are not listed. Regardless of this the Moore Shoe Company remained in existence and I have it situated in Salisbury Arcade in 1968. The building next door has interesting tenants. On the parapet there is a sign: Tiny Thomas Dancing. By 1938 Tiny Thomas had moved out and relocated to the Alexandra Hall 518 West St near the Cemetery. There were about 20 Dancing Academies in Durban at that time, no doubt people took dancing seriously.

Below is a picture of the Alexandra Building upper West Street which was an “art” centre in the early 1930s. Dance, Ballet, Speech Teachers were based in this building which was on the corner of Cathedral Rd and West Street. It remains today but in a very dilapidated state.

G Dalton and Sons were Sports Outfitters. If I am not mistaken the name Dalton crops up in sport circles. There was a Sports Shop in the 1960s that went under the name Dalsports and one wonders if there was a connection to Daltons. The banner advertising a dance has the name Natal Hatters, another firm that lasted well in to the 60s with an outlet at 77 Field Street. By 1957, it would seem that the two buildings were demolished and replaced by Protea House 332 West Street. On the ground floor of Protea House was the South Seas Coffee House and Milk Bar. Note the TO LET signs in the upstairs bay windows.

Moving to the buildings across Mark Lane on the right of CML Bldg, the first one is Embassy House, 326 West Street. An ornate old building unfortunately the picture is not well focused but on the roof gable it looks like 190X as the year it dates to. Again not a very wide building. The white poster I cannot make out but below it seems to be a name with School of Dancing. Then below that another signboard which looks like Billiards Room. Billiards also seem to be a popular pastime at that time with quite a few tables around town. Embassy house had three floors. Interesting tenants again.
First Floor Rooms 1/2 M Vane-Wallace listed as drugless healer! 3/4 Marter’s Hairdressing Saloon
Second Floor Room 1/2 Le Portrait a photo studio with a long connection to Durban.
Room 5 J.S. McClansburgh Dental Mechanic Rooms 7/9 African Consolidated Theatres.
Third Floor Rooms 1/2 Dr H Archibald 3/8 Martens and Ross Manufacturers Representatives.
Arthur’s Building next door, 322 West Street, accommodated Arthurs Ltd. Drapers Outfitters and Boot Store. I do not recall the name Arthurs and by 1957 this building was renamed Shelton House. This name rings no bells with me, the only reference is that Foschini were on the ground floor in 1968. To put this into modern perspective, in 1968 it was Mark Lane, 326 Embassy House, 322-324 Shelton House (the Waldorf Café on the ground floor) , 320 Shelley House (with The Shelley Shop on the ground floor), 318 Castle Arcade. All these were demolished with the erection of 320 West Street.

The third photo shows a building with Colonial Mutual Buildings well indicated. In 1938, Adams and Co were already based at 341 West Street, the location they remained at until the closure of the West Street store we all knew. So this picture, the way I see it predates the 341 West Street Adams location and in my reckoning is the original CML buildings in West Street prior to its demolition to make way for Durban’s new skyscraper. Note the particular pattern of plaster work round the windows of the building to the left of Adams as well as the elaborate gable. So my guess is that Adams were at 328 West Street and then crossed over to the other side of West Street when notice was given that this building was to make way for a new Colonial Mutual Life building.

The three photographs in my estimation tell a story … namely before, changing, after.

If you grew up in Durban, old photographs of Durban are always interesting. It is surprising that one tends to forget which buildings were where although you must have passed them quite regularly. I am talking a long time ago now but once one reflects on the Durban we knew, memories come back and are revived.

If anyone can add to this narrative please do so. You may have to save the photos to your computer to enable you to enlarge the pictures.

EDIT: I just came across a quandary concerning the third picture. I was looking amongst my picture library and came across this picture.

It is the identical building to the picture above but the building is now called UNION BUILDING.I cannot make out the name above. Adams are still the tenants. So which is the older name? I looked Union Buildings up in the 1938 Directory and there was one at 215 Pine Street. Looking in the background one sees a building named Lennon’s and Lennon’s was at 320 West Street. Bearing in mind if this picture is taken from Pine Street and looking towards West Street then Lennon’s Building would be in the background. If the building was in Pine Street then my theory above goes west!

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