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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7 Responses

  1. Keith Titmuss
    | Reply

    Gerald, I remember the Colonial Mutual Life building VERY well!! As a child I had to be dragged there by my mom to the (I think) 6th floor to the dentist. Dr Chanock. The lift was… mentioned a bit scary as it took off. One thing not mentioned was the gents hairdressers on the ground floor. Now, the entry as far as I remember was from Mark Lane. I may be wrong Gerald, and the Hairdressers may have been in the building behind CML There were 6 chairs all operating so you did not wait too long for a haircut. For the life of me I can’t imagine why they would ask certain “dudes” if they wanted a singe? They would light a bamboo taper and lightly run it over the head and singe the tips of the hair!!!!!!

  2. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Keith
    Quite right Keith I remember that hairdresser was in Mark Lane. You walked in and the waiting chairs were lined up facing the barbers. I was working at the Beach Telephone Complex at the time and although there were plenty of ladies hairdressers round about the Beach area I could not find a gents hairdresser and someone said he used the one in Mark Lane. So I ended using them going to an Afrikaans speaking barber. I am talking mid 1970s. It was a bus trip and back. A lady took your money at the front desk. I checked the Dbn Directory….Mutual Mens’ Hairdressers. I seem to recall there was a watchworks run by Mr Abel Garavarian and later his son Paul took over further down the Lane. There was also an electrical goods shop where one could buy the unusual electrical items such as the toaster elements for the old swivel two door type toaster, replacement kettle elements, and globes that imitated candles flickering. Mark Lane also later had the entrance to the 320 Building offices and the CNA had a large shop on the corner Mark Lane and West St. Telkom in later years erected three telephone call offices in Mark Lane. My memory tells me Mark Lane was wide at the West Street end but halfway down it narrowed towards Pine Street.

    • Keith Titmuss

      Hello Gerald, thanks for your comments. Now, this was before decimal coinage….so, a long time back but I remember seeing billboards, Garavarian watchmakers. 11/6….eleven shillings and sixpence for any watch repairs.Of course when most watches were “wind up”.

    • Gerald Buttigieg

      Hi Keith
      The Garavarian watch repair business as I know it was run by Abel Garavarian and his son Paul who joined the business after leaving school in the early 60s. Paul went to Northlands Boys High and lived in Claribel Road. When his father died Paul took over the business until he too passed away at a relatively young age. I have an idea but stand open to correction but I think the Garavarians operated the business under the name Swiss Watch Works.

  3. Peter May
    | Reply

    Interesting reading for sure! I grew up in Durban in the 50’s / 60’s and remember the Colonial Mutual Building and its loft well. As a child, I was taken to see Dr Gordon Price the dentist whose practice was in the building. He had joined the practice of his father Dr Norman Price who had been my mother’s dentist in her earlier years. She always referred to him as “Old man Price” and I remember that if my siblings or I expressed fears about an impending visit to the dentist, she’d always try to calm us by saying “You’re lucky you don’t have to see Old man Price!” The first hurdle on a visit to the dentist was always the lift! My mother was terrified by it but tried not to show it. My two sisters would always pick up on this and scream in unison as we “took off” as well as when we “landed”, much to the amusement of my older brother and me!! I can’t remember which floor the dental practice was going on but it was high up in the building. The big treat on “dentist days” was that we always stopped off on the way back down again at the offices of our great uncle and aunt, Chappie and Cissie Knowles who ran a business in the building. I can’t remember the name of their business but I think they were brokers or importers/exporters of sorts. Aunty Cissie was my paternal grandmother’s sister.
    I also clearly remember the Moore Shoe Company which was where the four of us were always taken to buy new school shoes in January, ready for the start of the new school year. My sisters and I were easily satisfied by Mom’s choices for us but my brother, who apparently needed a “very narrow fitting” would usually insist on trying on almost every shoe in his size in the shop before he’d settle on a pair! He had also attended dance classes on Saturday mornings at The Dudley Andrews School of Dancing during the late 1950’s / early 60’s. I remember it being in that area so it may we’ll be the indecipherable name on the one dance school sign boards.

    • Peter May

      I am commenting on my own report. The dental practice that I referred to was originally set up by Dr Gordon Price (the father) and was later partnered by Dr Noel Price (his son) In the third line of my article I mistakenly spelt the intended word lift as loft – my apologies for both errors.

  4. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Peter,
    Looked up the names in the Colonial Mutual Building in the 1965 Durban Directory. Dr Gordon Price on the 11th floor Rooms 1101 / 1102. Dr Noel Price also 11th Floor Rooms 1109 /1110. Then Dr Leonard Price on the 6th Floor Room 604. Lastly Dr Norman Price also a dental surgeon but had rooms on the 4th Floor of the Paynes Building. The Moore Shoe Company 21 Salisbury Arcade. J D Knowles Manufacturers’ Rep. 409 Colonial Mutual Life Building.

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