The Anstey's Building

59 Joubert Street, Johannesburg Central

Authored by Brian Kent

 

Designed by Emley and Williamson, the architects responsible for some of Johannesburg’s most notable buildings, The Anstey's Building in Downtown Johannesburg represented the ultimate symbol of wealth and modernity in the 1930’s. Anstey's is recognised as one of South Africa’s best examples of Art Deco Architecture - a style synonymous with Johannesburg’s rapid expansion, and with the modernisation, optimism and Americanisation sweeping the globe before the Second World War. 

Anstey's is a typically lithe and elegant Art Deco structure, slightly jaded, but still reminiscent of the preppy apartment blocks on New York’s Upper East Side and the glamorous American city lifestyle on offer in Johannesburg almost 80 years ago.

The buildings impossible sky scraping towers soar above the bustling city side walks (Anstey's was the tallest building in the Southern hemisphere when it was completed in 1936). Its futuristic central bay windows terminate in a mast designed for docking air ships, reminiscent of New York’s Empire State Building, and an endearing city landmark to this day! 

Originally the entrance lobby floors were marble, and the walls were clad in Birds Eye Maple. The building’s beautiful chrome and plate glass shopfronts rivalled those at the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan! At the corner of Jeppe and Joubert Streets, a free standing circular plate glass shop island displayed the most up to date fashions that money could buy. Shoppers flocked from across Southern Arica to marvel at Anstey's – a vertical slice of New York, the Architectural symbol of Johannesburg’s global aspirations! 

Today the Building consists of 80 apartments, with smaller units on the lower levels converted from former offices. The higher floors house original, large, luxurious, 1930’s penthouses - complete with period fixtures, wrap around balconies, and uninterrupted vistas across the downtown metropolis. Anstey's is probably still one of the most affordable and central buildings in the city.

Anstey's has a rich social history. The department store that occupied the first four floors of the building was Johannesburg's equivalent of Saks 5th Avenue or Harrods. The fourth floor tea terrace provided the lunch destination of choice for the city’s social elite. Crisp white table linen, good crockery, waiters in smart suits, and ladies in hats and gloves completed the image of understated elegance and privilege. The head of the Anstey's Department Store empire – Manley Anstey had a lavish Penthouse on the 12th floor – complete with a drawing room stretching an entire wing of the building, which provided the perfect catwalk for models swathed in the vogue of the day. 


The Chairman of the JSE kept a penthouse in the building (the entire 13th floor), as did the Playwright and anti apartheid activist Cecil Williams, who was arrested together with Nelson Mandela on the 5th of August 1962 (Williams called apartment 162 home). Segments of the 1999 documentary – “The Man Who Drove with Mandela” were shot on the13th floor. 

Anstey's is a unique building in Johannesburg. It is a proclaimed Provincial Heritage Site, and is an exemplary Art Deco monument. The building was sectionalised in 1995 by the ‘New Housing Company’, essentially creating Johannesburg’s first affordable inner city housing project.