Below is a short write-up on the architectural style of our house

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Old Jewish Synagogue in Pretoria

The Old Jewish Synagogue after its completion


The Old Jewish Synagogue is situated in the CBD of Pretoria. The synagogue plays a part in the history of Pretoria. It is the first Synagogue that was erected in Pretoria but its function as a synagogue changed with the country’s political changes. It was converted to the High Court where numerous high profile hearings and court cases, involving amongst others Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, took place.


In the late 1840’s, Adolf Coqui was the first Jewish settler in Pretoria. From here on, the Jewish community started to grow in Pretoria. As time went on, the need for a space to be available to perform services was needed. Prior to this, private homes, hotels, and halls were used to hold services which were performed by a layman. The Caledonian hall opened its doors to the Jewish community to hold their services in 1891-1892. But the hall was also used for private banquets ad other balls and functions. The Jewish community felt that it was not appropriate to hold religious services at this venue.
The Jewish community formed a congregation and it was decided that there was a need for their own synagogue in Pretoria. On the 11th December 1895, Simon Eeinbergand and Herman Manneschwitz bought Erf 103 from Thomas Patterson for the local Jewish community for £1500.

Architect's drawing

Floor plan
On the 1st October 1897, architects, Ilber and Beardwood were commissioned to design the synagogue in a Byzantine manner. The building’s budget was not to exceed £5000. But as any project, the budget escalated and was slightly less than £6000 even though Samuel Marks donated electrical lighting fixtures for £300 as well as the bricks for the project. We can also note that the Jewish congregation ran into more financial difficulties because the street facade is the only facade that has the Byzantine theme. The other elevations do not carry on the same theme. Face brick and sandstone detailing was omitted due to the cost and a cheaper alternative was to use cheap bricks and plaster on the facades of the building, but even through the financial difficulties the Synagogue opened its doors to the public on the 20th August 1898.

This was not the end to the congregation’s financial difficulties. They had to raise a further £850 by the end of 1898 to pay the contractor and builder. But thankfully to the generous help of Sammy Marks, he donated the amount to the Jewish congregation. But this did not help in future months to come. The congregation could only renew the minister’s contract on a monthly basis because funds were scarce. Sammy Marks
Sammy Marks
again came to the Jewish community’s aid in 1901 when money was needed to repair and maintain the building, but it was not the end. In 1906 on the 9th September the congregation had to apply for an overdraft of £1500 and could only do so if the synagogue was mortgaged. Sammy Marks attorneys advised him to buy the property from the congregation and donate it back to them, subject to registration of certain conditions. 21st October 1906 must have been the most important day in the Jewish community’s history. A general meeting was held where trustees of the Jewish congregation authorised the sale to the astute Mr Sammy Marks (Samuel Marks) for the mortgage bond amount of £4000. The transfer would be given immediately over to the Jewish congregation with the certain binding limitations. These limitations were:
  • The property may not be sold, ceded or assigned to anyone, but is to be used exclusively for Synagogue purposes in perpetuity;
  • That no mortgages, charges or other encumbrances be put on , applied to or laid upon the property under any circumstances;
  • That the house on the property be used solely as the residence of the Minister of the Congregation or alternatively by some official of the Synagogue.

Inside the synagogue
On Sunday 7th August 1907, Sammy Marks formally handed over the title deeds of the synagogue together with three fire insurance policies to the Pretoria Jewish congregation.
In 1922 the congregation decided that the synagogue was to small and that additions and alterations. They sent in a request to overturn the conditions that were set by Sammy Marks to register the property to apply for a mortgage. The Supreme Court declined this request because the donation was only made a few years previously.

The old synagogue becomes the new Pretoria Supreme Court

During the Apartheid era, the black resistance against the government was building. The black resistance was mostly verbal and non-violent. Black leadership became more visible and outspoken and there was an increase in strikes and passive resistance. In view of the deteriorating situation, the government decided that there was a need for a special supreme court. The government needed a building that allowed for relatively large numbers for people to observe, interested parties and defendants. Also they needed a building that would have to be located in an area which was manageable in terms of security and effective crowd dispersal. The old synagogue was identified to be the new Pretoria Supreme Court.

The changes that were made to the building to make it an effective court were:
The synagogue with its cream paint finish and
window above the front door removed
  • Painting the facades and brick work in cream colour.
  • The removal and bricking up of the stained glass.
  • The removal and replacement of all the timber top hung window on both the northern and southern facades.
  • The alteration of the altar stage into judge benches.
  • The addition of judge chambers, toilet and ante rooms on the eastern side of the synagogue.
  • The keying and plastering of the original sandstone plinth which was deteriorated.
  • Application of acoustic board to a large percentage of the internal walls.
  • The addition of separate structures outside the main synagogue.

Nelson Mandela, Aziz Pahadand Winnie Mandela
outside the Old Synagogue
The main trials that were seen at the Supreme Court. The treason trial was one of the longest trials in South African history. All the accused were either members of the ANC or Black Consciousness movements. Nelson Mandela was one of the accused members. The Steve Biko inquest was heard at the Supreme Court. The Sharpville and Langa Incidents were both heard in the court. Nelson Mandela was tried in 1962 and was initially sentenced to 5 years hard labour. During the Rivoina Trial he was sentenced to life in prison with hard labour.

Reproduced from The Universiy of Ptretoria's 'Ablewiki' and various various other sources

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