Home Embassy and Consulates Embassy Pretoria Het gebouw (The Kirkness house)
Het gebouw (The Kirkness house)
THE KIRKNESS HOUSE at the BELGIAN EMBASSY in PRETORIA
One of the two Kirkness houses in Pomona Street on Muckleneuk Hill in Pretoria has been the official residence of the Belgian ambassador to South Africa for decades. The other house serves as the residence of the ambassador of the Republic of Korea. Both houses have been built into the hill, against a wall of solid rock, on a firm plateau from where one has a breathtaking view, between the numerous majestic jacaranda trees, of the city of Pretoria and of the Union Buildings, the offices of the state president, on Meintjies Hill on the opposite side of the valley.
After numerous attempts, over the years, to accommodate all sections of the embassy, including the consular offices, now based in Johannesburg, as well as Belgium’s regional representations in separate buildings on the residence grounds, a final decision has been made to include also the residence into the office complex and move the ambassador to a new home in the city.
This is a daunting task since the Kirkness house is one of the landmarks in Pretoria’s rich architectural history. It is surrounded by numerous, equally famous, houses as well as the main building of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Hospital, built by the cream of South Africa’s historic architects, such as Herbert Baker of Union Buildings fame, Gerard Moerdyk of the Voortrekker Monument, who lived himself in a charming cottage opposite the Kirkness house, and Willem de Zwaan. The Property Owners and Residents’ Association of Muckleneuk is very sensitive about the heritage value of their neighborhood, witness whereof they published a couple of years ago a calendar celebrating the finest houses on Muckleneuk Hill.
The Kirkness family were Scottish immigrants who moved to South Africa in the 1870’s, settled in Pretoria and became famous builders and architects. They operated from the Kirkness Building on Church Square in the center of Pretoria and they became particularly well-known for the construction of landmarks such as the Ou Raadsaal on Church Square, Pretoria Boys High School, the Old Arts building at the University of Pretoria and the house which is at present the residence of the Indian High Commissioner to South Africa. Prominent as they were, founding father John Kirkness became mayor of Pretoria in 1906. In recognition of their place in the history of the South African capital, a street was named after them in the area of the Loftus Versfeld Stadium.
In 1888, early in their building business, they acquired the Groenkloof Brick Works from where they produced the famous small red bricks, used in all their houses, as well as other building materials and decorative items. It was a major operation, reputedly producing up to 50 million bricks per year and using its own railway connection. Kirkness bricks were used in building all through Southern Africa, from the Grote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town to the old Post Office in Harare.
Tom Kirkness, son of founding father John, first built in Pomona Street on Muckleneuk Hill a residence for his father and built later, in 1932, a house for himself on the neighboring stand. Both residences have a distinct and solid Edwardian character, unlike the cottage style of the Moerdyk houses or the Cape-Dutch vernacular of the Baker houses. They are imposing double story villas, defined by red Kirkness bricks, white window frames and shutters, verandas with pillars, balconies and pergola walkways. Inside, fireplaces reflect the Arts and Crafts movement and only the most refined building materials were used such as the gleaming red floor tiles and the brass hinges and door handles.
Heritage buildings should survive the pressures of time and should be able to accommodate 21st century offices, only if heritage is respected to the fullest and renovation is of the highest standard.