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South Africa Holiday: Pretoria Station

Completed in 1910, Pretoria Station was the first public building Herbert Baker designed and built in South Africa and is believed to be a try-out for the techniques he used in designing and building the Union Buildings.

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Herbert Baker built the Pretoria Station in 1909-10. Paul Kruger Street in Pretoria forms an axis between the station and Church Square, the axis continues visually behind the station to Salvo Kop.
The entrance to the main hall is through a series of arches which open up into the domed main hall. The entrance arches jut out from the rest of the building and are finished in rough granite, quarried in the south of Pretoria.
The ground floor consists of public spaces such as tickets sales, waiting area and refreshment stations. Some of the interior walls are faced with various marbles. Baker has included a number of roof lights allowing light to penetrate into the ground floor space.
The two floors above the ground floor are used as official accommodation. These two floors are faced with smooth stone. In the centre of the north elevation is a deep eaved loggia, fronted with four pairs of ionic columns.
The ends of the north elevation is emphasised with balconied windows on the first floor level. The ends jut out slightly from the rest of the façade, further emphasising them.
Baker was experimenting in the design of the station with building methods and materials, which he was preparing to use in the Union Buildings. Baker’s undemonstrative central entrance and his use of indigenous materials can be seen in this design, as in the Union Buildings.

When South Africa was on the brink of becoming a union in 1910, the Transvaal government decided to spend excess funds rather than surrender them to the new Union government.
A competition was held to find an architect for the Station. When none of the entries were approved, the competition was abandoned, and Herbert Baker, who was one of the competition judges, was awarded the commission.
Herbert Baker began his sketches on 17 March 1909 and completed the drawings five months later, on 11 August. The Station replaced the old station which was built to receive the first steam trains into Pretoria, in 1893.

In 2001 a fire at Pretoria Station destroyed much of the roof, including the elegant clock tower. When the restoration process started one of the first jobs was to restore the clock tower and its weathervane.
The original red copper weathervane  fell off in 1983 and was never found. The weathervane, including a charming locomotive at its apex, now sit again at the very top of the building. The clock face, originally made of cast iron and 1.5 metres in diameter, has also been replaced. While the workers were up in the sky, the beautiful copper copula was cleaned and polished, for the first time in 92 years.
“The first step in the restoration process was intensive research of what the building was and is at the moment,” said architect José Ferreira, an architect involved in the 2001 restoration.
Herbert Baker's original drawings were found. Over the years the South African Railways had added internal structures and replaced the wooden parquet tiles in the entrance hall with klompie brick tiles. These had to be replaced, but Ferreira says it took quite a bit of research on Baker's other buildings to establish his preferred patterns and shapes for the replacement tiles.
These replacement quarry tiles are now in place, emulating the patterns of the parquet and completing the splendour of the tall, arched entrance hall. Over the years the upper part of the beautiful sandstone façade had been painted a pale sand colour to blend with the lower rough stone colour. Once restoration started, it was suggested that the paint be stripped and the original façade be restored to its original finish.
The investigation revealed that in order to make the paint adhere to the stone, the painters had sealed the sandstone with an industrial sealant. This had subsequently seeped into the stone, causing the sand particles to separate. Furthermore, the sealant was of a non-breathing variety and prevented the natural process of evaporation of water. This water accumulates and over time causes deterioration of the stone, leading to a further separation of the stone particles.
As a result, it was impossible to consider removing the paint and risking further deterioration. It was decided to renew the paint, this time using a breathable system which allows for moisture evaporation.
The reconstruction of the roof posed special problems. The timber used for the original roof was Baltic deal or Scandinavian pine and every effort was made to re-use the original roof timber.
At the back of the building the roof curves. This meant that almost every truss inside the roof on the curved section had to be individually measured and cut to fit its particular place. Where possible, every effort was made to re-use the original roof timber.
The roof tiles were also a challenge. A mould for them and a specialised cutting machine were imported from Italy, and the tiles had to be purpose-made. "Baker had skilled craftsmen to do this work, but we have had to study his drawings carefully and brief the builders and manufacturers precisely,” says Ferreira. A brickmaker from Italy was brought in to assist with the details.
Several runs of the rounded red tiles were made before the correct colour was obtained, and now, says Ferreira, when the new tiles are compared with a section of tiles at the back that survived, “no one can tell the difference”.
During the restoration it was found that Herbert Baker had a symbol in the shape of a swastika inserted into the plasterwork above the clock tower.
There are conflicting views as to how Baker’s swastika – albeit a straight-up swastika instead of a tilted Nazi swastika - ended up above the clock in the building. One view says that Baker was fascinated by symbols, which appeared more in his writings than in his buildings.
Another says that what was originally intended for the building - a tableaux of a man, woman, elderly woman and child (put on Baker’s Union Buildings in Pretoria instead) – was intended for the Station, but possibly money or time constraints led to the swastika replacing this symbol.
Still another view says that the four arms of the swastika were chosen to represent the four colonies, as a symbol of unification in the celebrations when South Africa became a union in 1910.
We’ll never know which opinion is correct, but what we do know is that the symbol has been around since 3000 BC, found in images in Europe and Asia. It was widely used in Mesopotamian coins, and in early Christian and Byzantium art, as well as South and Central American art. It is also believed to have been used by the Navajo Indians in North America. It is still used today in Buddhism and Hinduism.

The Station sees some 70 000 passengers pass through its entrances every day, most to catch a train to work, some to take a coach out of town, some to board the luxurious Blue Train to Cape Town, many, it is hoped, to take the new high-speed Gautrain to Johannesburg.
Commuters and tourists alike can now walk on beautiful quarry tiles, through brand-new teak doorways with brass knobs, beneath high arches and marble columns. Truly a magnificent railway station beautifully restored to its former glory.
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