(Port Elizabeth) – Property owners and developers are underestimating the immense heritage and financial potential which South Africa’s historic buildings hold and are mistakenly viewing them as an eyesore or hindrance which needs demolishing, heritage experts warn.
A week-long campaign to wrap up Heritage Month has engaged developers, historians, architects and the public in a bid to drive awareness and appreciation for what is being done to preserve rare heritage buildings, as well as for what is termed “intangible cultural heritage” – looking beyond what can be seen and appreciating the history and cultural relevance of certain sites.
The Itheko: Celebrating Heritage campaign ran last week (Sep 19 – 23) and was initiated by the SA Institute of Architects (SAIA) Eastern Cape in conjunction with the Mandela Bay Heritage Trust and included evening seminars featuring heritage experts from academia and the private sector.
A bus tour through Nelson Mandela Bay during the campaign saw historians, architects and members of the public explore the city’s historical node of Central – starting with the Scottish Cemetery in St George’s Park – before heading to other sites, including that of the demolished Seaview Hotel via Bethelsdorp.
Architect and heritage practitioner Bryan Wintermeyer, one of the executives in the Port Elizabeth office of SVA International and a SAIA and Heritage Trust member, spoke during the tour.
“Old buildings are often seen as being purposeless. If there is a lack of key insight to transform the building into something else, it is often torn down – to the detriment of our built heritage,” said Wintermeyer.
A more heritage-sensitive property owner would be able to do a lot more at a much lower cost, said Wintermeyer, adding: “There is a financial case to be made for preserving heritage buildings.
“Our heritage building stock is very valuable financially, so the idea of reuse rather than demolition is something which makes sense – not from an emotional point of view, but from a business perspective.
“We need to start thinking about heritage as an economic resource as opposed to an economic burden.”
Bay historian and Heritage Trust member Grizel Hart, who helped put the tour together, said the campaign helped people to experience the region’s “intangible cultural heritage”.
“Architects, historians and members of the public have been part of this process,” said Hart. “By exposing them to places like the graveyards, remote places and in some cases empty land, it tells the stories of what happened many years ago.
“We have included a cross-cultural section of the city, to help people absorb the essence and the history of what the city is all about.”
Wintermeyer said the starting point for engaging with heritage more positively was through awareness and education.
“Property owners and the public need to be more aware of their rights, the constraints, and the opportunities related to heritage,” he said. “This is particularly with regard to legislation and construction methods. This starts with talking to a heritage practitioner.”