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University of the Witwatersrand, William Cullen Library
Johannesburg, Gauteng

COWIN, POWERS and ELLIS: Architect
Colin GILL: Artist mural painting



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26°11'26.40" S 28°01'46.30" E Alt: 1754m


In 1931 I received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to visit the Universities in the U.S.A. and study their methods of architectural education.

While out there I received the plans of our University Library from Mr Raikes who had succeeded Sir William Thomson as Principal in 1928 and who asked me to give my opinion of them. I was horrified with the design, a red brick building with a dome quite out of character with the other University buildings. I had lunch with Mr E.L. Tilton a library architect and showed him the plans. He quite agreed with my criticism so I wrote to Mr Raikes making suggestions as to alterations to the plan and to the design of the building. He wrote back to say that our Librarian, Mr P. Freer, would resign unless the building was carried out to his requirements. I cabled back suggesting that his resignation should be accepted. Fortunately Mr Freer was coming to the U.S.A. and would be meeting Tilton and other library experts.

Soon after my return to the University in July 1932 I was asked to assist in the design of the Library. As the University architects, now Mr NT COWIN & F WILLIAMSON, had been appointed to design the building, I found it difficult to interfere, but I managed to persuade them to adopt my proposals for the design of the main reading room for which John FASSLER, a member of my staff, had produced a fine perspective and also the design of the eastern, northern and southern facades, dealing with these in a classic manner to harmonise with the main buildings, instead of using red brick as they had proposed. The building was opened by the Duke of Kent in 1934.

I heard from a friend that a fine painting of the arrival of the 1820 settlers had been made for the Empire Exhibition in London and that it was stored in the painter's studio. I got him to get in touch with the artist who agreed to let the University have it for £100. This painting was placed in the main reading room of the Library and I hoped that others would follow showing the discovery of the Cape, the landing of Van Riebeeck and the Voortrekkers, etc. One, by Amschewitz, showing the departure of Da Gama, was presented to the University.

Cumming-George 1934

THE very imposing building which is the Library of the University of the Witwatersrand was opened this year by His Royal Highness Prince George.

On the ground floor is an entrance hall flanked by two large rooms; one contains the Gubbins Collection of Africana, the other is devoted to the senior students and is furnished in the ultramodern style. A wide corridor leads to staircases at each end.

The main reading-room occupies the full width of the building, the centre portion being carried up through two storeys and lit by clerestory windows. Large windows extending from floor to ceiling are on the north and the south sides. There are some fine mural paintings in this room, the first to be fixed being that of "The Colonists" by Colin Gill.

At the western end is the staircase and lift, flanked by two rooms, the staff reading-room and the library staff workroom.

The basement will be divided eventually into three tiers of floors for books, and provision has been made for staff rooms which will include photography, bookbinding, cataloguing. Here, too, is the heating and ventilating plant, and small study rooms for research.

The building is of reinforced concrete cage construction, the outer walls of brick faced with pre-cast concrete blocks.

The floors throughout, and the roof are of reinforced concrete. The walls of the entrance hall will be lined with Travertine marble, and the floor will also be covered with similar slabs.

Concealed lighting comes from between the windows at the tops of bookcases, and below the clerestory windows from a projecting concrete slab.

The floors of the reading-room and other rooms are of Rhodesian teak or Syringa wood blocks. The windows are of steel and the doors of Burmah teak. The flat concrete roof is covered with sheeting laid on insulating material. Electric clocks have been installed throughout, and electric heaters over the lavatory basins instead of the more usual hot water supply.

(AB&E Dec 1932:12; Musiker 1979)

The original Bartolomeu Dias Cross, Dias Padrao, which was erected by him in 1488 to indicate the furthest point east that he had traveled, is housed in this library. The cross was discovered in about 1938 by Eric Axelson and there is a replica of the cross in its original position.

Visit the William Cullen Library website

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

Cumming-George, L. 1934. Architecture in South Africa - Volume Two. Cape Town: The Speciality Press of S.A. Ltd.. pg 25-26
Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 144