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Colonial Mutual Life Building
Durban, KwaZulu-Natal

Lancelot Andrew ELSWORTH: Project Architect
John PINKER: Artist

Type:Offices with shops to street
Style:Art Deco


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29°51'29.72" S 31°01'24.43" E Alt: 3m

In 1931 John Martin GIBBONS won the competition for the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society in Durban. The clients brought in their own architects from Australia, HENNESSY & HENNESSY of Sydney. It is not certain how much of his plan was adopted by this firm. The building remains among the best examples of the so-called Art Deco style in Durban. Sculptural details were the work of Ivan MITFORD-BARBERTON and the carving by John PINKER.

(SAAR Mar 1933:58-65; SAAR Apr 1933:84; SAAR Nov 1933:278)


Summary of text in SAAR November 1933 ­ the actual building...

The fourteen storey design was lowered by one floor due to bad founding conditions — it has a basement and a concrete raft foundation. The upper floors have a locally­designed steel frame structure with 50mm thick concrete floors. The exterior was clad in Alcock Spruit stone and 'snowcrete'. Flooring is jarrah parquet with cork to the passages, and India rubber tiles to the main hall. Bronze shopfronts were made in Johannesburg by F Sage & Co while timber windows were imported from Australia. Selected interior walls were clad in marble, travertine and terrazzo.

Quote from SAAR March 1931 ­ Gibbons' initial design....

"The successful candidate's design is for an eight storey building, in the most modem style. The outer facing of the ground floor is of polished black granite, while the seven storeys above it are of white sandstone from Steen­pan, in the Free State. The building is equipped with two dual-controlled high speed lifts, and has on the first floor the company's suite of offices, and on the second, third and fourth floors offices suitable for professional men. The fifth and sixth floors are vacant, and the seventh floor is equipped for photographers. The eighth floor contains the lift-motor rooms and the caretaker's flat. The windows will have frames of bronze, with bronze panels between them."

(Submitted by Paul VAN DER MERWE)


Cumming-George 1934

BUILT for the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society, it is claimed to be South Africa's highest building, being 182 ft. (55.47 metres) in height and has thirteen storeys including the basement.

The ground floor is devoted to an arcade with shops and the Society's offices. The basement has a first-class restaurant with mechanical ventilation fully air-conditioned. The upper floors are occupied as offices.

The bearing capacity of the soil of the site was low, and a reinforced concrete raft foundation was used. The superstructure is of steel framing with brick and stone facing.

The floors are of reinforced concrete of special light design, covered with end-matched jarrah blocks and cork tiling. The main hall floor is covered with india-rubber tiles.

The roofs are of Etruscan tiles and short asphalt flats. Ducts were incorporated in the design for pipes and wires.

There are two lifts, the faster runs at 600 ft. (182.88 metres) per second. The slower 450 ft. (137.16 metres) per second. Slower can be switched to either car switch contact or to automatic collective control.

Fire protection is provided for by dual staircases, automatic sliding fireproof doors and fire curtains. An electric fire alarm system is installed, which gives the alarm from any office direct to the fire station. Each floor has hose and hand extinguishers.

Window construction is of bronze, copper and steel. The design of the main office employs bronze, Travertine Roman, Pavannazza and Verde des Alpes marbles.

The shop fittings and office doors are of Queensland silky oak finished in clear lacquer, which is most striking. Marble and tiles have also been extensively used in the corridors and lavatories.

The plumbing and rain-water piping is for the most part carried out in copper piping. Flush valves are used instead of the usual cisterns.

Provision is made for the tea-making and the disposal of tea leaves, also for wash basin accommodation to eighty of the offices. Strong rooms are provided in suites.


This has entrances from West Street and from the arcade, as well as a service-way to kitchens.

The lighting is part of the decoration, being semi-indirect and reflected from the ceiling. The volume of light and its colour is under the control of the musicians, thus music and light are made to harmonise. In the centre are two fountains also having softly changing lighting effects.

The orchestra platform is situated at one end, careful calculations were made to ensure good acoustics - both in relation to musical sounds and the noise from kitchens and crockery — with complete success.

Cloak-room accommodation is provided for both sexes. The kitchens are run electrically and designed to be easily cleaned and cockroach-proof (a serious trouble in most Durban kitchens).

The ventilation, as already mentioned, is mechanical, the air being washed, cooled and dried, and kept within government Kata thermometer requirements before being introduced through ducts and decorative grilles ; the exhaust air, which includes that from the kitchens, is directed in such a way as to avoid complaints from office users.

The building was erected to the designs of Messrs. Hennessy & Hennessy of Sydney, Australia, and Mr. L. A. Elsworth of Walgate & Elsworth, Cape Town, was supervising architect.

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 94-95