St George's Park History
Port Elizabeth, South Africa

The Park St George's Park - R5.5m Restoration of Pearson Conservatory Nears Completion
R5.5m Restoration of Pearson Conservatory Nears Completion

Steel replaces wood, thicker glass, new drainage, but good as new

THE R5.5-million restoration of the Pearson Conservatory in Port Elizabeth’s St George’s Park, which came close to being demolished in the 1970s, is progressing well and is 70% complete.

“It doesn’t look like much on site because a lot of the original steel has been taken away for sandblasting,” said project architect Kirsten Thompson of The Matrix Architects and Urban Designers.

She said the building originally come from England as a kit of parts and was assembled on site.

“We are reassembling the building in much the same way as it was done originally. Extensive testing was carried out on the original components to ascertain their level of structural integrity.

Salvaged components have been sandblasted, causing a lot of rust to chip away, resulting in remedial work being done to regain the integrity of the structure.

The building was in such a precarious condition it was closed for public access prior to commencement on site on March 12 this year.

“There were shards of glass hanging at second-storey level which were unsafe,” Thompson said.

The steel structure on site has been sandblasted and received multiple coats of industrial specification paint for marine environments.

“Due to the type of metals that some components were found to be made from, it wasn’t always possible to galvanise. Thus a high- specification paint was selected to ensure the longevity of the building.

“We are going through all the old reports and are moving towards the original colours, the warm greys, light blues, the gilding and the chocolate linings,” Thompson said.

“The timber will be replaced with steel because the original timber was rotted through to such a degree that it couldn’t keep the glass in its frames anymore. There were little bits of glass chipping away and hanging on edge in some places,” she said.

Thompson said she was initially concerned about possible settlement from the additional loading where steel was used instead of timber.

“Structural calculations have shown even though steel is six times heavier than timber, hollow steel sections offer a marginally larger loading. In addition, the original walls, built 128 years ago, were tested and found to be made of solid concrete,” she said.

As building codes have changed, all the thin old glass will be replaced.

“You now have to use safety glass in public buildings and safety glass is thicker, at just over 6mm, than the original glass of roughly 2mm to 3mm thickness.

“They had to paint the side of the building because of the harsh light getting in from the side. Now we have glass which provides protection against ultra-violet rays. (This) helps regulate the internal environment more effectively, avoiding the requirement to paint the glass on the north elevation of the building,” she said

Even though you will be able to see right through the conservatory , there will still be translucent glass in certain parts where protection from the harsh sun is needed.

“In the central atrium we are reinstating the original curved glass which, in the 1970s, was replaced with fibreglass.

“In terms of original mechanisms, the winding window openers for the clerestory level are all being refurbished, enabling them to be used as they were 128 years ago.

“We tried to keep the original systems, but if they were not working we came up with an alternative solution for the benefit of the building,” she said.

Thompson said there had been problems with the original drainage system. Over the years pipes had been totally blocked by roots and soil because they were too narrow.

“The system wasn’t working anymore. It would just result in the rotting of the plant roots. So we’ve got subsurface drainage which drains to the side and is then dispersed.

“An agricultural drain then collects water in the side counters and it drains out at four points at the junctions between the wings and the central atrium.

“This is an example of a slight alteration which needed to be made to ensure the better functioning of the building,” she said.

Originally the floors were simply compacted sand. Now a new concrete floor with a special material on top will be laid to mimic the surface of the original floor.

The old rough paving stones, which came from Market Square, have been removed and the surface will now be smooth and wheelchair-friendly.

The original walls, built 128 years ago, were tested and found to be made of solid concrete. A section of retaining wall was removed to widen the entrance many years ago, but has now been rebuilt to provide another planting bin. The original metal fountain in the central atrium is being refurbished and will be returned to the pond.

“While refurbishing an old building you think about how you are going to use it. You try to bring the past into the present and include things (such as) seating designed into the structure, allowing visitors to interact with the space,” she said.

Thompson said her team was trying to make the Pearson Conservatory more of an asset for the city and more of “a venue where you could, for example, have a string quartet and people sipping champagne”.

Ivor Markman
The Herald
July 5, 2010

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