Eighteen unusual terraced houses line Donkin Street, which lies in the heart of the city overlooking the harbour and close to the huge pyramid erected in honour of Elizabeth Donkin. These remarkable houses, known as the Donkin Street Houses, are styled in Victorian architecture and form part of the historical heritage of Port Elizabeth. They are privately owned by an Irish property tycoon, Ken Denton, who fell in love with the city on a business trip just prior to the dawning of the new millennium. Mr.Denton immediately set about purchasing these national monuments and has commenced with an extensive refurbishment programme to upgrade these buildings.
The Donkin Houses have a history dating back to the 1850’s when the local authority started a land-fill programme, resulting in the terraced Donkin Street. The street was originally a “kloof” which was filled in using convict labour and was named Donkin Street in 1851. The Donkin houses themselves have changed very little in the 144 years, needing only a face-lift in the 1960’s. It was then that the efforts of various pressure groups ensured that these historic houses were declared National Monuments. All but one of the 18 Donkin Houses carry the badge of the National Monument Council.
The majority of the early owners of these houses were part of the influx of British settlers in 1820. Some of the owners featured prominently in the development of Port Elizabeth. Mr. H. Pearson was the mayor of the city on and off for 16 years and a Mr. Alex Wares served as a commissioner of the city.
The initiative to preserve the Donkin Houses began in 1964 and three years later, seventeen of them were granted Monument status. Each house bears the National Monument badge. In what appears to be a major oversight, Number 29 Donkin Street is not a declared monument even though it complies with all the requirements.
Some of the credit for the houses being bestowed with the monument status goes to a Port Elizabeth family, the Wolffs. It was the Sonja Wolff and her son Dr Nick Wolff, who after purchasing a number of the houses, painstakingly restored each one to its original pristine condition. The task was a mammoth one as the materials used had to be as authentic as possible. There were no original plans because the original builders had built their structures from memory. In the mid 1960’s during the restoration of the houses, concrete balconies had to be demolished and authentic wood verandahs built in their place.
Text and photographs: Ken Denton
Port Elizabeth’s City Hall was built between 1858 and 1862 and proclaimed a National Monument in 1973.
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3 October 2012 7:51