Lykenhuis te Johannesburg

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GISKEY (Input giskey if applicable)
Condition Demolished
Date of origin 1896
Previous names Mortuary at the Gaol
Place Constitution Hill Precinct
Street Joubert Street (Ext.) into Precinct Road
Town Braamfontein
Magisterial district Johannesburg
Province Gauteng
Country South Africa
GPS coordinates N/A
Planning authority name JDA and NMC / City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality 
Architect/Firm Dept. Publieke Werken van de Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek
Project architect/Designer C.T. Obermeijer
Commissioning owner Paul Kruger 
Current owner N/A
Current occupant N/A
Previous uses Government Mortuary
Current use Site redeveloped into parking lot
Classification/Typology Mortuary
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The building at hand used to be referred to as the ‘Lykenhuis te Johannesburg’ [Mortuary in Johannesburg] and was the first built mortuary in that city. It was commissioned by Pres. Paul Kruger alongside the fort of 1896. Regarding its aesthetic the building was a good example of African appropriation of a European style during the gold-rush years. Even in death did Apartheid ensure that Africans and Europeans were accommodated separately. The mortuary had a very rich cultural significance and expressed much about the hardships and turmoil the country had faced over the past century. During the years of political unrest parents spent days looking for missing children in this mortuary. Today the site of the Old Mortuary, before it was demolished, sits within the precinct of Constitution Hill. The precinct as a collective tells a vivid story of South Africa’s unjust and turbulent past and its extraordinary transition to democracy. It is important to state that the mortuary was a very prominent part of the entire precinct at Constitution Hill and was operational for over a century, up until it was moved to a new facility at the non-European hospital and then its demolition in 2003. The story of South African history and cultural heritage comes alive in this gaol site. The mortuary at the gaol significantly formed part of the collective alongside the awaiting trial block, the non-European male prison block, the women’s prison and the old fort constructed alongside the mortuary in 1896. Typically placed behind the prison, as mortuaries are, the building had a hard-working role in the society of the day and functioned exactly as the segregated society intended it to. Although it promoted unjust segregation of whites and blacks even in death, the building could serve as an educational tool and a reminder of the past and how society in contemporary times should avoid previous mistakes. Racial lines are very evident and tell a story through structure about the turbulence experienced by the people during the Apartheid years. The mortuary, together with its counterparts and neighbouring structures, stood as a symbol of the extent the white race went to to establish the strict separation and segregation then prevalent in the country. As the building no longer exists no physical evidence remains to be studied and analysed.

Current known heritage status

Not applicable, as the building has been demolished.

Possible interested and affected parties

The National Monuments Council (NMC) and Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) faced a very tough decision regarding the demolition of the mortuary and the awaiting trial block. They wanted the court on the site but these two buildings where directly in the way. The two structures were symbolic of the very nature of the jail as both structures had housed large numbers of people. Conservation of the awaiting trial block was considered, but the heritage conservation approach to the mortuary was extremely insensitively handled and the rationale regarding the demolishment was questionable to say the least. Over a century's history was witnessed by this building in particular. The structure's cultural and heritage value should have been considered more carefully, especially given what it was replaced with. The intangible and tangible histories pertaining to the mortuary were compromised and left somewhat of a gaping hole in the greater site. The space has now been filled with a high parking lot and the mortuary is hardly acknowledged within the museum. The only archival evidence regarding the building states that it was no longer effective for its function. Its ‘function’ was moved across the way to a hospital where is was established more effectively and ‘conditions were considerably improved’ within the new occupied site, seeing as  the old mortuary building could no longer accommodate high volumes.
Before it was demolished it was over a hundred years old and symbolic of the very nature of a jail of its time. It formed part of the old fortress of Braamfontein and the Constitution Hill precinct, which has been declared a National Heritage Site and houses the highest court in South Africa, the Constitutional Court. No monitoring was done of the site where the old mortuary used to stand, and it has now been completely redeveloped. The conservation of this historical structure should have been considered more carefully as, where its architecture is concerned, it was one of South Africa’s oldest examples of African appropriation of a western influence, and the building was operational for over a hundred years. It could have been appropriated to suit modern demands or have been incorporated into the museum in the same way as the Awaiting Trial Bock - another demolished structure - which was celebrated with memorial remnants and staircases.

Factors affecting the property

The site was exposed to intense pressure from the public once the building of the Constitutional Court was commissioned. It was felt that the mortuary had become too small. As the whole precinct became a National Museum, the Old Mortuary, which was still in operation, was exposed to intense tourism and visitor pressures, whether to the court or the museum which lies in its immediate vicinity. The site could no longer perform as it had done in the past and pressure to develop the space into parking grew to serve a more pressing function than the mortuary did. The mortuary was moved to the old non-European hospital. The JDA signed off for the building to be demolished in 2003 in a combined effort to enhance the experience of the precinct and that which it can accommodate.


Paul Kruger, the president of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (Z.A.R.), commissioned the first high-security prison in South Africa in 1893. The prison was strategically placed on the hill overlooking the mining village of Johannesburg below to keep control over all the foreigners who rushed into the city frantically looking for gold. The president also commissioned the mortuary at the gaol as well as the old fort. This early western-influenced structure was completed in the year 1896 by the Department of Public Works of the old Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, and the plans were signed off by C.T. Obermeijer. The mortuary was a simple structure to serve the purpose of holding the deceased before being cremated or buried. At the time of its construction rampart walls were being built around the old fort jail, transforming it into a fortress so as to protect the Z.A.R. against the threat of British invasion. The mortuary was typically located right outside the fortress walls. The building was part of the jail complex and very much part of the apartheid era. When apartheid ended the building was no longer able to serve the new unified society accordingly. The prevailing conditions made its use difficult and discriminative. The mortuary had to be housed elsewhere. As approved by the National Heritage Council and the JDA, it was knocked down in 2003 in order to build a parking space for the Constitution Hill precinct and did not become part of the National Museum. Although being the first mortuary building in Johannesburg and having played such a tremendously important and somewhat unthought-of and unspoken role within the citizens' lives and in the city for over a century, it is unfortunately very rarely mentioned nor even noted within the museum and planners were quick to demolish it when a new idea for the space was bought forth.

Description of alterations with dates affected

After the Old Mortuary was demolished in 2003 an attempt was made at conservation, and in memory of the building the bricks used in the mortuary and in the awaiting trial block which was also mostly demolished were reused to construct what is now the Constitutional Court and the great African stairs. This reuse of old material carries a lot of symbolism that speaks about the cultural heritage of the old mortuary and the awaiting trial block and the discrimination that was practiced in the precinct. These new constructions symbolize the triumph of hope over a troubled past, using that which caused so much distress to pave the way for the future.

Description of site and/or structures and/or interior space

No physical evidence remains of the structure. The site where the gaol mortuary once stood addresses Precinct Road off the Joubert Street exit in Johannesburg, Gauteng, between the old women’s prison, and right alongside the old awaiting trial block (demolished) and Number Four, the non-European male jail block, both of which were later additions to what is known today as Constitution Hill. In its first incarnation the old mortuary sat behind the old fortress on top of a 'hill' overlooking Johannesburg which was at the time a mining village. A description of the structure and its interior spaces would purely be deduced from archival research. The building had a rectangular form with simple interior divisions - different divisions assigned to different races, the divisions also seemingly defining a noticeable hierarchy. This is typical of early colonial examples and of apartheid architectural models. The style is an African appropriation of a western style which resembles an almost neo-classical type Cape Dutch architectural typology. If one looks at the order and symmetry of the spaces it is very clear that there is a classical influence. The building also displays noticeable symmetry from the front-most entrance which creates an axis running through the structural entity's centre to the back. Structurally, the mortuary has a very simple yet function-dominated articulation which was optimal due to the high occupancy and frequent use of the space by the society of the day.



Constitution Hill National Museum and Old Fort National Heritage Site.

Constitution Hill Foundation. 2006. Number Four: the Making of Constitution Hill. 1stED. Johannesburg: Penguin.

Prof Bakker 3rd year 2012 Nat_Arch Picture files


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