Somerset House, built in 1906 in an Edwardian/classicism style, is a three-storey building fronting Gandhi Square, with an arcade running through to Fox Street
Since the 1970s OPH’s Gerald Olitzi has longed to own the building, and finally bought it in 2016, in what he describes as a “passionate exercise rather than a commercial exercise”.
It was built for the United Building Society, with gleaming embossed green wall tiles, and black and white marble and slate floor tiles, with a soaring three-storey inner courtyard. UBS moved out in 1930, and the building took on a new personality: the banking hall became an auction house called Don’s Mart; and Bennie the Barber moved into what was then the courtyard, alongside Rolly’s Snack Bar. In 1932 the courtyard was converted into an arcade, and the Traffic Square Restaurant backed on to the square.
In the 1930s the two top floors were converted into residential spaces, but when the residents moved out, small businesses took over.
By 1975 Somerset House was in disrepair. The construction of a 15-storey building next door had resulted in cracks in the abutting wall. Building debris smashed through the Georgian wired glass roof, which was replaced with metal and transparent plastic sheets. The rooms above were occupied by workers from the restaurant.
But this is in the past and Somerset House is now in good hands with OPH: it has been restored and re-fashioned into a space that consists of retail premises for Sanlam, Hollard, and Kaizer Chiefs on the ground floor.
In the basement are several small rooms containing locked safety deposit boxes. In a collaboration with Gerald Garner of JoburgPlaces, a vintage, underground bar called Zwipi has been created alongside the deposit box rooms. Garner will be converting the arcade into a restaurant called Scatterlings, which will also operate as a function venue. The upper two floors will house an apartment hotel with five units, called Balcony Gardens. Collectively this development will be called Thunder Walker.