University of the Witwatersrand: Great Hall gets a facelift and this is why it’s a big deal

It’s been said before. You’re not a Witsie until you’ve shared your favourite graduation picture in front of the famous Great Hall.

This iconic landmark has seen thousands of graduates pass through its doors and this year, a century after coming into existence, the restored look is a reminder of the institution’s academic success.

This neo-classical structure boasts towering columns leading up to its temple façade

that poses as the backdrop of the building. Today the Great Hall is a national monument and the eight majestic pillars represent Wits values:

Excellence
Leadership
Diversity
Collegiality
Integrity
Accountability
Academic freedom
Social engagement

So why the facelift?
Shortly after Covid-19 forced students and staff to desert campus and take up online learning for their safety, the façade of the Great Hall started to show imperfections.

Pieces of concrete started falling from the pediment and column capitals onto the Great Hall steps. This was due to weathering conditions coupled with waterproofing faults. It was clear that restoration was needed.

To the disappointment of graduating students excited to share pictures of their success inside the famous building, the university’s Library Lawns later became the temporary venue for graduation ceremonies.

Thanks to new-age pre-casting techniques, professional and heritage architects were able to closely match the building’s stone, restoring it to its initial look.

This saw the installation of new precast modillions at the top of the façade and copper roof sheeting to ensure that the roof is resistant to corrosion material. It now loses less than 0.4 mm over a 200-year period.

The restored structure was opened by Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, on the first day of July graduations. The remarkable event saw the return of jubilant graduates celebrating their academic success on the steps of the iconic building once more.

“Wits is a national treasure that occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of South Africans,” said Vilakazi earlier this year. “It makes a disproportionate impact in society in multiple spheres. We will continue to use our intellectual prowess, social leadership and innovation, to tackle the complex problems of the 21st Century, be it the climate emergency, inequality, pandemics, the future economy, or ensuring better healthcare for all.”

Did you know?
The Wits site, known then as Milner Park, used to be a farmland, quarry and rubbish pit shortly before the Anglo-Boer War in the 1800s.
Barrow Builders, founded in 1897, was responsible for the construction of the university. Architects Frank Emley and Frederick Williamson won the bid to design Central Block, now officially named Robert Sobukwe block which incorporates the Great Hall.
Wits was home to about 1000 students when it first opened.
On Christmas Eve in 1931, wooden structures forming part of the Great Hall burnt down, miraculously leaving its famous pillars unscathed.
One of the most famous musicals performed in the Great Hall was a production called King Kong. Former president Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie were in the audience when the curtain lifted.

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