COMRADES MARATHON HOUSE

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May 24, 2016 by DAVE JACK

There can’t be very many runners of Comrades who don’t know about Comrades House, but what exactly is Comrades House and how did it come about? I certainly didn’t know enough about it to write about its beginnings so I turned to one of my good friends on the CMA Heritage and Traditions committee and also who is the Convenor of the International Bus Tour portfolio, Brian Swart, to go and do a bit of research into how it all came about and to put it all down so that anybody visiting Comrades House would know the story of this magnificent old building.

My thanks to CMA for the information given for this article and for the photo of Comrades House which is reproduced in this article. My thanks too, to Brian Swart to the time he spent writing the article which follows.

  

FROM SMALL BEGINNINGS

THE HISTORY OF COMRADES MARATHON HOUSE

by

Brian Swart

Once upon a time, there was a patch of open grassland and trees where a kaleidoscope of creatures frolicked in the sun.

It was little more than a staging post… way, way out in the country… a distant two kilometres from the heart of the city… a place of comfort, in out-of-the-way Maritzburg, where tired travellers rested their weary bodies, and exhausted horses, as they made their way to and from the bustling cities of Durban and Johannesburg.

Today… …

It is the home of the Comrades Marathon Museum… a truly Grand Old Edwardian building…. standing tall and proud above the surrounding buildings. It is a fitting tribute to the biggest, and greatest, ultra-distance road race in the world.

Number 18, Connaught Road, Pietermaritzburg.

 

It was a nondescript, undeveloped stopover point, inhabited solely by wild animals and visited occasionally by commuters in ox wagons in days when travel was possible only along wagon tracks cut through the undergrowth. Later, during the 1860s, they would traverse the bumpy, dusty, dirt road in the luxury of modern, fast stagecoaches until near the turn of the century. It is a by-gone era when pioneer travellers would have sought, and expected, nothing more than a suitable place to unhitch their wagons and draft animals in the wild, indigenous bush. The first building to be erected on the property was still more than forty years away.

The first owner was a Dr W. O’Brien who, in 1903, paid the astronomical sum of £200 for the two-acre tract of virgin land. It is not known when the first building was erected on the property, except that it was built by Michael Henry Guttridge. A fire in the Pietermaritzburg Estates Department, in 1921, ensured that the many early developmental details of the property were, forever, to remain a mystery.

The first eighty years of the 1900s saw numerous changes in ownership, and major building extensions, until the Grand Old Edwardian, that had emerged, was acquired by the Comrades Marathon Association on 4 June, 1986.

The story of the Comrades Marathon House, however, had its roots firmly secured in the fabric of South Africa’s sporting culture, many years earlier. During the late 50s, the 60s and early 70s, the Comrades Marathon was a simple, unsophisticated club event, organised by a handful of members of Collegians’ Harriers Athletic Club in Pietermaritzburg. As the world-wide running boom gathered momentum during the ensuing two decades, the parallel interest in the Race dictated that the acquisition of additional organisational skills were inevitable, to mark time with the phenomenal growth of the Race which led, ultimately, to the formation of the Comrades Marathon Association in 1982.

As the growth continued unabated, it became mandatory that dedicated premises would be required for both storage purposes and the burgeoning administrative duties. In 1985, the Comrades Marathon Association established its headquarters in a large, but basic, storeroom above a supermarket in Alexandra Road. However, in a very short while, it became apparent that those premises would soon prove to be inadequate.

And so… the search commenced.

Two buildings in Pietermaritzburg were evaluated and considered and, for valid reasons, rejected. These decisions have, in retrospect, proven to be both fortuitous and correct in every respect. The one property was in Loop Street (now Jabu Ndlovu Street); the other in Pietermaritz Street. The rampant expansion, in recent years, of the inner city area, and surrounds, would have rendered either venue completely unsuitable, and untenable, for the administration, and survival, of the Comrades Marathon. The search, however, continued and then, in the peaceful residential suburb of Scotsville… Number 18, Connaught Road was discovered.

It was old and dilapidated but, beneath an unsightly veneer, stunningly beautiful. The graceful old house was in need of major reconstruction and refurbishment but its potential was, clearly, unsurpassed.

The Committee was convened. The advantages and disadvantages, the financial aspect and all possible scenarios, were considered and inevitably… a bold step was taken.

An architect was commissioned, designs were accepted, plans were passed and the redevelopment project gradually took shape until, finally, the Comrades Marathon had its own home when, on Wednesday, 16 March, 1988, the Comrades Marathon House and Museum was officially opened.

The task that faced the team undertaking the redevelopment project was all of daunting, enormous and, above all, challenging. The exercise was, essentially, one of blending the ‘olde’ with the new, which was where the three aspects of the ambitious plan revealed themselves.

 The outcome of the 1921 fire meant that the exact age of the building was not known and, at an estimate, must have been in the vicinity of seventy-five to eighty years old when acquired by the Comrades Marathon Association. Over such a long period, numerous extensions to the original building had been carried out, at different times and with building materials that were concurrent with the era in which the extensions were effected, creating the ‘unsightly veneer’ that was apparent at the time the initial inspection of the property was undertaken.

The main shell of the building, whenever it was erected, was built with beautiful old ‘Maritzburg Reds’; bricks, made from local rich, red clay, with which many historic buildings in the city are built.

When the work commenced, walls subsequently built with newer, darker bricks had to be demolished. Steel window frames, that had replaced the original sash windows, were removed. Concrete beams, that had replaced original carved wooden beams, were broken down and the dilemma facing the architect was where to locate ‘olde’ materials to restore the building to its former glory.

The ingenuity of the team came to the fore when sufficient quantities of Maritzburg Reds and discarded sash window frames were located during visits to scattered demolition sites, builder’s supplies merchants and numerous other, similarly, obscure sources, over an extended period.

After many months of toil, patience and, at times, moments of true genius, the culmination of a dream was unveiled; a majestic monument to the Comrades Marathon of which both the Comrades Marathon Association and the City can be, justly, proud.

Outstanding craftsmanship and the exquisite, aesthetic beauty of its red clay brickwork, blended to create an architectural tapestry that led to the house, justifiably, being listed as a National Monument.

Initially, the refurbished building housed both the administration office, on the top floor, and the museum at ground level. Despite the substantial increase in available floor area of the new premises, the inevitable, once again, slowly and assuredly, reared its unwanted head; more space would be required. In time, the two houses, adjacent to the original house, were acquired for administration purposes, leaving the main Comrades Marathon House, exclusively, as the home of the Comrades Marathon Museum.

Inexorably, time marches on and, as it does, it demands that progress marches alongside it. The new millennium has made its presence felt. Man has to move in concert with it and the Comrades Marathon cannot afford to be left trailing in its wake. It must walk boldly into the future and, as an initial step in that direction, the Grand Old Edwardian, and the Museum, is undergoing extensive renovations that will ensure that it takes its rightful place, amongst the finest, in the hi-tech world of the twenty-first century.

Once upon a time, there was a patch of open grassland and trees where a kaleidoscope of creatures frolicked in the sun.

There was just a rickety, little old farmhouse standing there… where travellers unhitched their wagons, locked their oxen and horses in the stables and slept peacefully overnight, while the stars kept a silent vigil above.

Today… …

In that same place, we can gaze with pride and awe upon the grandeur of the… Comrades Marathon House.

 

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