Rand Steam opened its doors on April 25 and offers visitors a bit of a different shopping experience. Picture: SANET OBERHOLZER
Rand Steam opened its doors on April 25 and offers visitors a bit of a different shopping experience. Picture: SANET OBERHOLZER

Walking around the new Rand Steam shopping complex on the corner of Barry Hertzog Avenue and Napier Street in Richmond, I wonder what it looked like shortly after Johannesburg was founded. It takes a stretch of the imagination but there is a certain feeling conjured up by the space that makes you think it’s somewhat special.

Built on the site of the original Rand Steam Laundries and, before that, the workspace of the Ama-Washa Zulu washermen of the late 19th century, Rand Steam opened at the end of April and is alive with history, yet teeming with new life.

Because the site was declared a heritage site in 2007, the developers worked with the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation to rebuild the original structures that were largely demolished in 2008. The result is a relaxed vibe of steampunk industrial meets green urban. A mix of old and modern architecture effortlessly combines to create something new in commemoration of what stood before.

Touches of hidden history scattered throughout the complex are set against quirky modern touches. Bricks from the original buildings are featured on the walls: some of them have the words “Est 1896” written on them while others feature the complex’s “re-established” date. Giant clothes pegs are dotted around the space, both for décor and as fun-seating.

Giant clothes pegs strewn around the complex add a quirky touch. Picture: SANET OBERHOLZER
Giant clothes pegs strewn around the complex add a quirky touch. Picture: SANET OBERHOLZER

The lead developers, the Moolman Group, partnered with Jonker Evolution, Genesis Property Three and Group44 in conceptualising this vibrant new complex in line with regulations set up by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.

With extensive experience redeveloping Victoria Yards and 44 on Stanley, Group 44 was a perfect partner to bring into the mix. Brian Green, an owner at Group 44, says he was a little hesitant going into the partnership at first but he came to see that Moolman Group and Jonker Evolution’s hearts were in the right place.

“They’ve spent money they didn’t have to spend to create that history and feeling.” He adds:

“The centre was expensive to develop but the cause was greater than the economic return. If you smash our history and our heritage, you’re smashing our future. Historical sites are so important.”

Flo Bird, a founding member of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, says the development is a constant reminder of the first use of the land as a laundry and the development of Johannesburg as a mining town.

“The industrial use very close to rather upmarket suburbs is also an historic marker,” she says.

The old water tower — the only remaining original building — has been restored and reclaimed wood from the original structures have been used to craft the stairs spiralling up its white walls. 

Hermann Stassen, Moolman Group’s project manager on the development, says they wanted to do something special with the old water tower from the beginning.

“What we’re looking at now is to create a pop up where young artisans come in every six months to a year.” At the moment it houses Six Kings, a hip Pretoria-born hand-made leather shoe company.

Due to the authenticity of the development, the tenant mix includes carefully curated, bespoke type stores. Anelda Barnard, Marketing Manager with the Moolman Group, says the tenants were carefully chosen.

“The mix here is all about being unique and sourcing people that are passionate about their businesses so that they, too, can tell the story.” The idea was to move away from franchises you can find in every second mall.

Walking around the Rand Steam site, Strassen explains the ideas behind the architecture, saying they tried to incorporate elements from each era in this space’s history. He points out the towering pepper tree towards the bottom of the complex:

“That’s where the donkeys were tied up.” Also a heritage point, the tree bears burn marks. “People tried burning it down,” Strassen adds.

A water feature commemorating the water streams that ran through the area when Johannesburg was first found runs through the centre of the outdoor courtyard where Bootlegger Coffee, Curry Up, Col’Cacchio and Cow Fish entice diners.

ReTrend is one of the carefully curated shops at Rand Steam that offer shoppers something unique. Picture: SANET OBERHOLZER
ReTrend is one of the carefully curated shops at Rand Steam that offer shoppers something unique. Picture: SANET OBERHOLZER

Sun rays bouncing from the red face brick and patterned concrete floors create the perfect outdoor space for a leisurely breakfast or lunch while lush green combined modern and elegant architectural touches and soft light invite diners at night.

Walking around the complex, Strassen points out the many small details that add to that feeling that Rand Steam is unlike the run-of-the-mill shopping complexes strewn around Johannesburg.

“It was everyone’s passion project,” he says, and I feel I really believe him.

A little bit of history

  • Part of the original Jo’burg entrepreneurs, the Ama-Washa, hailing from Durban, heard tales of Egoli, the “City of Gold” and came, like many before and after them, in search of opportunity. They toiled on this very soil, washing the clothes of the many migrant workers that left their families behind and flocked to the recently formed mining town.
  • When drought dried up streams the Ama-Washa used in 1896, they relocated to the Klip River, opening up an opportunity for American businessman Frank Nelson to establish a modern steam laundry — the Rand Steam Laundry.
  • In 1963, Rand Steam Laundry ended its operations due to a decline in demand. After this, the site was occupied for many years by craftsmen.
  • In 2008, Imperial Holdings flouted regulations and demolished the original Rand Steam buildings in 2008 to make way for a car dealership. After owning the property for 10 years they sold it to the Moolman Group.