I first heard about ‘the Gordon Road house’ through my previous landlord, Toni Morkel. Along with stories about Bez Valley, she also told me about a house that she once lived in. The house, which is located on Gordon Road in a now derelict, forgotten part of the city called Bertrams, sounded like a fascinating and curious place – it was an abode of mostly fun, some pain, and a lot of history. And behind its two remaining bay windows, lived three pyrotechnic brothers – the Taylor brothers – who could bend your ear with stories about art, drugs, and Joburg.
Two of the three brothers remain – the youngest, James, died on the property a number of years ago, after his “heart went all wrong”. The house has now been converted into working art studios, called Twilsharp Studios.
Garfield Taylor reckons that the property on Gordon Road dates back to 1890. “When we came here in 1988, this house was unbelievable: granted, there was a large rat colony, but it was clearly a big, grand old house in the neighbourhood.”
The previous owners of the house were The Pragers: an old couple who the Taylors know very little about; except that Mrs Prager loved flowers, and Mr Prager was a bit, unconventional.
“When we moved in, we found a cupboard in the bathroom filled with 8mm cameras, photographs, slides … and some wigs and mail-order catalogues. And also quite a lot of very old, nude photographs. I suspect these belonged to Mr Prager. Unfortunately they have since disappeared. We reckon the Prager family – rather than clear it out – didn’t want to see what they might find,” explains Garfield.
What the Pragers did leave behind, however, was an old, battered brown suitcase, filled with family photographs.“All of their 8mm films, all of their slides, and all of their family photographs show that Mr and Mrs Prager seemed to be a very happy couple. They did a lot of travelling; she loved flowers – whenever there was a picture taken of her, even though they’re black and white photos, she was standing with flowers behind her – in the photos there are at least three vases of flowers in every room. Which is quite fantastic.”
After Mr Prager passed away, the family wasn’t happy with Mrs Prager living there on her own. But Garfield and his brother Duncan have no idea what happened to the Pragers: they didn’t have any children (although Garfield believes they had a foster child, a son). “They must have been here for some time though, because one of the photographs was from 1941,” he says. According to Garfield, Mr Prager built workshops on the property in 1958; he had a company called Twil-Sharp Pty Ltd.; he used these workshops to manufacture grindstones and sandpaper. Which is quite odd – because Bertrams was very much a residential area, but, somehow, he had a factory on the property. There was also a coach-house and stables for horses (which still partially remains). Garfield and Duncan used to do special effects in the film industry; one of the reasons why they bought the house was to use the workshops to make their props.
I ask Garfield about James’ death. “We were three brothers – but our youngest brother, James, died on the property. Duncan and I were away at Afrika Burn, and James was found by the workers. At the time of his death, he had just moved out, but the house had started to be ransacked – because everyone in the neighbourhood knew that James had died; we decided to tragically strip the house of all the fireplaces.”
“Well we had to,” interjects Duncan. “I came here one morning and there was water running out of the bottom drive, because every single tap on the property had been broken off for the brass.”
“So we took out all the fireplaces, all the radiators, furniture – the Pragers left quite a lot of furniture,” adds Garfield. “Because the house became such a headache, we considered demolishing it or burning it down, or selling it, but the heritage association told us we were obliged to look after it. And we’ve done that, to the best of our ability.” Garfield and Duncan tell me that there was a time, in the mid-‘90s, where mandrax was sold on the corner, and when, every other day, they heard gunshots. “I saw people being stabbed in the street,” says Garfield. “The dealers used to try and hide their drugs on our property – they had holes in the wall and they used our gate posts; we told them that if we found any of their stuff on our property we would destroy it.”
During this period, Adriaan Vlok (an apartheid minister of law and order, and a man not to be messed with) even came to the house – with gun-toting men in tow. “A convoy of armed guards with insignia pulled up after Duncan’s father, the then-Mayor of Sandton, had written to the Commissioner of Police, because nothing was being done about the drug problem in the neighbourhood, and the Jeppe Police refused to help,” explains Garfield. “A uniformed Afrikaans man barked at Duncan, ‘Do you realise you’ve caused a lot of trouble? You just shut up, you’ve embarrassed us!’ After the armed guards left, the druggies came out from their hiding places and wanted to know what had happened.”
Like many of Joburg’s older suburbs, Bertrams is a fascinating neighbourhood with so many stories. Now it’s the domain of the poor white and the even poorer black; it’s a rough, unforgiving place that Juta Street’s cool kids wouldn’t even drive through. But still, there are stories. Like the times when Pearlie Joubert (a well-known journalist from Die Vrye Weekblad) used to visit – she, along with a group of women, also tarred and feathered the Yeoville Rapist in the early ’90s, or when horse meat was discovered at the Viennese butchery a few roads down. (Duncan:“The owner become an alcoholic after that, and it went out of business”). Across the road there’s the Gordonia – a mental asylum with mostly schizophrenic patients, and, a number of years ago, there was a rumour of an underground bomb shelter on Gordon Road (Garfield:“I went looking for it but never found it. It’s a curious neighbourhood”).Garfield’s partner, Rebecca Haysom, was born on nearby Ascot Road – and, according to the brothers, so was Sol Kerzner and William Kentridge.
The Gordon Road house, amazingly, still retains a lot of its character; there’s only two original bay windows left, and two beautiful wooden doors, as well as parts of the pressed metal ceiling. There were a number of huge, sash windows. What was most impressive, however, was the bathroom. “The original bathroom had an amazing Asian bevelled mirror, but the curious thing about it was that when we first bought the house, the original kitchen had a stove with cast-iron jackets around it, so when you lit a fire it heated water for the bath. Then the Pragers put in something that’s called a donkey, which is a round, cast-iron stove, which you light a fire in – that made hot water for the bathroom. They even put central heating in the house – they had a big boiler outside; they put new pipes in but didn’t take the old ones out. So when we bought the house, they had gas water heaters, which we again re-piped. The bathroom had four different sets of water pipes for hot water; the bath was surrounded by taps! It was quite extraordinary.”
There are also a few old, small out rooms that remain – according to Garfield, the extensions for these rooms were approved in 1910. The bells for the servants remain, too. The house also had a full-size billiard room, which, Garfield says, he “tragically demolished”.
Garfield pulls out an ancient-looking tennis ball from his pocket; it’s hand-stitched and made from some kind of hide, smooth and weathered. “It fell out of the loft when I was breaking through one of the archways. It must be from the ‘40s. Isn’t it bizarre?”
As testament to Mrs Prager’s obsession with flowers, the brothers found a gnarled rock rose garden when they moved in, while the photos in the suitcase show that there was a regal front door, opening onto a long entrance hall, with gleaming floors. The garden also has a small bamboo grove, which Garfield planted over 20 years ago, as well as grapevines that were already on the property. “In the old days, all the houses in this valley had grape vines, because they used to make home-made wine,” adds Garfield.
Rebecca, Garfield and Duncan want to bring art into this neglected neighbourhood, they want Twilsharp Studios to be a space that artists can rent; and if they want to have their own, independent show, they can do that, too. The brothers have revamped the old house, using floorboards to make internal doors, and the walls are now painted with soil sifted from the garden. There’s also be a communal kitchen and dining area (complete with a strange little window with a ledge – presumably it was used for the milk or bread deliveries, back in the day), while the pantry has been turned into a loo.
“It’s a hideaway,” says Garfield. “You’re not on the fourth floor of an industrial building in town. You can walk to Maboneng, it’s 2.4km away. If you’re an outsider and you drive through Bertrams, particularly our block – it seems quite ghetto. But, at seven in the morning, you can walk down to the Portuguese-owned Rocha’s Hardware in Derby Road, they have a machine that makes freshly ground espresso for R7; if you wander around here at that time, it’s full of schoolchildren, all in uniforms.”
“The great thing about this place,” adds Rebecca, “is that it looks quite hectic from the outside, but inside it’s such a sanctuary. That’s really what it’s got going for it.”