Doornfontein Pt.1 (Lion’s Shul & Bettelheim Mansion)

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Due to the wealth of new information, the history of Doornfontein will be made up of a few parts. The Saratoga & Windybrow posts were the start.

For the history of the Doornfontein farm go HERE.

Doornfontein was originally a popular early sanctuary for the well-off Western European, German and English Jews (amongst others). The suburb’s peak popularity was the mid-1890s when it had around 6000 people living in it. Newer more exclusive and scenic suburbs like Parktown and Westcliff started attracting the wealthy in the early 1900s. As the Doornfontein rich moved on, they were replaced by a strong working middle class Jewish community, many of whom came from Poland and Lithuania via the UK and Cape Town. Many of the big mansions were torn down (Windybrow being the only remaining mansion on that side of the suburb) and the land subdivided into smaller plots on which new houses were built to house the growing population. In the 1920s, rising anti-semitism and falling property prices forced the middle class to re-locate east to Yeoville & Orange Grove. They were in turn replaced by a lower class of Jew from Ferreirasdorp and Ophirton that could not afford to go anywhere else and Doornfontein remained for some time after ‘the lowest rung of the Jewish residential ladder’.

Remaining house on Buxton str 2011

Remaining house on Buxton Street 2011 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Another remaining house on the corner of Moseley and Davies str

Remaining house on the corner of Moseley and Davies Street 2011 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Remaining semis on Davies str just off Rockey

Remaining semis on Davies Street just off Rockey Street 2011 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Rockey Street Doornfontein

Rockey Street Doornfontein late 1890s (Source: Barnett)

Margot Rubin has written a very detailed and insightful piece on the Jewish movements in and around Doornfontein in THE JOBURG BOOK.

There were once several shuls in Doornfontein in very close proximity to each other. Today, only two remain: The Lions Shul (covered below) and the Sherwell Street Shul or Beth Hamedrash Hagadol as it was also known.

The others were: Talmud Torah Synagogue designed by Saul Margo in 1918, Chassidic Synagogue also by Saul Margo from 1931 and the Hilner Street Synagogue or Ponovez Synagogue designed by Obel & Obel in 1931 (foundation stone laid by D. I. Fram on 26 July 1931). The Ponovez and Chassidic shuls were demolished when the Harrow Road overpass was built in the 1960s.

There was also a synagogue next to the Jewish old age home which was commissioned by Schlesinger. Percy Rogers Cooke was said to have been approached to design it along with a new wing for the old age home sometime between 1926/7. The home and synagogue moved to Sandringham in 1962.

The Lions Shul at 120 Siemert Road is the oldest surviving Shul in Johannesburg. It was built in 1905 (for four thousand Pounds) and named after the two cast-iron lions that guard its entrance. The ex-mayor of Johannesburg Morrie Jacob Harris was the architect. The shul was almost destroyed by a fire in 1930. It was completely restored although the process did alter the building from its original form.

Lions Shul built in 1906

Lions Shul in 1907, two years after being built (Source: A Johannesburg Album – O. Norwich)

Lions Shul from 2011

Lions Shul from 2011 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Front view from 2016

Lions Shul front from 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

One the cast-iron lions

One the cast-iron lions 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Board in the entrance

Board in the entrance 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Robyn Sassen described the interior of the shul in an article, “Inside, the shul presents a transformative soul journey. It’s like being transported to the turn of the 20th century or stepping into ‘der heim’ in Eastern Europe…this shul has a neshamah (soul)”

Interior of the Lions Shul

Interior of the Lions Shul 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Roof glass detail

Roof glass detail 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Religious relics

Religious relics 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Seating arrangements on the ground floor to the left

Seating arrangements on the ground floor to the left 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Carved benches

Carved benches 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

View from upstairs

View from upstairs 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Another view from upstairs

Another view from upstairs 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

To the left of the shul used to be its hall where religious functions were held. The hall was sold and converted in later years as the congregation left the area.

Adjacent hall in 2016. A modern facade has been added. The old building exists at the back

Adjacent hall in 2016. A modern facade has been added. The old building exists at the back (Source: Marc Latilla)

Going in order of the old postcard picture of the shul, these are the buildings and houses to the left that still stand:

First Queen Victoria maternity hospital

First Queen Victoria maternity hospital 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Next to the hall is what was the first Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital. It was established and built in 1906 by the Guild of Loyal woman and designed by Allen Wilson. It’s the predecessor of the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital was built in 1943 in Joubert Street extension near the old fort. More on the history of Johannesburg hospital’s HERE.

First Queen victoria maternity hospital

First Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital 1906 (Source: Memorial Hospital Archives)

Old warehouse on Siemert Road

Old warehouse on Siemert Road 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

This warehouse is next to the old hospital. Nothing is known on the history.

Same houses as seen in the old Shul picture on the left still stand today

Surviving house as seen in the old shul picture 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Next to the warehouse is a typical turn of the century Doornfontein house.  Interior pictures below.

Lounge looking to the entrance passage. Doors on the right open up the dining room

Lounge looking to the entrance passage. Doors on the right open up the dining room 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Main bedroom and bay window

Main bedroom and bay window 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Close up of the facade and plaster work

Close up of the facade and plaster work 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Some additional existing buildings and houses along with old views from the area:

Mitchell's Building 1914 Beit str

Mitchell’s Building 1911 Beit Street from 2011 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Beit Street early 1900s

Beit Street early 1900s (Source: A Johannesburg Album – O. Norwich)

Early shops in Doornfontein

Early shops in Doornfontein

Remaining houses on Pierce str

Remaining houses on Pierce Street 2011 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Remaining houses on Sivewright str

Remaining house on Sivewright Avenue 2011 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Sievewright Avenue early 1900s

Sivewright Avenue early 1900s (Source: A Johannesburg Album – O. Norwich)

I discovered the old Bettelheim Mansion on Beit Street by accident. The gold dome picture is from Davies Street side. On the Beit Street side is a plumbers building added in the 1940s (Fraser’s Plumbers). Whatever is under the Turkish dome or minaret is boxed in between the building around it and cannot be seen from the street. Fortunately I was able to gain access to the property in 2016 and have added some interior photos of this fascinating house.

Built in 1888, it originally belonged to Henri Bettelheim (Consul to his Most Exalted Person, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire). He held lavish balls there as well as gambling parties in the late 1890s. In the 1930’s, when Doornfontein’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, it became a brothel for some time. The present plumbers business has been around since the 1940s. Many original features like stained-glass windows, moulded doors, cornices and parquet floors are still intact as can be seen in the interior pictures below taken in 2016. It’s often referred to as the old Turkish consulate, which it never was, even though Bettelheim was once appointed honorary Turkish Consul.

The house (or at least parts of it), although greatly modified over the years and thus excluded from any heritage honours, is as far as I can tell, the oldest still standing in Johannesburg (excluding the original farmhouses that pre-date the birth of Johannesburg).

Bettelheims mansion

Bettelheim’s Mansion from Davies Street (Source: Mervyn King Ridge Trail)

Turkish Consulate early 1900s

Bettelheim’s Mansion from Beit Street early 1900s

Dome of the Turkish Consulate 2011

Dome of Bettelheim’s Mansion 2011 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Minaret and roof detail 2016

Minaret and roof detail 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Stained glass window detail

Stained glass window detail (Source: Marc Latilla)

Veranda ceiling detail

Veranda ceiling detail (Source: Marc Latilla)

Front door

Front door of Bettelheim’s Mansion 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Ceiling detail in dining room

Ceiling detail in dining room of Bettelheim’s Mansion (source: Marc Latilla)

Outside widow and minaret

Outside widow and minaret 2016 (Source: Marc Latilla)

Architect William Leck built himself a double-story cottage in Nind Street in 1892 and lived there until the early 1900s.


Barry, M & Law, N, 1985.  Magnates and Mansions-Johannesburg 1886-1914. Johannesburg: Lowry Publishers 

Johannesburg Historical Foundation, undated. Some Historic Drives & Walks of Johannesburg. Written and produced by the JHF

Heritage Portal. Bettelheim Mansion. [Accessed April 2018]


Added new information on Bettelheim’s Mansion 19 August 2018

Additional photos 16 September 2018

This entry was published on April 27, 2011 at 9:26 pm. It’s filed under Johannesburg and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “Doornfontein Pt.1 (Lion’s Shul & Bettelheim Mansion)

  1. Looking at pictures of Joh’burg now, I am glad I no longer live there. It took me 25 years to get used to living in the USA. My oldest friend and I have known one another since he
    was 6 and I was 11. I ‘m now 83. My family and I lived last at 25 Raymond Street, Bellevue. Before that was 18 Urania Street, Observatory and before that… 8 7th Street,
    Lower Houghton. Is anything left of anything?? Raymond Street was a house built by
    Sir Herbert Baker. What is it now??

    • Marc Latilla on said:

      Thanks for your comment. I’ll be sure to take some pictures of the houses at the addresses you’ve mentioned. Sadly, many of the older suburbs are run down. I’m not sure when you were last in JHB, but it’s a very different place now to when you left. Some good and some not. The suburbs you mention still exist and are in remarkably good condition. Thanks for the Yeoville correction.

    • Moshe Miller on said:

      Hi Lower houghton is today still a very posh and beautiful suburb most of the old houses have been redone and many made into modern clusters it has become very popular with Muslim population-there is a large mosque right next door to west street shul in the middle of houghton is the very popular old eds sports complex with the virgin active gym as for belvue though it’s more like mini Nigeria…

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