“We have a stunning building and space. You can’t hang a building on the wall like a picture – you have to use it.”
These were the words of Dion Wessels, curator of Mullers Museum and Gallery, situated in Longmarket Street, where Mullers Optometrists first opened its doors in the 1900s.
The business is also still family-run today with one of the owners being Peter Muller, the great-grandson of Joseph Muller, who first opened Mullers as a jewellery shop in 1890 in the same street, and bought the building where the store is now situated in the 1900s.
The building at 104 Longmarket Street has been a Cape Town landmark since then, with its exterior remaining largely unchanged.
It was designed by Frank Spears in the 1920s, in the iconic art deco style, said Mr Muller, and remains one of the few preserved art deco shop fronts left in the CBD.
Mr Muller had frequented the shop as a child and started working there as a school boy.
“The building has seen the city change, and also has an interesting political history.
“During World War I, the building was damaged and in the 70s the anti-apartheid protests and riots left bullet holes in the walls, which we only fixed up a few months ago as they began to crack.”
He said large department stores populated the East City back then but it became quite derelict in the 80s and 90s, only to be revitalised again along with the residential apartments which started popping up around the city.
“The sweet shop Wellingtons (now Eastern Food Bazaar)
was two buildings away, Petersen’s Barber Shop was at
Speakers’ Corner and the Old Mutual head office was also in the vicinity, as well as Red Lion Hotel, which had a variety of reputations.”
Visitors to the iconic building can access the museum and the gallery through Mullers Optometrists and take the “time traveller” which is what staff call the old-school elevator; to the floors above the store.
The furniture and the cabinets used in Mullers Optometrists are over 100 years old – the original furniture installed by Joseph Muller in the 1890s.
The museum, which Mr Wessels said naturally developed, houses an old school optometrist examining chair; early optometry tools; and other quirky items such as glass eyes, an old telephone, a number of clocks, as well as records of clients dating back to the 80s.
Mr Wessels said while the museum holds artefacts of optometry, it is also for those who are interested in architecture.
“A number of tour groups pop in to see the museum and the building which is rich in architecture.”
Mr Muller said most of the items in the museum was left in the attic and included years of valuables collected by his family over time.
The Mullers Gallery, which was transformed from the workshop, opened its doors in 2015 as a tribute to the late Len Muller, Peter’s father.
The gallery is an exhibition space for up and coming artists, and gives them a platform to showcase their work.
Mr Muller said the gallery was also driven around the First Thursdays event, where galleries in the city centre stay open late on the first Thursday of every month. This gave the impetus to open up the building to the public.
On First Thursdays, the time machine is open and available to the public, as well as some refreshments.
“The East City, where we are based, is gaining its own identity for First Thursdays. It’s a much more calm, older crowd on this side.”
Mr Wessels said the artists are found while networking and through social media.
“If I like their work, I contact them and ask them to exhibit at the gallery.” The works are curated and sold by Mr Wessels.
“On First Thursdays we all just have a good time. Sometimes people buy art, others come to look at the artefacts and the works, but for us it isn’t about the sales and the money, it’s about making the building accessible. We want people to know about us.”
The gallery doubles up as a waiting room for patients who are getting their eyes tested.
The Mullers Gallery has curated a number of exhibitions, the most notable being the
Slave Calender, created by advertising agency Geometry Global in
aid of the Iziko Slave Lodge which provided a voice for the descendants of the slaves to tell their stories.
Asked if he ever plans to make changes to the building, Mr Muller said: “My father was quite
a traditionalist, and he was strong on maintaining the interior
in a period that change could’ve occured, it now shouldn’t.
It is over 100 years old, and
it’s becoming more and more special.”