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A Walk Around Historical Auckland Sites
Kate Methven - 12/3/99

Current experts on quality architecture tell us that there is not much of it in Auckland city - that is, good modern architecture that creates surroundings in which people can enjoy living and working. The city setting is still breathtaking - the harbours and the topography of the land are still a wonderful asset but somehow the architectural planners seem to have lost the plot.

Years ago our city fathers knew the best vantage points in the city. They built the business area down near the wharves and then set about building elegant residences, churches and Government offices on the higher land with a fine view over the harbour. A number of these historical buildings are still in use and if you have an hour or so to spare and you enjoy historical buildings of yesteryear I'm sure you will not be disappointed at what you will find.

The Administrative Centre of Auckland about 1880
Our walk starts at Auckland University which now sits firmly on what was the administrative centre of Auckland - the area bordered by Symonds Street, Wellesley Street, Princes Street and Waterloo Quadrant.

The land was originally bought from the Maoris of the Ngati Whatua in 1840, and gradually the early settlers began to make their mark.

Choral Hall

Choral Hall, Symonds St
Choral Hall, Symonds St.
Photo source Kate Methven
Our first stopping place is the hall designed for the Choral Society in Symonds Street. Built in the 1870s it was the first hall in Auckland for musical activities, balls, social events and even ladies' roller skating. The wooden building has suffered three times from fire damage - the current building being completed in 1871. The Auckland University took it over in 1907 and early graduation ceremonies were held there. Later it became the Science building.

Albert Barracks
Behind the Choral Hall in the University grounds you can find the remains of the barrack walls. Originally the British Army was housed at Fort Britomart (sited on Britomart Point which was manually removed to fill in Commercial Bay, Official Bay and much of Mechanics Bay between 1884 and 1886) When further regiments were sent out from Britain this site became too small.

Around 1845 the Albert Barracks were built on 23 acres near the Governor's residence to provide a secure base for the British troops to defend Auckland against Maori threats. The actual stone wall surrounding the barracks which had quarters for around 900 troops, was built by 'friendly' Maori of the Ngati Whatua tribe who were terrified of the attacking Ngapuhi. By 1871 the British troops had returned home - without any shots being fired at the barracks and so the area was subdivided. Fifteen acres were set aside for what is now Albert Park and the rest were offered as 99 year leases. Later in the 1950s the University gradually acquired some of the barracks land for its expansion.

Old Arts Building
>From a nearby quadrangle to the old barracks site you will get an excellent view of the Old Arts Building. This was designed by RA Lippincott in 1922 in a near Gothic style (cf Tom Tower in Oxford). Lippincot and his brother-in-law Burley Griffin (famous for his part in designing many of Camberra's buildings) were contemporaries of the Chicago legend Lloyd Wright. Although a more recent addition the architect has certainly created a design that blends perfectly with the other old homes and buildings in Princes Street. Its distinctive clock tower still gives students a focus as they scurry to lectures and the whole building provides a perfect backdrop to the yearly outdoor Shakespearian plays that are performed in the courtyard.

Government House

Old Government House
Old Government House.
Photo source Kate Methven
Over near Waterloo Quadrant stands the old Government House. The first house erected in 1840 was prefabricated in England and sent over by ship. Unfortunately it burned down in 1848 and its replacement, the present house was completed in 1856. The architect was William Mason who used some tricks like imitation stone blocks from Kauri wood and false quoin, to make it look dignified. One critic described it as 'a pretentious building with a Palladian front - greatly disproportioned.' Another said, 'It is far from a good design - the elevation shows columns, architraves, a pediment as though it were a stone building in the Grecian style - instead being but wood.'

A good building could have been designed which would have manifested its material and yet be an ornament to the place. However the building, surrounded by fine trees and gardens, has stood the test of time so you can judge for yourselves whether it is an elegant sham or not.

After the first parliament established in Auckland in 1854, moved to Wellington in the mid 1860s the house became rather a white elephant .However in 1868, Queen Victoria's son Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh came to New Zealand to convalesce from a gunshot wound. He stayed around seven months in Auckland during that time the building was refurbished and a ballroom added.

It was then hoped that the building would become part of Auckland University College but while some of the grounds were utilised in the university when it opened in 1883, it was not until 1969 that an alternative Government House was found in Epsom and the building became known as Old Government House’ and the Senior Staff Common room.

The old Synagogue
Leaving Government House and heading past the old gate house on to Princes Street directly opposite where the former synagogue is cited. Built in 1886 by architect Edward Bartley it ceased to be the Jewish centre in 1969. It is now a commercial bank and if you go inside you will find the beautiful ceiling decorations, fine glass and plaster work all beautifully preserved.

Northern Club
On the corner of Prices Street and Victoria Quadrant is the ivy covered building which is now known as the Northern Club. Built on the site of the original Woods Hotel -later Royal Hotel for a period after 1867 it was used for meetings and also as a club for the officers from the barracks. In 1869 it became a gentlemen's club which it has remained until the recent introduction of membership for women.

Bankside Cottage
Situated behind the club in Bankside St is an old cottage - probably the oldest residence in central Auckland on its original site and still in use today as a crèche. It is typical of the more modest homes on the late 1840s.

Site of the original St Paul's Anglican Church
At the harbour end of Princes Street there is a steep drop where the 1884-6 excavations for the harbour filling removed Britomart Point to fill in Commercial Bay, Official Bay and much of Mechanics Bay. The first army fort and Auckland's first church, St Paul's were lost in the project. All that remains on the site is a monument to the Rev Churton, the first vicar, who died in 1853.

Bella Vista

Bella Vista  - Home of the Nathan family in 1864
Bella Vista - Home of the Nathan family in 1864.
Photo source Kate Methven
Heading back up Princes Street turn left into Waterloo Quadrant. This is one of the original roads where many merchants built their residences. One notable one is Bella Vista built in 1864 built for the Nathan Family. The design was copied from an English home and was built in stone imported from Bath. David and Joseph Nathan had opened their first store in a tent in Queen St in 1841 and soon became well known Auckland merchants. The house is now called Newman House and is the Roman Catholic student headquarters.

Supreme High Court

Supreme High Court
Supreme High Court.
Photo source Kate Methven
At the junction of Waterloo Quadrant and Symonds Street we find the Supreme (High) Court. The oldest part was designed by Edward Rumsey and built in 1867 in Gothic revival style with carved gargoyles added by a young Prussian immigrant. It has recently been extended with a new wing and a huge entrance foyer, which you may or may not find aesthetically pleasing!

St Andrews Church
Diagonally opposite the High Court in Symonds Street you will see the first Presbyterian Church of St Andrew's. The rear part was built in 1847 with blue stone quarried in the nearby suburb of Newmarket. In 1882 the classical portico and tower were added displaying (from bottom up) Doric, Ionic and Corinthian features.

As you stroll back towards our starting point at the Choral Hall you will pass a number of 19th century homes which the University has restored for use by some of its smaller departments. They certainly have more character than the monstrous new buildings that tower all around them.

I hope your walk will provide you with a feeling of pleasure as you look back at the beginnings of Auckland city - for me a much more elegant and tasteful portrait than the modern jungle we have now.

Interested in taking a guided tour?
Ring Diane Masters from the Historical Society on 09 528 7274.

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