Wellington is rich in Art Deco architecture: there’s no need to do a guided walk to find it. But Wellington Council publish an Art Deco Heritage Trail which features a connoisseur’s choice, and the trail is well worth doing. The route and the text below roughly follow the published trail.
1 Oriental Bay Rotunda (1938)
In 1936 it was proposed to the Wellington City Council that a combined bathing pavilion and band rotunda be built at Oriental Bay on the platform then occupied by the old Town Hall rotunda. A design was prepared by the Wellington City Council Engineer’s Department and the building, which included separate changing rooms for men, women, boys, and girls, was completed in 1938. The building retained its dual uses for 40 years but by the 1970s it was showing its age. In 1982 it was decided to create a new public space by building a roof over the rotunda The revamped building opened in 1985 as a restaurant. Beneath, the area previously occupied by the changing rooms was converted into a meeting room for local residents and an art gallery and teaching space. Although the addition has changed the building, its Moderne features remain intact and it remains a key landmark along Wellington’s ‘Riviera’.
[I don’t have a photograph yet – it seems to require a long shot from a strange angle up the hill. That may be next weekend’s project.]
2 Anscombe Flats (1937)
Anscombe Flats is named for Edmund Anscombe (1873–1948) one of New Zealand’s most distinguished 20th century architects. He bought the land in 1933, at the age of 60 and by then widowed, and planned to sell the apartments and live on the top ﬂoor. The building was completed in 1937 and Anscombe lived there until his death in 1948. This is one of three celebrated apartment buildings he designed in Wellington. The Moderne style of the building is well demonstrated in the rounded corners and moulded window hoods. The semi-circular penthouse ﬂoor is a particular delight, although it was altered a little in 2002.
3 Post & Telegraph Ofﬁce (1939)
This controversial building has dominated this area of the waterfront since 1939. An imposing structure, it was originally ﬁve storeys high, but a tennis court on top of the building was removed and replaced with another ﬂoor. Designed by Edmund Anscombe, the building is almost without decoration but for a surprising Moderne ﬂourish on the south-western corner, repeated, slightly less grandly, on the eastern end. The ground- ﬂoor foyer features some typical Art Deco chromium and plaster effects.
4 Central Fire Station (1939)
This essentially Moderne building makes good use of a very ﬁne site. Built to replace the previous Central Fire Station alongside the Wellington Town Hall, it addresses Oriental Parade with a symmetrical facade and a set-back central tower, decorated with vestiges of Art Deco. The building was ﬁrst planned in 1932 and architect C.H. Mitchell, of the ﬁrm Mitchell and Mitchell, was engaged to prepare designs. Mitchell planned a building on two levels with the main station on Oriental Parade and the married men’s ﬂats behind. The building was designed to hold nine ﬁre appliances and to provide accommodation for 21 married men and 33 single men. The building was ofﬁcially opened by the Governor General, Lord Galway, on 1 December 1937. The clock, a gift to the city from the Blundell family, was originally placed in the Wellington Town Hall in 1922 but after the removal of the Town Hall tower for earthquake reasons it was moved here.
5 10–14 Courtenay Place (1935)
This Art Deco building has been owned by Westpac Trust since 1975, when it was bought by one of its predecessors, the Bank of New South Wales. It was originally designed by Prouse and Wilson and built as a shop and ofﬁce building for Mrs M.W. Powley in 1936. The names of electrical contractors Turnbull and Jones on the front facade suggests they were the building’s ﬁrst tenants. The adaptation to a bank was undertaken by Haughton and Mair.
[ These days you can see there’s a decent little building lurking there, but it’s almost impossible to photograph given the street clutter and the fact it’s always in shadow.]
6 Former Post Ofﬁce (1930)
This building was designed in the ofﬁce of Government Architect John Mair and completed in 1930. The building housed the Wellington East (later Cambridge Terrace) Post Ofﬁce on the ground ﬂoor and, for much of the 20th century, the Post and Telegraph’s Radio Section on the remaining ﬂoors. It is a typical example of late 1920s’ architecture, particularly in the way that its neo-Classical style is adapated for the ‘skyscraper’ form. Its proportions, with the large base, stepped shaft and recessed wings, impart the building with considerable dignity. The upper storey additions were added in 2003, when the building was converted into a backpackers’ hotel.
[These days the building is a bit wrecked by street clutter and the rather brash Backpackers / X-Base branding on it. But the clock is still worth photographing.]
7 Cambridge Pharmacy (1932)
This building was constructed in 1932 for the Pharmacy Board of New Zealand. The architect was Stanley Fearn, whose best- known work is probably the former Salvation Army Hostel on Aro Street (with Austen Quick). When opened the building had ground ﬂoor shops, a ﬂat and the Board’s purpose-built areas, including a lecture room and laboratory. This is a restrained but very competent Art Deco design.
8 National War Memorial (1931–32)
The government began planning a national war memorial soon after the end of World War I. In 1928 it was decided to incorporate the memorial with the new national museum and build the whole complex on the top of the ﬂattened Mt Cook. The building was designed by Gummer and Ford, and was intended as a sister structure to the peace tower carillon in the Ottawa Parliament Buildings, Canada. It is made up of steps, a pool and forecourt, bell tower or campanile, and a base, which contains the Hall of Memories. The building was ofﬁcially dedicated at the 1932 ANZAC Day ceremonies but the Hall of Memories was not ﬁnally completed until 1964. Built on a magniﬁcent site, this is Art Deco architecture at its very best. Aside from the clever use of classic Deco motifs, such as the tower ﬁns, the entire tower is full of visual interest with the use of different materials and motifs. A Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was constructed in front of the Hall of Memories in 2004.
9 Former National Museum (1936)
The former National Museum occupies what was once a small peaked hill, but which was steadily reduced over time to a level site. Built from a half-and-half combination of government funding and public subscription, the museum replaced the Colonial Museum, which was located in cramped conditions in a building behind Parliament. Planning on the new museum did not begin in earnest until the 1920s. In 1928 it was decided that the museum would be combined with the National Art Gallery and War Memorial. Gummer and Ford won a national design competition, and Fletcher Brothers was awarded the building contract. The huge brick Mt Cook prison, then occupying the site, was demolished and construction began in 1932. The building was ofﬁcially opened in August 1936. During World War II the museum was taken over by the Defence Department but reopened again in September 1949. As the collections expanded, pressure grew on suitable available storage and in 1989 it was decided to build a new museum. This building was closed in 1995 and the new Museum of New Zealand — Te Papa, located on Wellington’s waterfront — was opened in 1998. Ownership of the building was transferred to the Tenths Trust and it is presently occupied by Massey University’s Wellington campus.
10 255 Cuba St (1932)
These ﬂats were designed by King and Dawson and built for the Downes family in 1932. A deft and accomplished design, the building features Art Deco mouldings across the parapet but an identical arrangement of Classically decorated windows, with triangular and segmentally arched hoods, was apparently added after the drawings were completed. These have now been removed, though a faint shadow of them can still be detected.
[Photograph from Google Maps. I’ve certainly noticed this building but dismissed the possibility of photographing it because of its derelict condition. Perhaps I’ll go back…]
11 Reid House (1930)
Atkins and Mitchell designed this early Art Deco styled building in 1930 for draper D.S. Patrick, who had a long-standing business on this corner. This three storey-building makes excellent use of its corner site, with ﬁve distinct portions folding around the triangular site. It is not symmetrical either, with two bays of Spanish Mission style on Cuba Street a contrast with the busy Art Deco decoration on the other four sides.
12 The Vic (1935)
This facade at 154-6 Cuba St is one of the most distinctive in Wellington with prominent Art Deco decoration, particularly the sunburst motif between the second storey and parapet, while the parapet itself is interrupted by a series of striking vertical mouldings. The building was designed by James Bennie and planned as a private hotel — York House. It was renamed The Vic in 1951.
[Photograph from Google Maps. This is another one I’ve walked past and thought ‘no, just no’. Again it desperately needs ‘rediscovering’.]
13 James Smith Building (1907 & 1932)
James Smith is a famous name in Wellington retailing. Smith, an early settler, bought Te Aro House, a shop on the corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets, in 1866. He built up a prosperous drapery business and expanded into general retailing. This building was constructed in 1907, but within 25 years the ﬁrm decided to modernise the appearance of the building and the vogue style was Art Deco. King and Dawson designed the facade in 1932. Just down Manners Street is a 1934 addition to the building, designed by the same architects. The store added two more additions further along Cuba Street in the 1960s. It closed in 1993 and is now a retail centre.
[Most recently the building has been repainted, losing its delicate pastel shades and reappearing in various shades of black and shiny grey. It’s horrible.]
14 Valma House (1937)
Valma House, formerly Van Staveren Buildings, was built in 1937 for Van Staveren Bros., merchants and importers of (among other items) sporting goods, tobacco and accessories, hair products, clocks and watches. Barend Van Staveren founded the ﬁrm with two of his brothers, Isaac and Herman, in 1905. Barend was managing director for a remarkable 58 years. The ﬁrm closed in the 1980s. The building, designed by Swan and Lavelle, has Art Deco features but is otherwise relatively unadorned. The bracing on the south side of the building and visible through the front windows is an unsightly addition (2003) to strengthen it against earthquakes
15 Wellington Free Ambulance Building (1932)
Designed by William Turnbull and built in 1932 this is a celebrated Art Deco building, although it lacks the decorative detailing that is more commonly associated with the style. The architect’s efforts in giving all four elevations architectural interest, largely hidden for much of its existence, has always appealed to the building’s admirers. Wellington Free Ambulance, the only free ambulance service in New Zealand, was founded in 1928 by Sir Charles Norwood, businessman, philanthropist and Mayor of Wellington 1925–27. This building was replaced by new premises in Davis Street, Thorndon in 1994, but it has retained a variety of uses since, including a period as a bar and a performance venue.
16 City Art Gallery, Civic Centre (1939)
Originally the Wellington City Library, this elegant Stripped Classical building, completed in 1939, was the result of a collaboration between the Auckland partnership of Gummer and Ford, and New Plymouth architects Messenger Taylor and Wolfe, after a competition was held to decide a winning design. The latter ﬁrm’s exterior design was chosen. In 1990–2 the new Wellington Public Library was built on Victoria Street and its predecessor was successfully converted into the City Art Gallery, as part of the overall conversion of the eastern half of Mercer Street into Civic Square.
17 Hibernian Building (1930)
This building was erected in 1929–30 and designed by Francis Stewart, who was for some time Fletcher Construction’s resident architect. The building was originally owned by the Bristol Piano Company, and one ﬂoor was given over to use as a piano showroom. It later became known as the Hamilton Nimmo Building and is now owned by the Hibernian Friendly Society. The most obvious feature of this building is its polychromatic exterior brickwork. Unfortunately a corner tower on the building was destroyed during an earthquake in 1942.
18 Hotel St George (1930)
The Hotel St George is an outstanding Art Deco building occupying an historic corner site. In the 1850s the Union Bank of Australia built a branch here. In 1877 the bank building was bought by the famous early settler and businessman John Plimmer who converted it into one of Wellington’s most celebrated hotels. On the facade were the carved impressions, in timber, of the faces of prominent Wellingtonians of the time, including Plimmer himself. In 1929 the property was bought by the Grand Central Buildings Ltd., which demolished the hotel. The new hotel was designed by William Prouse and opened to considerable fanfare. Probably its most famous guests were the Beatles in 1964. In 1994 the building was converted into a student hostel. The building’s main facades are full of visual interest, particularly in the skilful integration of its various facets — podium, bays and recessed balcony — and the clever use of decorative mouldings that enliven the main elevations and give the building its pronounced verticality.
19 United Building (1930)
There are few more elegant buildings in Wellington than this neo-Georgian design, built for the Wellington Commercial Travellers’ and Warehousemen’s Association. Completed in 1930, it was designed by Atkins and Mitchell. Divided horizontally into three main parts, the building’s most interesting features are the exposed brick shaft and recessed balcony on the top storey, a neat feature, which suffers only from the absence of its balustraded parapet. The Association, which occupied the ground and ﬁrst ﬂoors, left the building in 1978 when it was bought by the Northern United Permanent Building Society, from which its present name is derived.
20 MLC Building (1940)
The former MLC building was completed in 1940 on land reclaimed between 1857 and 1863 by the Provincial Council. The ﬁrst occupant was Wellington’s ﬁrst Presbyterian church, St Andrews, originally erected in the 1840s and moved across the road to this site in 1866. It was turned into an auction house that later evolved into a hotel, the Central. The Central Hotel was ﬁnally removed in 1939. The Mutual Life and Citizens Assurance Co. was an Australian-based insurance company. MLC operated its head ofﬁce out of this building until 1985, when the New Zealand branch of the ﬁrm was taken over by New Zealand Insurance. The building was eventually acquired by the Auckland-based St James Group in 1995 and converted into apartments. Mitchell and Mitchell designed this building which is noted for its streamlined features and beautiful faience tiling.
21 Prudential Assurance Building (1934–35)
The Prudential Assurance building is one of a group of head ofﬁce buildings, built together on Lambton Quay, which offer quite different visual experiences. This building is noted for its four nearly identical Art Deco elevations, a tour-de-force of urban design. Of particular interest is the artiﬁcial stone ‘veneer’ — Benedict stone — on the ground and ﬁrst ﬂoors. Above that is coloured cement render, lined out to resemble stone blocks, now painted over. The British ﬁrm of Prudential Assurance relocated its head ofﬁce from Auckland to Wellington in 1932. It demolished the landmark Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute (1877) and a new building, designed by the Melbourne ﬁrm of Hennessy and Hennessy in association with local architects Gray Young Morton and Young, was built. In what were very difﬁcult economic times the company was encouraged to construct the building by the Government’s offer of relief workers. It opened in 1935. The future of the building was the subject of much controversy during the 1990s but its sale by Prudential Assurance ensured its future. It has since been converted into apartments. Additions made to the north elevation and top storey have robbed the building of its symmetry.
22 Former CBA Building (1936)
The Commercial Bank of Australia (CBA), founded in 1866, was established in New Zealand in 1912 and in 1914 it purchased half of a building on this site previously built for the Colonial Bank of New Zealand. CBA demolished its portion of the building in 1934, two years before South British demolished the other. The new building was designed by Clere & Clere. At the time the main feature was a large banking chamber, now used for retail purposes. The building opened in 1936. The name CBA disappeared when the bank merged with the Bank of New South Wales in 1982 and formed Westpac. This Stripped Classical building uses the Chicago style of base, shaft and capital on its principal facade.
23 South British Insurance Building (1936)
Founded in 1872, South British Insurance Company was a signiﬁcant New Zealand business that achieved international success. South British occupied this site for 100 years — previously leasing part of the CBA’s former building — and built it’s only purpose-built ofﬁce here in 1936. The building was designed by Auckland architect M.K. Drafﬁn who also designed South British’s Auckland ofﬁce. The design, principally neo-Georgian on a Chicago-style ofﬁce building, was much less daring than the Prudential Insurance building next door. South British merged with New Zealand Insurance in 1982.
24 Tower Corporation Building, (1930)
Tower Corporation began as the Government Life Insurance Department in 1869. It was formed to provide New Zealanders with a broader choice in life assurance. It grew quickly, with a state guarantee being a major attraction. The Department built its ﬁrst purpose-built ofﬁces on this site in 1893. After the 1931 Napier earthquake the building was thought unsafe and it was pulled down. The present building was designed by Government Architect, John Mair, and completed in 1936. Government Life became a corporation in 1983, and in 1989 it became Tower Corporation. It later severed all connections with the Government and became a mutual life company owned by its policy holders.
25 Former Brandon House (1929)
Brandon House is signiﬁcant for its connection with the Brandon family and the law ﬁrm founded by Alfred de Bathe Brandon, an early settler and solicitor. The building was designed by Francis Stewart, also responsible for the Hibernian Building, and construction was completed in 1931. Brandon House is a good example of a transitional design, incorporating elements of the Chicago School, New York skyscraper architecture and Art Deco. Particular features of note are the heavy mouldings at the top of both visible facades (the only example in Wellington of the use of such decoration) and the spandrel panels, which were covered up for many years. Inside are original panelled lifts, machinery and ﬂoor indicators, also very rare.
26 Agriculture House (1938)
Agriculture House is so named for its association with Federated Farmers, which bought this building in 1983. It was originally constructed for New Zealand Insurance one of New Zealand’s most successful and historic insurance companies. NZI began in Auckland in 1859 and opened its ﬁrst ofﬁce in Wellington two years later. This building was designed by Auckland architects Gummer and Ford, who had a long association with the company, and construction was completed in 1937. The building’s relatively undecorated facade was a signiﬁcant departure from prevailing styles and can be seen as an important milestone in the transition to Modern architecture.
27 Former State Insurance Building (1940)
At the end of the 1930s the Government commissioned a new building for State Insurance on this awkward corner site. The Auckland ﬁrm of Gummer and Ford, came up with a brilliant solution — a wavy facade wrapped around the corner. Together with the extensive use of glass it was an utterly novel piece of design for New Zealand and the bestknown local example of the new architecture becoming vogue in Europe. To emphasise its innovative design, the building included new features such as fast lifts, ﬂuorescent lighting and ﬁre protection. State Insurance was established in 1903 by the Liberal Government, to provide competition for large monopolist or overseas-dominated insurance companies. State Insurance was sold to Norwich Insurance in 1990. The controversial multi-storey rooftop addition and embedded Classical columns (carrying the former owner’s name in bronze letters) were completed in 1999.
28 Departmental Building (1940)
The Departmental Building was completed in 1940 and up to that point was the biggest ofﬁce building ever erected in Wellington. It was needed to ease the pressure on accommodation of the civil service in Wellington. The building was designed by Government Architect John Mair and built by Fletcher Construction. Numerous Government departments have come and gone and by 2000 just one major tenant, the New Zealand Defence Force, remained. In 1985–86 the original stone facing was removed and replaced with a white stone chip aggregate, partly made from the original Putaruru stone. The building acquired some fame as the “face” of television programmes Gliding On and Market Forces. Its broad, sweeping Moderne facade is a splendid complement to its contemporary neighbour, the State Insurance Building.
[More recently the NZDF have moved out, the building has been beautifully refurbished, and it now houses part of the Ministry of Business, Industry and Enterprise (MBIE.)]
29 Hotel Waterloo (1937)
The Waterloo Hotel was built for New Zealand Breweries in 1937 and designed by the local ﬁrm of Atkins and Mitchell. A podium and tower design not dissimilar to the Hotel St George, it had 102 rooms and accommodation for 125 when it opened. A contemporary account said it set “new standards in furnishings and interior decoration”. The liberal use of chrome in many of the building’s ﬁttings was an integral part of the hotel’s modern appearance. The hotel went into decline in the 1980s and ﬁnally closed towards the end of the decade. In 1991 the hotel was granted a new lease of life when it was converted to a backbackers’ hostel and the bars were reopened to the public.
30 Wellington Railway Station (1934-37)
By comparison with many other buildings designed in the 1930s, Wellington Railway Station was unusually retrograde in its appearance. Designed by William Grey Young, the station features a grand entrance, highlighted by eight Doric columns, which help make the station building one of the best-known Wellington landmarks. Inside, the huge coffered ceiling, apparently inspired by the Pennsylvania Station in New York, is also a standout feature. The grandeur of the building was appropriate given that it was (and still is) the busiest railway station in the country and that the building was to house the head ofﬁce of New Zealand Railways. Today its successor, Toll New Zealand, still keeps some head ofﬁce functions in the building, but the west wing of the building has been converted for use by Victoria University, as part of its Pipitea Campus.