Wellington architecture #3 – the evolution of Parliament.

When New Zealand’s capital, or Seat of Government as it was known then, moved from Auckland to Wellington in 1865 Parliament’s “House of Assembly” moved in to the existing Provincial Council Chambers.

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Photo: ATL – Swan, George Henry, 1833-1913. Provincial Council building, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-003739-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22494909

It was a convenient place to start but obviously not big enough. Additions to accommodate debating chambers for Upper and Lower Houses, committee rooms, the members’ restaurant (very important) and offices were added in stages until the original became part of a much bigger complex.

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Photo: ATL – Parliament Buildings, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-011625-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22795018

Restricted by Sydney Street on the left and Hill Street on the right, architects had to build over the back yard. Twenty years later, the side view from Sydney Street looked like a Gothic fantasy castle made in wood.

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In the 1890s, when the overflowing Parliamentary library demanded a new fireproof home, architect Thomas Turnbull went full circle and put his masonry extension in front of the original Provincial Council Chamber.

Pre 1907 postcard image of Parliament Buildings, Wellington.

It should have been a three storey building but political bickering over cost saw it redesigned by the Government’s architect with two storeys. Turnbull resigned from the project and asked for his name to be removed from the foundation stone. Fortunately, fireproof rooms and doors remained part of the design, despite budget cuts.

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On 11th December 1907, the tinder-dry wooden buildings burned down. The library and most of its contents survived, was rebuilt, and can still be seen today.

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The destruction of everything else disrupted Parliament for years to come and brought about a dramatic change in the landscape. The Governor abandoned his official residence, Government House (see previous post), and it became a “temporary” House of Assembly. An architectural competition for a new building was won by John Campbell – the Government’s own architect – with a grandiose design. The shallow gully that was Sydney Street was filled in and the site levelled to accomodate it. Construction began in 1912. And then came the Great War.

Work dragged on despite the lack of manpower available but when the war ended enthusiasm waned. An already small population had been decimated by conflict and the Spanish flu pandemic, materials became difficult to source, and the country was short of funds – again. Construction stopped in 1922 when the new House of Assembly was literally half the building it was meant to be. It has never been completed.

Parliament buildings, Wellington, New Zealand.

The building you see today is only half of the original concept, which is why the entrance steps are at the left instead of in the centre. The “Beehive” Executive Wing was added in the late 1960s to make a bold statement about “modern” New Zealand.

Whether or not you think these buildings “work” together is a matter of personal taste, but they have their own story to tell and represent three distinct periods in the architectural history of Wellington.

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Wellington architecture #1

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The Government Buildings, built on newly-reclaimed land in 1876 and photographed by James Bragge soon afterwards. Wellington would continue to spread into the harbour for most of the next century.

To many, the gem of Lambton Quay, undoubtedly one of the finest structures the Dominion has to offer, is the Government Buildings, erected in 1876 to meet the needs of the rapidly growing civil service, a beautifully proportioned block somewhat resembling a wooden replica of Somerset House, and standing in grounds which, though limited, serve to enhance not only the building they surround but the whole northern end of the Quay. The building is constructed entirely of wood, and forms the largest permanent wooden structure in the world.

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c. 1902. The original “ugly” corrugated iron fence was replaced by railings, and the gardens improved, in the 1890s.

And what wood! A list of the materials used – a million feet of them – sounds like a building contractor’s dream. For the main block, the framework of Tasmanian hardwood, the weatherboards and interior of kauri, For the wings, added later [1897 and 1907], the framework of rimu, the piles of totara, the weatherboards and flooring of matai, the interior finishings of kauri – an epitome of all the most precious of New Zealand forest products. The thought comes uppermost: “What forests passed beneath the axe to rear its walls!”
‘The Streets of my City’, F.L. Irvine-Smith, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1948.

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The civil service had outgrown its old offices by 1990 and left them empty. In recognition of its status as a heritage building, government sponsored restoration and conservation began four years later. Most of the interior is now leased to the Victoria University School of Law but parts of it are open to the public and well worth a visit.

The city has grown around (and above) it as cities do, and it’s a little sad to see the old building, that used to dominate its surroundings, being overshadowed by modern office blocks.

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This is the first of three loosely connected posts about the New Zealand capital’s early architecture. Next – Government House, 1871.

Kaiser Bill

This cartoon from 1902 shows that German Emperor Wilhelm II was seen as a subject for ridicule in Britain well before the Great War, when ridicule turned to hatred.

Kaiser cartoon

With his love of military uniforms – he was rumoured to own 600, some of which he designed himself – his arrogant attitude, and that absurd upturned moustache which he sometimes waxed into spikes, perhaps he was an easy target. The image comes from a little-known collection of twenty satirical cartoons called ‘The Coronation Nonsense Book’ by “Caroline Lewis” and illustrated by “S. R.” 1902 was the coronation year of Edward VII who was Kaiser Wilhelm’s uncle. The two detested each other.

The top caption alleges the Kaiser “has never been crowned” and suggests “For months past the fullest details as to arrangements and procedure have been telegraphed to his Majesty.” The main caption (for those with small screens) says – There was a Teutonic Tom-Tit, who said “I must certainly fit To myself all this Pomp.” But they cried “It will swamp Your Exchequer!” He said “Not a bit!”

If your wildlife knowledge is a little rusty, a Tom-tit is an old 17th century name for the Bluetit, a small but colourful bird found all over Europe. In a few lines the writer has skewered the man’s vanity and suggested that, although the British Empire can afford a lavish ceremony, Germany could not.

“Caroline Lewis” was Harold Begbie (1871-1929) and “S.R.” was fellow journalist J. Stafford Ransome (1860-1931). They are better remembered for their satirical novel ‘Clara in Blunderland’ published earlier in the same year.

If you believe that history repeats, you might be interested in this comparison of Kaiser Bill with a modern head of state.

Everybody needs a hobby

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A Lady’s Pedestrian Hobby-horse

In 1818, Denis Johnson, Coachmaker, of Long Acre, London, introduced the Hobby-horse into England. A year later a modified version of this contrivance for the use of ladies was introduced, probably by Johnson, who exhibited it at his riding school. The machine, which weighed about 66 lb., had a wooden dropped frame somewhat resembling that of the lady’s bicycle of to-day. The saddle was supported on an iron pillar fixed to the lower part of the frame. There is very little evidence that the ladies of the early 19th century indulged in the pastime, although Johnson’s advertisements assured them that it could be enjoyed without loss of decorum.

Well Denis would say that, wouldn’t he? He was trying to sell them! It could be argued that a lady’s decorum might be slightly damaged just by getting on to the thing and completely destroyed when seen pushing a 66 lb. wooden contraption up a hill on a hot day.

The image and text come from a “Cycling” collection of cigarette cards produced by John Player and Son in 1939. It could be the start of an occasional series.

A Triple Tragedy

Aboukir_vThe image at left comes from a postcard by Raphael Tuck and Sons, published around 1908, and features the British armoured cruiser H. M. S. Aboukir. She was launched in 1900 by Fairfields of Govan, Scotland and, on completion two years later, had a short career in the Mediterranean before being withdrawn from service and laid up in reserve in 1912. The rapid development of warships at the time had made her, and the rest of the “Cressy” class to which she belonged, practically obsolete.

She was recommisioned on the outbreak of war in August 1914 and sent on patrol with the 7th Cruiser Squadron to guard the eastern approaches to the English Channel. On the morning of 22nd September, she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-9 and when Cressy and Hogue closed to rescue survivors, they were dispatched in the same way. Three cruisers and over 1400 men were lost in less than an hour. You can find the crew list here. Writer Antoine Vanner gives a thorough description of the disaster on his blog.

Aboukir

This image by artist, Norman Wilkinson, was printed in ‘Earl Kitchener and the Great War’ (1916). Captions in the book claim “one of the sailors described the last moment as follows: “The captain sings out an order just like on any ordinary occasion, ‘If any man wishes to leave the side of the ship he can do so, every man for himself,’ then we gave a cheer and in we went.”
and
“The horrors of modern warfare are illustrated by the notice issued after this disaster by the British Admiralty, which reads in part, ‘no act of humanity, whether to friend or foe, should lead to neglect of the proper precautions and dispositions of war, and no measure[s] can be taken to save life which prejudice the military situation.'”

Translated into plain language – in the event of this situation being repeated, commanders must put their own ships’ safety first and leave men in the water to their fate.

Pahiatua: small town New Zealand.

In my last post about the now closed Manawatu Gorge in New Zealand’s North Island, I mentioned the Pahiatua Track as an alternative route across the mountains. It got that name from the town of Pahiatua at its eastern end.

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Pahiatua photographed by “McCasky”, and looking like a scene from the American West, sometime between 1900 and 1905.

As I mentioned, the “track” is now a road but, at the time this photograph was taken – when it really was a “bridle track” – it was known as the “Ridge Road“, and work was underway to widen it to a more useful 14 feet!

The town was founded in the 1880s and, according to the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1897), “Its growth has been so much more rapid [than expected] that it has attained quite imposing proportions while surrounded with most unmistakable signs of newness. Even within the borough boundary there are many acres still covered with stumps and burnt logs, and only the principal streets are formed, yet the public buildings, hotels, and shops would be a credit to many a town four times as old”.

The Commercial Hotel is at the centre of the photograph with a coach out front. This might have belonged to McPhail and Fly whose livery stable can be seen to the left. They had a monopoly on the livery and rental business in 1897 – “the vehicles for hire include sulkies, gigs, dogcarts, single and double-seated buggies, expresses, drags, four-in-hands, coaches, etc. ….. Tourists placing themselves in the hands of Messrs. McPhail and Fly may rely on seeing all the points of interest”.

The building to the right, on the corner, is the well patronized “public hall or concert room” where “the various musical and other societies cater well for the public. The Burns Society concert, held annually in the early spring, is always most successful, and it is generally the precursor of what is known as a “long night.”

Pahiatua’s Main Street is not one-sided, as you might think at first glance, but divided. The other half is on the left. The Cyclopedia explains why. “When Main Street was laid off, it was expected that the railway would be laid down the centre, and that all trains would thus run through the town; but, unfortunately for both Pahiatua and the railway, this very sensible proposal is not being carried out. Passengers and goods for Pahiatua will be dropped at Scarborough, or thereabouts, and all the inconveniences and expense of cabs, ‘buses, expresses, drays, etc., will be ruthlessly cast upon the people, unless, indeed, they indulge in the luxury of a tram service from Scarborough to Pahiatua”.

And so it came to pass. The surveyors, who knew a good deal more about the terrain than the Cyclopedia writer, laid their track just over a mile to the west of town soon afterwards, leaving the residents of Pahiatua with a “railway reserve” in the middle of the street that had to be filled in some other way. The image shows early attempts at tree planting, and that worked out just fine in the end.

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Pahiatua is known for its park-like central islands and an impression of space that makes it seem much bigger than it is.

Park areas on the railway reserve, Main Street, Pahiatua, New Zealand.

Manawatu Gorge, N.Z. Then and Now

Today’s post is part history, part travel advisory for the benefit of visitors. The second part won’t be news to New Zealand readers!

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This postcard mailed in the early 1900s, shows a painting of the Manawatu Gorge from the eastern entrance, as it was in the 1860s.

In the early days the Manawatu Gorge, a natural cleft dividing the Ruahine and Tararua ranges, was covered with beautiful bush from hill top to the brink of the river that flows through it. There was no track through the gorge, and the settlers in the Woodville district were unable to have any direct communication with those living on the west coast.

When the Government decided to open up the country, a bridle track was made on [the southern] side of the gorge; it was later widened into a road, but until the bridge was built, people crossed the river in a cage suspended from a wire; cattle forded it as best they could. Later timber was cut in the bush about the settlement of Woodville, then hauled by bullocks and floated down the river to the site of a bridge which was opened in 1875.

After the bridge was built a four-horse mail and passenger coach travelled daily through the gorge, and its arrival was eagerly awaited by everyone at Woodville, for it was their only connection with the outside world…….

Then the [railway] line through the gorge was commenced [on the opposite side], and the Woodville end became a very busy settlement, where temporary dwellings housed many of the workers on the line. The boring of two large and three small tunnels, bridge building, and excavating, made the job a long one, and the work gave many of the settlers a good start.

At last it was finished, the eastern and western coasts of New Zealand [North Island] were linked by road and rail, and the first train travelled through the gorge in 1891.
‘Tales of Pioneer Women’, Ed. A. E. Woodhouse. Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd., 1940.

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The Manawatu Gorge now. State Highway 3 from the western end.

The road has been vunerable to landslides, euphemistically known as “slips” in New Zealand, since it opened. The rail line as well, to a lesser extent. Each one seems to get bigger and more expensive to fix. The engineers and road crews had not long recovered from repairing a huge slide that closed the road for 18 months when another came down in April this year, followed by a smaller event a couple of months later. Expert opinion is that the hillside is unstable and moving slowly all the time, encouraged by a very wet winter. It is too dangerous for road crews to go in and clear the mess. (Some of the boulders are about half the size of a small car).

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Looking east down the gorge. Ruahine mountains and rail line at left; Tararua mountains and road at right.

Fortunately there are two alternative routes; the Saddle road to the north, and the Pahiatua Track to the south. Not a “track” anymore but neither road was built for State Highway traffic volumes. Noises are being made about building a new road along a reliable route while bureaucracy uses buzz words like “public engagement in the process” and moves at its usual glacial pace. A final decision will be made in December, after the ground dries out. Meanwhile we have to wait and see which political party holds the purse strings after the general election on 23rd of this month.

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One alternative route, over the Pahiatua Track. Not a “track” anymore but obviously not made for high traffic volumes.

Whatever the outcome – if you’re planning to visit the North Island of New Zealand, don’t expect to cross it via the Manawatu Gorge this summer. Or, perhaps, ever.

Sometimes Nature wins.