Courtenay Place Heritage Area

  • Courtenay Place Heritage Area is a rectangular portion of eastern Te Aro that encompasses seven streets and a number of listed heritage buildings.

    The area has had a long and varied history. Although part of the New Zealand Company’s planned settlement, it was slow to be formed. Much of the area was originally covered by an extensive swamp which remained unsuitable for building until raised and drained by the 1855 earthquake. Building commenced during the 1860s but the area was never well regarded during the 19th century. It was dominated by the backdrop of the Tory Street gasworks and the housing – particularly around Grainger (later Blair and Allen Streets) – was poor, if not outright slum-like. Things began to improve when the tram service was inaugurated in 1878 and more particularly when the electric service began in 1904.

    The transformation of the old housing area into Wellington’s fruit and vegetable market in the early 20th century also changed the appearance of the area. There were many other uses of the streets of course, with importers and exporters using the area for warehousing. At the same time, the arrival of picture theatres, coffee lounges, restaurants and better shops in the following decades further reinforced the area’s transformation and Courtenay Place became known for the quality of its shopping. At the end of the 20th century, the departure of the markets and the influx of restaurants, cafés and nightclubs, small businesses and apartments, again revived the area, but at a cost to the heritage fabric of some of the buildings and the absolute authenticity of some of the key streetscapes.

    This area has great significance for the integrity of the primarily Edwardian streetscapes contained within its boundaries, particularly Blair and Allen Streets. While not all of the buildings are outstanding on their own merits, there are buildings and structures of great heritage significance within the area. The real glories though are the long and unbroken vistas of heritage buildings that are a feature of several streets. These are rare and highly significant in Wellington and represent the greatest concentration of heritage buildings in the central city.

    The area’s rejuvenation has turned Courtenay Place area into something of a social mecca, particularly at night, and engendered considerable public interest in and affection for the buildings. It has also shown how heritage buildings can have a positive economic and social value in Wellington city. 

  • close Physical Description
    • Setting close

      Courtenay Place Heritage Area has a variety of settings, all of which contribute to the broad values of the area. Overall, the area is relatively open, with the wide streets and low-scale buildings responsible for that. This open character, not common in Te Aro’s streets apart from the wider arterial routes, is not unduly compromised by the odd large building. On the Wakefield Street side the New World supermarket and carpark block views to Waitangi Park beyond, which would otherwise emphasise the spacious aspect of the area; further west on Wakefield Street the taller buildings make more of an impact. Tory Street is something of a narrow canyon, opening up only its north and south ends. It also has a substantial carparking building on its west side, a dominant and unsympathetic feature opposite the ‘heritage side’.

      Perhaps the most famous vista is the view east up Courtenay Place, with the imposing front façade of the Embassy Theatre and behind it the timber houses of Mt Victoria. Mt Victoria is an equally significant presence in views from Wakefield Street and Cambridge Terrace. While the southern edge of Courtenay Place has the buildings of Te Aro behind it, the northern side is a relatively short distance from the sea, albeit that the waterfront is now only partly visible from Blair, Allen and Wakefield Streets.

      The broader setting of the Courtenay Place heritage area includes the second principal block from Tory Street to Taranaki Street which includes a number of significant buildings including the former Wellington Gas Company building, St James Theatre, and the public toilets in the triangle at Taranaki Street among others. The long view down Courtenay Place is arrested across Taranaki Street at the Hope Gibbons building although the views continue further east along Manners and Dixon Streets.

      The wider setting includes the Te Aro area which is characterised by a high proportion of old commercial buildings of a wide range of purposes, styles and scales.

    • Streetscape or Landscape close

      Courtney Place is a distinctive, popular and important urban space framed by, and containing, a wide variety of commercial buildings. The broader environs include historically significant areas and buildings along Cambridge and Kent Terrace, Wakefield Street, Tory Street and the existing heritage precincts of Blair and Allen Streets.

      The plan form of Courtenay Place records the early evolution of Wellington and the imposition of the original town plan on the available land. The meandering north side of the space parallels the original shore-line (which was one Town Acre block to the north); the south side establishes an important reference line to the original Te Aro city grid. It is contained at the east by Kent Terrace, along the originally proposed canal route to the Basin Reserve and by the foothills of Mount Victoria, and at the west by Taranaki Street, one of the principal streets of the early town. The distinctive plan form is created by the divergence of the two generating lines and by the definitive stop end and rising terrain at the east.

      Courtenay Place was one of the most intensively developed areas of Wellington from the early days of the settlement until the Depression and very few of the original 19th century buildings survive in any recognisable form. The characteristic period of the remaining heritage buildings is the early 20th century, with a particular concentration of 1920s and 1930s buildings prominent in the streetscape.

      The buildings that now define the space are predominantly two stories tall and give the street a particularly human scale that is quite rare in central Wellington. There are some exceptions, including the seven-storey Courtenay Chambers and some groups of three-to-five storey buildings, but the general sense of the space is of low buildings and an open skyline along the key edges, an impression enhanced by the excellent sunlight enjoyed by the area. All of the buildings in the heritage area conform to the line of street boundaries and create a strong street wall along the edges of the space. These factors give the urban space an open and inviting character.

      The ancillary parts of the heritage area have their own distinctive characters – Blair and Allen Streets are characterised by their generous street widths edged with a uniform collection of warehouse buildings of similar three-to-five storey heights and simple utilitarian designs (and entirely without pedestrian cover); narrow Tory Street has a collection of particularly interesting heritage buildings of quite disparate character, and the Kent and Cambridge Terrace buildings are set off both by the wide street space and the significant heritage buildings.

    • Contents and Extent close

      The extent of the Courtenay Place Heritage Area is shown in the District Plan, Chapter 21, Appendix 22.

      Courtenay Place Heritage Area is the name given to a rectangular block of Te Aro, incorporating the eastern half of Courtenay Place, along with Allen and Blair Streets, the northern ends of Tory Street and Kent and Cambridge Terrace, and the southern side of Wakefield Street (at its eastern end).

      This area has clearly delineated boundaries determined by the buildings and the grid-like streets they line. The area is tightly confined to the greatest concentration of heritage buildings – the eastern block between Courtenay Place and Wakefield Streets and the five streets between. The only street that sits outside this configuration is Kent Terrace, but as it directly faces Cambridge Terrace and includes a number of important heritage buildings, it can be considered a key part of the area.

      Many of the buildings were constructed in the early-20th century, particularly the Blair and Allen Street block, which was redeveloped from 1903 onwards, but the area contains buildings from several different eras and designed in a range of mainly Classically-based styles. A few buildings predate 1900, but there are no surviving buildings of any great age. Aside from Blair and Allen Streets, the most strongly evident era of development is the 1920s. Scattered infrequently are buildings of a more recent vintage, but few of these are contributors to the heritage values of the area.

      The buildings are primarily two or three stories in height, but the southern side of Courtenay Place and some other streets – notably Wakefield and Kent and Cambridge Terraces – contain larger buildings. However, these larger buildings are the exception rather than the rule and the area remains distinctive for its low-rise character and open aspect.

      Along with the former warehouses of Blair and Allen Streets, one of the most distinctive features of the area are its theatres (both cinema and live performance).  There are places as diverse as the Embassy, Paramount and Bats Theatres and Hannah Playhouse. Courtenay Place can be considered the heart of Wellington’s theatrical district.

    • Buildings close

      1.1.1         South side – Cambridge Terrace to Tory Street

      The south side of Courtenay Place is characterised by its continuous line of buildings between Cambridge Terrace and Tory Street which emphasise the original survey line. The buildings are diverse in nature and age but, despite some particularly intrusive modern buildings, have a high streetscape quality which contributes significantly to the heritage value and character of Courtenay Place as a whole.

      Harper’s Building, on the corner with Cambridge Terrace, is a quite plain three-storey building; its only architectural features are the Art Deco cornice and window head mouldings, a regular pattern of fenestration and a chamfered street corner. It is adjoined by a long low modern two-storey commercial building of no particular interest and the former McDonald’s building constructed in 1911, which is distinctive for its two-storey high gabled façade in exposed brick, rare in Wellington, and for its lack of ornament in a period where embellishment was requisite. It has an ungraceful apartment addition which, although within the height of the original roof, detracts from the streetscape value of the upper part of the building.

      Next to this is the 1927 Courtenay Chambers which at seven stories is the tallest building in this part of Courtenay Place. Although it is singularly out of scale with its two and three-storeyed neighbours, it is interesting for its elegant proportions and Stripped Classical version of the Chicago Style then prevalent for high-rise buildings and it sits reasonably comfortably in the streetscape for those reasons. It forms an emphatic termination to the view south from Blair Street although the particularly inelegant 1970s verandah detracts from the longer views of the building.

      Courtenay Chambers is joined by two poor commercial buildings, the first a low two-storeyed structure containing Arty Bees and some eateries, which strongly detracts from the heritage, architectural and streetscape values of this side of Courtenay Place and of the area as a whole. Adjoining this is another two-storeyed building, No. 23 (containing Subway), that similarly detracts from the values of the area, although it appears to be a modern façade emplaced on a much older building.

      The next group of buildings is rather more interesting and, as it is a group of old buildings that extends all the way to Tory Street, makes a particularly strong contribution to the heritage values and the streetscape of the area.

      The Paramount Theatre is the earliest surviving purpose-built picture theatre in Wellington and continues in this use today. Built in 1917 to the design of James Bennie, it has a two-storey principal façade surmounted with a tall parapet that masks the large block of the auditorium beyond. The façade is elegantly composed and detailed in a lightly ornamented but formal style reminiscent of the Glasgow Arts and Crafts school. Although today not much remains of the original building beyond the façade, it is a very important building in the streetscape and retains high architectural and heritage values. New retail spaces have been carefully designed to sit within the building and the broader streetscape and reflect the original pattern of shop-fronts.

      The next two buildings have a high degree of compatibility in form and scale and, although they are quite differently detailed, they share common elevation lines and have high group value and townscape value as a result. No. 31 is a small two-storey masonry building, currently housing United Video, which is distinctive for the composition of the upper level of the face in three identical bay windows. Adjoining this is the group of the Courtenay Market building (Nos. 31a-39). Built in the same year and designed by the same architect as the Paramount it has little else in common with the theatre. The street front of the building is divided into four identical pedimented facades, each with three windows centred on the upper floor and joined by a prominent horizontal cornice line which ties in with the next-door building.

      This pair of buildings is joined by a pair of narrow and low two-storey buildings. No. 41 has a distinctive upper façade with square Doric pilasters at each side rising through a strong cornice and bracketing round headed windows divided by fluted pilasters, each capped with palmettes. Stewart’s Building is an even smaller two-storey masonry building. The main feature of its street façade is the complex bay window set within a segmental arch at the top floor. The streetscape value of this building is diminished by a clumsy, modern smoker’s balcony set above the verandah.

      This group of low buildings joins in to the two substantial constructions of the Athenic Building and the National Bank. The 1923 Athenic Building is a tall four-storeyed concrete construction of elegant vertical proportions. Its street façade  is symmetrically arranged about a narrow central bay and features pilasters rising the full height to a pediment, with the intervening spaces divided between bands of windows and decorated spandrel panels. The decorative motifs on the pilasters and the spandrels are precursors to the elaborate geometric details that became popular with the Art Deco style. The National Bank, completed in 1928, is a tall five-storey concrete building with a Chicago-esque base-shaft-capital composition trimmed out in simplified neo-Classical detail above the street level and with an impressive Doric temple-like façade at street level, featuring fluted Doric columns and some interesting ironwork. This building is disfigured by a poorly-conceived modern glass verandah.

      The last building on this block is the former Hoosons building, now occupied by Burger King. This is a three-storeyed concrete building decorated in a Stripped Classical idiom with Adam-esque wreathings and other finishing details worked in to the plaster. It is given distinction with its regular pattern of oriel windows on each of the principal façades, light ornamentation and the broad verandah which sweeps around both façades and helps emphasise the horizontal lines of the building.

      1.1.2         North side block 1 – Cambridge Terrace to Blair Street

      The northern side of Courtenay Place is characterised by its division into blocks, in contrast to the continuous street wall of the southern side, the more uniform scale of the buildings, and is particularly important for its close association with the important heritage precinct of Blair and Allen Streets. There are few modern buildings evident on this side of the street and it has a high level of authenticity in the streetscape for that, although the 1970s BNZ is a particularly intrusive element.

      The somewhat Brutalist Downstage Theatre anchors the eastern end of the block with a strong modern presence but is carefully arranged on its corner site and proportioned to be compatible with the adjoining streetscape. It makes a positive contribution to the area. Heading west, the next building is the very modest and undistinguished single-storey Zico bar which is book-ended by the three-storey Westpac Trust building. This is a distinctive Art Deco building in Courtenay Place. Built in 1936 it has a symmetric composition dominated by a central fluted pier around which windows and panels of horizontal and vertical fluting are arranged to add considerable visual interest. The block is finished at Blair Street by The Establishment. This is a two storey commercial building completed in 1905 which features a well-executed corner entrance, but which is dominated by a modern verandah cum balcony that breaks the otherwise strong vertical lines of the building. It is finished in a minimalist Classical style that relates well to the nearby utilitarian warehouse buildings.

      1.1.3         Block 2 – Blair Street to Allen Street

      The next block contains a group of two and three-storey buildings. Opposite The Establishment is Hummingbird. A modest two-storey commercial building finished in 1907 it takes little account of its corner site with a very plain façade to Blair Street. The principal façade faces Courtenay Place and is composed symmetrically with paired arched windows set about a narrow central bay capped by a triangular pediment. A 1920s verandah wraps around both sides. The building is capped by an undistinguished modern roof-top addition which detracts from its heritage and streetscape values.

      Next to this is No. 24 which, constructed in 1894, is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Courtenay Place. It has a simple but handsome symmetrical façade divided in two bays; each bay has two arched windows with architrave mouldings and a string course at the springing line and surmounted by an entablature formed with two further string courses and a small triangular pediment set against a plain parapet. This building and the next are largely obscured from view by modern bus shelters. No. 28, two storeys high and meeting the parapet line of the adjacent building, makes free use of Classical elements in embellishing its street façade which is characterised by prominent arched windows – a large bay in the centre capped by a segmental arch pediment set against an ornate parapet, which includes a rare surviving urn, and flanked either side of dividing pilasters with smaller arched windows detailed with architrave mouldings and prominent keystones. It is somewhat disfigured with a modern balcony on the verandah.

      The building to the Allen Street corner, now known as Jet Bar, is another of the oldest buildings in Courtenay Place. It dates from 1901 and has an elegantly simple presence. The two street façades are characterised by the level parapet line and the tall double-hung windows, deeply set, separated with a regular pattern of simple pilasters; the façades meet at the corner with a graceful radius at the top floor and a chamfer at the ground floor which contains the main doors. The verandah was added in 1930. The aluminium window and door joinery is a recent addition.

      1.1.4         Block 3 – Allen Street to Tory Street

      The last block in the main part of the heritage area has two modern buildings and two interesting old buildings. The BNZ building is located on the Allen Street corner. This is a modern four-storied curtain wall box; although the curtain wall is enlivened with an interesting pattern of opening windows it is rather out of character for the area. Adjoining this is the curious No. 46, a narrow two-storey masonry building that sports an unusual combination of Spanish Mission and Art Deco motifs on its street façade. The main element of the façade is the pair of large arched windows, with the head of each arch in-filled with a large sun-burst pattern which contrasts with the rounded crenellations at the parapet line. The most distinguished building in this block, and one of the best in Courtenay Place, is the elegant Newport Chambers (1930), a four storey masonry building notable for its bold central three-storey oriel window and the fine geometric brickwork to the spandrels and parapet which gives it a distinct Art Deco character. The block is finished with the modern Sports Bar which runs along Tory Street. This is a three-storey development with a strange blend of styles, motifs and details. Despite the odd finishing it has a level of detail and patterning that is quite compatible with the old buildings in the area.

      1.1.5         Other items

      The streetscape of Courtenay Place is a visually cluttered one, much more so today than in the 1920s, particularly in its continuing role as a major transportation hub with the associated overhead trolley-bus cables. The street edges are marked out with custom-designed street lights, bits and pieces of landscaping and a wide variety of street furniture. The majority of the footpaths are covered in the now ubiquitous Australian paving bricks and have various marine motifs let in to them.

      There are, particularly at the Cambridge Terrace end, a plethora of traffic lights, navigation signs, trolley bus poles, pedestrian shelters and other visual clutter that detracts from the quality of the streetscape. Contemporary bus shelters are particularly prominent on both sides of Courtenay Place, the majority placed strategically in front of important heritage buildings to detract from views of them. Strangely designed public toilets are found in the middle of the southern side.

      There is a modest collection of public art, including the tripod sculpture erected by Weta Workshop.

      1.2               Ancillary areas

      There are three important ancillary parts to the Courtenay Place heritage area that contribute to the heritage, architectural and streetscape values of the area. These are the lower part of Tory Street (including some buildings on Wakefield Street), Kent and Cambridge Terraces and Blair and Allen Streets.

      1.2.1         Tory Street

      Tory Street has an eclectic collection of interesting heritage buildings and illustrates a variety of modern development techniques. The building heights vary considerably.

      North from the Sports Bar, the first building is a beautifully composed little 1924 sub-station built in plastered brick and featuring a stepped gabled pediment above a central pair of doors, which are flanked by plain window openings, and the WCC logo worked in to a plastered panel above the main doors. Next to this is Mountain Safety House built in the following year. This is a substantial four storey brick and concrete building, notable for fine brickwork and elegant proportions. It has a simple composition with a central section of five window bays capped with a heavy cornice and simple pediment, subdivided into a central bay of three windows and two single flanking bays, flanked on either side with additional single bays, slightly recessed, which terminate at the ground level in large square openings. The next building is the comparatively small John Swan Picture Framer, a two storey building completed in 1900. This has a simple symmetric but quite distinctive street façade which has a full-height pilaster on either side and features a stepped parapet, three arched windows at the first floor (the middle window broadened into Art Nouveau proportions) all set above a shopfront with a door at either side of the façade flanking a large display window. It has strong horizontal cornice lines that terminate in striking large bosses at the pilasters.

      The next building, Nos. 9-11 Tory Street is a group of three façades, all originally the same building , now all rather different in appearance but with some significant common features. At the ground floor, each façade has matching segmental arched windows with architrave mouldings and a small key stone joined to a simple string course. The central façade has one arch, the two flanking façades have two each. The façades differ greatly at the first floor and above – the northernmost, and most original, has four large architraved windows, two at each floor, disposed symmetrically below a heavy two-layered cornice. The next façade to the south has been altered for apartment use and includes a distinctive belled balcony with Art Nouveau-style steelwork railings (this motif is further expressed in the main entry with a Guimard-esqe swirl of organically flowing steel). It is framed with a shallow pilaster on either side, each terminated above the pediment in a ball. At the top centre of this façade there is an arched opening that contains further decorative steelwork. The southernmost façade is the most radically altered and features two contemporary steel and glass box oriel windows projecting out over the pavement. While interesting, it greatly detracts from the heritage and streetscape value of the group.

      The final building of interest on Tory Street is Colebrook House, originally a three storey masonry building constructed in 1917. Today it has a very bulky and disproportionate two-storey apartment addition on the roof which overly dominates the original building.  The original building has a quite interesting composition symmetrical about a central bay and divided by pilasters, rusticated at the corners and vestigial Classical to the central bay. The two side bays have square-headed arch openings at ground level and rectangular window assemblies to the two floors above, divided by a spandrel panel. The central portion has bay windows at the upper two floors.

      The corner building to Wakefield Street is the rather unimaginative single storey Tory Continental car show-room which has little to do with either of the streets it sits on; it detracts from the streetscapes of both.

      1.2.2         Wakefield Street

      The heritage area wraps around Wakefield Street from Tory Street to Cambridge Terrace to include buildings that add to the values of the area.

      From Tory Continental, the next building is the Commonsense Organics warehouse which is the remnant of an old warehouse building. It is set well back from the street and makes no contribution to the streetscape values of the area, although it is of some minor architectural and heritage interest. Adjacent to this is the Paris bar, a dour little two storey box of no discernible merit. The adjoining building, dating from 1907, is three original stories high on its corner site to Allen Street. A very plain building, with little architectural feature, it is not improved by the recent addition of a fourth floor. The sculpted corner entrance to Pandoro Bakery at the ground floor adds interest.

      Across Allen Street is the Panhellenic Association building, built in 1906 but extensively altered in 1942. A building of two parts separated by a party wall, the easternmost part (currently painted dark green) is least altered and shows how the whole building must originally have looked. The building is three stories high and constructed in concrete. The two principal façades have symmetrical arrangements of common features. The ground floor is set as a plinth and features rusticated walling and arched windows and doors. A cornice line sets this apart from top floors, which are modelled with shallow pilasters to each bay and a lightly detailed spandrel panel between the floors. The middle floor has pairs of square-headed windows; the top floor alternates large arched windows at the corners (and in the centre of the Allen Street façade) with much narrower pairs of segmental arched windows which adds variety and interest to what is otherwise a fairly plain building. The surviving original details that can be seen on the eastern part include unplastered brick walling and fairly elaborate head mouldings to the upper floor windows.

      The last building on the block, on the corner of Blair Street is a three storey masonry building. It is characterised by the prominent expressed columns on the main facades, the trimming beam to the top which, in lieu of a pediment, is ornamented with dentils underneath, and the gently rounded windows which give the utilitarian design a little Art Nouveau hint.  It is topped by a heavy-handed two-storied roof-top addition which although of architectural interest in itself has little to do with the building and perches uneasily atop it.

      The next short block contains the two most ornamented buildings in the Wakefield Street part of the heritage area. The corner building (Zino’s) has two matching façades articulated around a chamfered corner that contains the main ground floor entrance. It is three stories high with an austere ground floor; the principal decoration is to the top two floors and consists of double-height Corinthian pilasters rising to a cornice and reflected above the cornice in the parapet with pinnacles of an Art Nouveau flavour. The walls and spandrel panels are finished with rough-cast plaster between the windows which adds textural interest to the façade. Abutting this building is the narrower Café Wakefield building which was constructed in 1908. Much the same height as its neighbour, the floor levels are quite different and the elevations do not line through neatly. It is designed and detailed in a style quite compatible with its larger neighbour. Next to this is the YHA building (described in the section on Kent and Cambridge Terraces) which strongly detracts from the quality of this block.

      1.2.3         Kent and Cambridge Terraces

      These two streets form an important adjunct to the Courtenay Place heritage area and contain a collection of significant heritage buildings in groups clustered from Wakefield Street to Alpha Street. Perhaps the most important part of this area is that between Wakefield Street and Courtenay Place which contains a distinctive Wellington streetscape little changed since the 1930s and features the landmark Taj Mahal building.

      Excepting the Downstage Theatre, the key buildings in this part of the heritage area all precede the World War II and are diverse in purpose, scale and style. They reflect many of the varied uses that Courtenay Place has been put to over the years and its ongoing role as one of Wellington’s major public areas and its importance as a central part of the city.

      Two modern buildings significantly detract from the streetscape and architectural values of this part of the heritage area – the New World supermarket, which was inexplicably allowed to block the view to the waterfront from the two Terraces and the poor and overly dominant apartments at No. 5 Kent Terrace. The redressed modern YHA building at the Wakefield Street corner also detracts from the values of the area, although to a lesser extent than the other two buildings.

      1.2.4         Kent Terrace

      The buildings included in the heritage area along Kent Terrace, with one notable exception, have high heritage values and are important buildings in Wellington.

      The northernmost building in the area is the Wellington Central Fire Station, which was built in 1937 and which remains in its original use today. A long three storied building, it has a symmetrical composition with wings either side of the heavily-glazed central engine bay and is notable for its Moderne street elevation and Deco clock tower, which incorporates the original Wellington Town Hall Clock. Adjoining this is the well-known Bats Theatre, a small three-storied Stripped Classical concrete building constructed in 1924 with a strong symmetrical composition in three bays. Overshadowing this pair and the block as a whole is a particularly gruesome 9-storey modern apartment building which, although it features a base in scale with the two adjacent heritage buildings and has a symmetrical composition, is quite unsympathetic and strongly detracts from the heritage, architectural and streetscapes value of the area. The next building to the Marjoribanks Street corner is the gracefully rounded Clemenger BBDO building which is three original streamlined Moderne stories high with a modern mirror-glass roof-top addition and is distinctive for its horizontal emphasis developed with strong projecting curvilinear balconies and for its simple regular pattern of fenestration.

      Opposite stands the Embassy Theatre, a commanding presence in the Courtenay Place streetscape for its large scale appropriate to its position centred on the eastern end of the space. This concrete building, constructed in 1924 in a very formal Stripped Classical style, features a three storey front block, symmetrically composed about a prominent central bay and backed with a large flat wall to the auditorium which rises a further three stories. Adjacent to the this is the Wellington Motorcycles building, a three storey concrete building with light Art Deco details to the façade. It is surmounted by a distinctive curved pediment which is not original to the building.

      On the island between Kent and Cambridge Terraces stands one of Wellington’s special buildings, the Taj Mahal, a former public toilet built in 1928 and converted to hospitality use in recent times. This small single storey building is distinctive on the exterior for its domes and its simple Raj-style Stripped Classical decoration. It is an important local landmark.

      1.2.5         Cambridge Terrace

      The northernmost building on Cambridge Terrace is the recently refurbished YHA, a modern seven-storey building which detracts from the qualities of the heritage area with its poor treatment of the corner site and bland contemporary materials and colours. The other end of this block is strongly anchored by the Downstage Theatre, a formidable 1970s building with a high level of architectural integrity and heritage value in its own right and a strong presence in the streetscape. Between these buildings is an important surviving group of three modest turn of the century commercial buildings. Adjoining the YHA and co-opted to the same use is the former Rolle House (1908), a three storey masonry building with an unornamented but nevertheless formal and symmetrical composition. It has a heavy-handed modern single-storey roof-top addition and verandahs which detract somewhat from its heritage values. The former Caesar’s Palace is a building of almost identical scale, but carried out in richly embellished Italian Palazzo style. Until recently, this building had very high heritage values, but extensive ongoing changes and development proposals have affected, and will significantly detract from, the heritage, architectural and streetscape values of this building and the group as a whole. The third building, housing Origin Design and Thonet, is a quite plain two-storey brick building, simply composed and detailed and with an asymmetric modern roof-top addition that somewhat helps it relate to the adjoining Downstage Theatre.

      On Cambridge Terrace, south from Courtenay Place, is the former Wellington East Post Office (now known as Oriental Chambers, principally a back-packers hotel). An original eight stories high, it was for many decades the tallest building at this end of the city and, with its modern roof-top additions, remains among the highest in the area. The principal façade is symmetrically composed about a main central block with recessed wings on either side. It contains an intriguing blend of Classical and Art Deco motifs in its design, highlighted in the juxtaposition of characteristic Deco set-backs and vertical proportions to the two wings, the strong neo-Classical composition of the central block, all resting on a Classically inspired base which is particularly distinctive for the giant arches which flank the Ionic pilasters dividing the façade and which support the “entablature” which includes a clock and the Post Office crest.

      1.3               Blair Street and Allen Street

      The key heritage, architectural and streetscape characteristics of these two streets lie in the substantially uniform collection of two-to-three storied warehouse buildings, all of a similar era, scale and utilitarian style set along broad open streets; the width of the streets is emphasised by the absence of pedestrian cover, which enables the buildings to be appreciated as they were designed. The growing popularity of inner-city living has resulted in a plethora of roof-top additions to these buildings which, although executed in a variety of styles and with a common lack of architectural achievement, are mostly in proportion to the original buildings and do not detract greatly from the character or heritage values of the streets.

      Many of the buildings between the streets are the same buildings, some with two street addresses.

      1.3.1         Blair Street

      The first group of buildings from the Wakefield Street corner of Blair Street, although of a mixture of styles and detail, are notable for their very similar elevation lines, created by very similar floor heights and a nearly uniform parapet line, and proportions which create a strong street wall and confer a high streetscape value on the group.

      At the east side of Blair Street, the first building back from the Wakefield Street corner was built as a separate part of the former Rolle House on Cambridge Terrace and, three stories tall, essentially mirrors the plain but elegant composition, well-balanced proportions and design details of the other street façade. Adjoining this a matched pair of 1905 buildings, detailed with a light Beaux Arts touch, which together create a symmetrical three-storey façade of six bays. The ground floor bays of both buildings have rounded square arches which are reflected in the rounded windows at the two top corners. The two end bays are brought forward of the line of the columns and feature strong architrave mouldings, keystones and a small horizontal pediment at the top as well as wreaths to the spandrel panels. The middle bays are recessed slightly behind the column lines and are distinctive for the bracketing to the entablature. The next building, completed in 1906 shares a high commonality of elevation lines but is very plainly detailed with only a prominent dentilled cornice and modest window hoods to enliven the expressed structural grid.

      The last building before the Courtenay Place corner, four stories high and relatively plain, is the 1924 extension of the former bank (now The Establishment) on the corner. It has been converted to apartments and has balconies jutting from each of the top three floors.

      On the west side, the first building back from Wakefield Street extends through to Allen Street and has a matching pair of façades. Built as part of the Wellington Produce Exchange in the 1920s, it is a tall and wide three-storey building with  a distinctly modern design, albeit very plain in detail. The façades are divided into regular bays with pilasters and the first floor and roof lines are marked with strong horizontal elements. The last building before the Courtenay Place corner is the earlier section of the Produce Exchange, completed in 1905, which also goes through to Allen Street with a matching façade on that street. It is two storeys tall and composed in a formal but spare Edwardian Classical style featuring blocked pilasters, strong square architraving to the openings, a very prominent cornice line at the first floor and a particularly distinctive central entrance in the façade featuring a triangular pediment on corbels. It was originally capped on both streets with an elaborate parapet, long since removed.

      1.3.2         Allen Street

      On the east side of Allen Street, the first building back from the Panhellenic Association building is the eastern façade of the newer Wellington Produce Exchange building, adjoined by the older Produce Exchange building. The gap to the corner building at Courtenay Place is filled with a small plain concrete two-storeyed former warehouse, constructed in 1936.

      On the west side of Allen Street, the first building back from Wakefield Street, housing Masala, is a three-storey companion to the corner building with a similar plainness of style and lack of detail, completed in 1906. The floor levels differ, but the cornice line and the line of the modern fourth storey align closely and give the pair some streetscape presence. Next to Masala and built in the same year is a considerably more elaborate two-storey building (Nos. 14-16) which has a slightly Italianate appearance. It has a distinctive façade composed in five bays (one slender bay at the left containing the main door, steps and a narrow window at the first floor and four main bays, each with a loading dock at the ground floor surmounted by a generous round-headed window at the first floor) and trimmed with a large projecting dentilled cornice below a plain parapet. The window head moulds are all run together to emphasise the shape of the windows. That the main roof is visible above the parapet suggests that a more elaborate parapet was previously removed.

      Next door to this is the former Wellington Performing Arts Centre, a two storey masonry building unique in the street for its asymmetric composition. This building appears in two parts, with the small part on the right-hand side reading as an infill section between the main left part and the adjoining warehouse. The composition of the façade is best understood from the first floor where the main part of the building is composed in three bays, a central bay containing five identical arched windows and two flanking bays containing a single arched window each. The bays are given prominence by the wall sections between them being recessed. On the ground floor, the first bay on the left hand side has a narrow entry way set next to a broad segmental arch, the central bay has a section of wall with two round-headed windows and two loading docks and the right hand bay has the most peculiar feature of the building, a great round arch which is only partly rusticated.

      The last building in the block before the BNZ on Courtenay Place is the Courtenay Arms, until recently a two-storey building, now inflated to six storeys with a modern roof-top apartment addition. The base building has a simple composition in a five bay façade consisting of three central bays emphasised with a cornice and step in the parapet at the first floor flanked by two single bays on either side.

    • Structures and Features close

      Not available

    • Other Features close

      Not available

  • close Historic Context
    • The following histories were written by Chris Maclean, historian, for the 2001 Heritage Inventory and updated and amended for the purposes of this report by Michael Kelly. They separately cover Blair and Allen Streets and Courtenay Place.  The latter deals with the entire Courtenay Place, not just the eastern half, which ends at Tory Street. Changes have been made to this history to focus it more on the somewhat smaller area covered by this report, but the narrative largely stays faithful to that written by Mr Maclean.

      Courtenay Place

      The early development of Courtenay Place clearly exemplified the gulf between the New Zealand Company’s vision of a utopian settlement and the grim Victorian reality that eventuated in parts of Wellington. The rugged topography of the Wellington site constrained the Company’s Chief Surveyor, Captain William Mein-Smith, from designing grand features in his town plan. Instead, he had to cram in as many sections as possible to create the 1,100 town lots promised to the emigrants who were already on their way. The only area which gave him the chance to be creative was the extensive low-lying plain to the west of the Waitangi Lagoon, at the south-eastern end of Lambton Harbour. Mein-Smith transformed this area into something quite appealing – on paper, anyway. His 1840 town plan shows the lagoon contained within a rectangular inland boat harbour called ‘The Basin’, which was to be linked to the sea by a proposed canal. The rest of the plain was divided into one-acre town sections serviced by a grid-like network of streets, of which Courtenay Place was the grandest. It was to be far wider than the others, and the only one with a distinctive shape characterised by generous triangular spaces at either end, reflecting the curve of the nearby beach. This plan suggests that Courtenay Place was to be the centre of the city, a broad boulevard where townsfolk might promenade, sheltered from the prevailing northerly winds by the grand buildings which would grace the prime sections between the street and the shore.

      Yet within forty years of the map being drawn, Courtenay Place had become an industrial area fringed by slums. On the northern side of the street the sections which had seemed so desirable in 1840 were occupied by timber yards, the gasworks and a notorious slum in the vicinity of Allen and Grainger Streets.The southern side included a coach building yard and another part of the gasworks. Between them wooden houses and shops backed on to the poorest part of the town where many of the town’s Chinese, the pariahs of colonial society, lived in a Victorian ghetto. It was not until the 1920s that Courtenay Place began to resemble the civilised concourse which the original town plan proposed.

      The New Zealand Company’s high hopes for the street were implicit in its name which honoured Lord Courtenay, a director of the Company and a member of the Canterbury Association. It seems that the peer never visited Wellington. Had he done so he might have taken steps to see that his name was, at least, spelt correctly for it was originally labelled Cortnay Place on the town plan. It is likely that the Wakefields were grateful to him for the credibility that his involvement bestowed on the Company, for earlier escapades had made the Wakefields notorious in London. Lord Courtenay’s lineage improved the Company’s reputation and helped to attract investors.

      Out in the Antipodes, however, titles and peerages meant little, especially to the Maori residents of Te Aro pa. The pa, one of several Maori settlements on the shores of the inner harbour, covered five acres in the vicinity of what was to become Manners Street, Taranaki Street and Courtenay Place. Although the pa was shown on the town plan, the tangata whenua soon discovered that these neat lines on the surveyor’s sheets meant only trouble for them. In August 1840, when the plan was complete, town sections were allocated by ballot. Soon after, some of the new landowners began to develop their properties, including sections on Maori land. Mein-Smith had conducted the ballot himself and chose the Maori reserves which were meant to make up one-tenth of the town. The inhabitants of Pipitea Pa (in Thorndon) were fortunate because the surveyor chose the site of their pa as a reserve but the people of Te Aro pa were not as lucky. Their kainga was literally sold from under their feet.

      This arbitrary approach to co-existence with Te Ati Awa who were already resident in the area was the cause of predictable unrest. They had not been involved in the land purchase agreement negotiated the previous year between Te Puni, Te Wharepouri and the Wakefields. Nor had the Wakefields bothered to ascertain the limits of these chiefs’ authority to sell land. When Te Puni was confronted by the people of Te Aro about the deceitful sale of their land he replied ‘How could I help it when I saw so many blankets and muskets before me?’ Despite the obvious injustice of the situation one of the settlers, the newspaper editor Sam Revans, instructed labourers to begin building a house on his section within the pa. On 26 August a rumour that a European had been murdered at Te Aro swept the settlement. The Colonial Secretary, Willoughby Shortland, accompanied by two soldiers, went to investigate. Ensign Best, one of the armed escorts, later wrote that on the way to the pa they met ‘the murdered man Capt. Daniel walking quietly home, he said that he had interfered with some natives who were putting the house of Mr Revans into the sea and that one of them rewarded his zeal by trying to split his head.’ When Shortland and the soldiers arrived at the pa they found ‘a number of pachias (sic) armed with all sorts of weapons and in a very excited state assembled in it and the Mauries sitting round looking quietly on.’The agitated Europeans were dismissed, Maori grievances heard, and the Colonial Secretary then negotiated an agreement to allow settlement to proceed. He was soon able to report that the pa’s residents had ‘assigned over and yielded up to me, in the name and on the behalf of her majesty Queen Victoria, all their rights, titles and interests in the lands aforesaid.’ In return all settlers who intended to occupy sections on Maori land had to obtain Shortland’s approval first. The negotiated settlement succeeded only because more than half of the town’s sections had been bought by absentee owners (595 of 1100) so that displaced Maori simply squatted on vacant land, or moved to the low hills some distance behind the pa where they had extensive cultivations. Others remained within the pa, which the settlers left alone.

      The land immediately behind the kainga, between the foredune on which it was situated and the hinterland, was unsuitable for settlement by either group. This area was swamp, a no-mans land of fern and flax inhabited by rogue cattle. When stock was put ashore on the beach they were herded into cattle yards in the vicinity of Manners Street. Inevitably some got away and took refuge in the Te Aro swamp. Many became stuck in the boggy ground ‘where those that could not be rescued by horsepower were left to perish.’The wetland was created by the Waitangi Stream which flowed along the base of Mount Victoria to the harbour but was blocked at the beach by a mound of shingle thrown up by the waves. The trapped water saturated the low lying land behind the foredune instead. Periodically, in times of flood, the Waitangi burst through this barrier with a loud noise which could be heard some distance away.

      An even louder sound occurred on the night of 23 February 1855 when a massive earthquake struck the town. The great crashing noise, which was heard by sailors on ships in the harbour, was the sound of the Government Offices and Baron von Alzdorf’s hotel collapsing. The Baron, who used to say of his new brick edifice, ‘that is the way to build against earthquakes, no shock will destroy that’, was buried among the ruins. Remarkably no one else was killed. Two significant consequences of the great shake were first, that the Baron’s fate encouraged others to build in timber instead of brick; and secondly, that there was more land to build on, as the low lying land between Cuba Street and Mount Victoria had been raised by as much as 1.5 metres. Where the Te Aro swamp had impeded settlement, houses and shops began to be built on the upraised plain.

      Nevertheless, although the Waitangi Lagoon had disappeared, and the Waitangi Stream was now confined to a ditch along what was to become Cambridge and Kent Terraces, drainage was still a problem. Just a few years after the earthquake, a resident of Courtenay Place remembered being able to step out the door of his house ‘walk a few paces, then jump up and down to watch the jelly like movement of the ground for a considerable distance around.’For this reason the area did not attract those people who could afford to live in healthier, more salubrious surroundings. Instead it was taken up by timber mills such as Greenfields (1862) and Stewart and Co. (1865) and the Gasworks (1871).The timber yards were ideally located here because, as one observer noted, ‘Earthquakes were then recent enough memories to make a heavy demand for timber, and many a scow dumped its freight of precious kauri logs into the water at the Courtenay Place foreshore to be towed ashore.’The logs were milled and the timber used to build the Government Buildings and St John’s Church, as well as many other structures. A decade after the 1855 earthquake the other major barrier to the town’s expansion was also removed when Te Aro pa was subdivided into individual lots in 1866. This was the beginning of the end of the Maori presence in the vicinity as the new titles enabled the land to be sold. What remained unsold in the early 1870s was bought by the Provincial Government so that Taranaki Street could be extended to the harbour edge, and the slums at Te Aro cleared. By far the most significant development to boost the fortunes of Courtenay Place was the advent of trams. The first route to Newtown, in 1878, traversed Cuba and Vivian Streets and, in 1881, a line was extended along Courtenay Place and Cambridge Terrace. This created a rectangular loop line around Te Aro Flat, within the route from the central city to Newtown. The trams brought customers into the city and encouraged commerce, especially after the introduction of electric trams in 1904. Suddenly Courtenay Place enjoyed much greater importance because trams, leaving from the terminus at its eastern end, serviced all the suburbs in the southern section of the city such as Newtown, Island Bay, Kilbirnie and Miramar, as well as lines to Oriental Bay and Hataitai. At the same time trams coming in to the central city also passed through Courtenay Place, making it one of the busiest places in Wellington. Their advent coincided with a period of unprecedented prosperity in the city. Since the 1890s Wellington’s port had been the busiest in the country and congestion at Queens Wharf, the principal cargo facility, had prompted renewed reclamation of the inner harbour to make more land for port expansion. In 1886 a long, narrow strip was reclaimed between Hunter Street and Clyde Quay which enabled Victoria Street (part of which is now Mercer Street) and Wakefield Street to be formed. Further reclamation along the Te Aro foreshore occurred in 1888, when an additional 300 metres of berthage was created; in 1893, when land for Te Aro Station was formed; and between 1901 and 1914, when Barnet, Cable and Chaffers Streets were created. In all, more than 60 acres of new land was reclaimed between Courtenay Place and the sea.



      These reclamations eased pressure on Queens Wharf and shifted the city’s commercial axis further south-east to include Te Aro Flat where more land was available for warehouses. The Harbour Board, which oversaw the reclamation of Lambton Harbour, also played an active role in the creation of new commercial premises. Its most extensive development was the creation of a warehouse and market district in Allen and Blair Streets (between 1898 and 1904) which transformed an area of slum housing into a vital adjunct to the city and port. The impact of these changes, coupled with the commercial boost of the trams, soon altered the architecture of Courtenay Place. Photos taken between 1910 and 1920 show that the modest wooden shops and residences of the 1870s and 1880s were rapidly replaced at this time by substantial, two-storey buildings of masonry construction. In its early years Courtenay Place had been conspicuously empty - now it was a scene of bustling activity filled with horse-drawn carts and carriages, electric trams and, by 1920, early motor vehicles. In all the photos pedestrians are evident everywhere.

      The tram terminus at the eastern end became a focus of activity, a gathering place, almost a village square. In 1910 the Wellington Rugby Football Union, for example, wrote to the Town Clerk asking permission to erect a noticeboard there to inform players and the public about the postponement of matches.Two years later the Federation of Labour sought permission to hold a meeting in Courtenay Place near the terminal. Both requests were granted. Not all those who gathered there were, however, ideal citizens. Problems with drunks loitering around the tram shelter were first reported in 1911 when Inspector Grass complained that he had been ‘subjected to more abuse, received more insults and invitations to fight from a party of six or seven drunken men and youths than it has ever been my lot to put up with since I have been doing tramway work’. The unpleasant behaviour occurred, according to the Tramway’s Superintendent, on Saturday nights when men, full of beer, drifted back from the city to Courtenay Place ‘loaded with bags, baskets, jars and demi johns, and with bottles of beer in each pocket. When not allowed on the cars on account of their condition they hang about, interfering with, threatening and abusing the unfortunate Inspector who may happen to be on duty.’This was the first recorded instance of a persistent problem that was to continue until the reconfiguration of this end of the street, in 1997, led to the removal of the triangle and its shelters.


      The drunks were just a small element among the increasing numbers of people who flocked to Courtenay Place in the 1920s, drawn by the growing number of cinemas in the area. Entertainment had always been a speciality of this end of town but, in the 19th century, it was largely confined to Manners Street where the Olympic Theatre and the original Opera House provided diversions. Later, the range of venues increased. In Vivian Street a skating rink attracted young people and bazaars were popular with all those who enjoyed Irish and Scottish dancing and music. The Town Hall was a regular venue for travelling shows. The first theatre in Courtenay Place began in the Old Choral Hall which was originally used for religious purposes. It was built in 1879 as the United Methodist Free Church but was bought by J. Fuller and Sons in the 1890s and was used as a venue for vaudeville. These shows were so popular that Fullers commissioned New Zealand’s leading theatre architect, Henry White, to design ‘the biggest and best theatre in New Zealand.’ His Majesty’s Theatre (now the St James) was completed in 1911. The grand new theatre boosted the street’s reputation as a place of entertainment. Three years later a new Opera House in Manners Street opened on the eve of the First World War.

      Global conflict barely slowed the proliferation of theatres in Courtenay Place. The first venue for silent films, the Paramount Theatre, showed its inaugural feature ‘Less Than the Dust’ in 1917.It was strategically sited close to the tram terminus - as was the De Luxe, the second cinema in Courtenay Place, which was completed in 1924. The De Luxe (later to be renamed the Embassy) was as grand and substantial as His Majesty’s Theatre and cost its developer, movie theatre chain owner William Kembell, £100,000 to build. At first the cinema showed silent films which were accompanied by an orchestra, then by a Wurlitzer organ. When talking films arrived in 1929 Kembell installed a sound system and was the first cinema owner to show them. The Paramount, also under Kembell’s control at this time, was another pioneer of the ‘talkies’. It launched them with ‘Street Angel’ on 8 March 1929.

      These cinemas were clustered at the eastern end of Courtenay Place. Nearby were the offices of the companies that ran the movie business. Courtenay Chambers, at 15 Courtenay Place, which was built in 1927, contained a plethora of companies connected with the film industry, and all were on the 3rd floor. Most of them were probably associated with Kembell, but the various names show the extent of his, and the industry’s, influence.  Street directories reveal names such as Picture Enterprises Ltd., New Princess Theatre Co., Hastings Picture Ltd., De Luxe Advertising Co., Lyall Bay Pictures, Picture Supplies & Kembell Ltd., Carterton Picture Co. Ltd. and Stratford Theatres Ltd.

      At the western end an equally influential innovation was making a similar impact. During the 1920s motor vehicle dealers established numerous showrooms and service facilities on both sides of the street. Vehicle manufacturers had been active in the area since 1859 when the Empire Coach and Carriage Company built a factory on a site between Taranaki Street and Courtenay Place. In 1911, the same year that His Majesty’s Theatre opened, the Colonial Motor Company took over the coach building premises and in 1920 a huge, nine-storey, car assembly plant was erected on the site. Like the nearby theatre, this industrial building was an early example of steel frame construction. The Colonial Motor Company’s major shareholder was Hope Gibbons, a man with many business interests. He commissioned King and Dawson, who designed the C.M.C car assembly plant, to prepare plans for an office building on the corner of Taranaki and Dixon Streets.The impressive size and detailed decoration of the large structure that resulted, which has always been known as the Hope Gibbons building, created a counter-balance to the other big buildings facing Courtenay Place; especially the de Luxe Theatre at the eastern end. The same year the Todd Motors showroom opened opposite His Majesty’s Theatre. Its neo-Classical interior with matching marble staircases leading to a mezzanine floor, and picturesque stained glass windows, echoed the ornate embellishments of the playhouse across the street. The capital investment evident in these edifices, together with the sheer size of the De Luxe and the Hope Gibbons building, spoke of their owner’s confidence in the future of motion pictures and motor cars.

      The remarkable transformation of Courtenay Place in the years after World War I, especially in the 1920s, was not exclusively driven by cars and cinemas. The street’s commercial vitality was so diverse that it led to other, more general, developments of a similar scale including Courtenay Chambers (1927), the National Bank (1927) and the nearby Cambridge Terrace Post Office (1930). The latter was an understated, small-scale imitation of a Chicago skyscraper.Courtenay Place’s building boom was Wellington’s response to the introduction of American innovations, but the pervasive popularity of cars and films was fuelled, to a certain extent, by a bull run on Wall Street. Those heady days came to a sudden end in 1929 when the American stock market collapsed. So too did the building extravaganza in Courtenay Place. It was to be 10 years before any more new buildings appeared and when construction began again in 1939, it was more modest than the large-scale activity that characterised the preceding decade. The old, wooden, two-storey City Hotel (on the corner of Kent Terrace and Majoribanks Street), for instance, was replaced by an Art Deco successor of a similar size and, the same year, the Van Staveren building in lower Taranaki Street was completed in a similar style. It too, was a modest size.



      During the Depression and its aftermath the few large building projects in Wellington were generally funded by the Government. The National War Memorial (1932), the National Art Gallery and Museum (1936), the Wellington Railway Station (1937), the Central Fire Station (1938), the Departmental Building and the Herd Street Post Office (both 1939) were all examples of the efforts of successive governments to sustain employment. The only privately funded developments of any consequence at this time were a cluster of new high-rise insurance company buildings at the southern end of Lambton Quay. Even then, the largest of these, the Prudential, was built by labourers paid by the state.

      After the Second World War certain trends in the city’s development emerged. New buildings were erected in Featherston Street, Lambton Quay and on The Terrace, where finance and power were concentrated, and in the area around Parliament, where new office blocks were built to accommodate the burgeoning civil service. In contrast no new buildings of substance were constructed in Courtenay Place for more than thirty years - from the start of the Second World War until the 1970s.

      Courtenay Place didn’t wake from its big sleep until 1973 when the Hannah Playhouse, a purpose-built theatre for Downstage, opened. It was a useful addition to the street’s range of theatres but, paradoxically, appeared at a time when the advent of television had glued many potential patrons to their suburban sofas. Downstage survived because it showed the best of contemporary drama to an elite audience but the St James and the Opera House were allowed to deteriorate as live shows increasingly lost their audience. Cinema also suffered. The Embassy tried to counter the lure of television (and later, home video) with the introduction of a wide screen and an enhanced sound system. Many movie theatres such as the State, the Plaza and the Kings simply went out of business. It was not until the 1980s, when television began to lose its appeal, that film and live theatre venues again enjoyed profitable patronage.

      During the mid 1980s much of the rest of the central city was rebuilt in a frenzied wave of re-development fuelled by a de-regulated economy and a rising sharemarket. Courtenay Place was saved from this speculative scourge by its distance from the financial heart of the city, although it lost a significant sequence of heritage buildings on its northern side, including the Todd Motors showroom. The proposed redevelopment on this site never eventuated and it became a parking lot. Ironically, when the rest of the city stalled in the years after the 1987 sharemarket crash, Courtenay Place was reinvigorated. The principal reason was new, relaxed liquor laws (which became effective in the early 1990s) that finally allowed food and liquor to be consumed together. Suddenly bars, cafes and restaurants appeared in place of the Chinese restaurants and milk bars that had predominated during the decades of decline. The new European culture ideally complemented the existing entertainment in Courtenay Place. Together they combined to create an exotic and vibrant precinct without equal in the city, arguably in the country.

      In the present day, Courtenay Place comes close to realising the New Zealand Company surveyor’s vision of a popular promenade. It happened once before, in the brief period between the end of the First World War and the start of the Depression when it was, as one observer noted, ‘one of the finest business and shopping centres of the Dominion’.But those halcyon days were followed by stagnation. Recently, however, Courtenay Place has re-emerged as a bustling attraction and new streetworks sympathetic to this vision, as well as improved public facilities provided by the City Council, have added to the street’s appeal.

             Blair and Allen Streets

      The story of these streets is more varied than most. This area was once a swamp. With the arrival of the New Zealand Company came plans for a utopian settlement that would avoid the problems of England’s industrial cities. Yet within thirty years, this area had become a notorious slum reminiscent of the Old Country. At the turn of the century, when the area was transformed into a purpose-built market, its streets were redefined and the precinct given a new identity. In the last few years that function has been superseded by bars and restaurants which have opened in the old warehouses and produce halls.

      In 1840, the first sections were sold by ballot to purchasers who, in the case of investors in England buying through local agents, knew little of Wellington. Among the most sought-after were those along the foreshore including lots 222, 223, 224 and 225 which were located at the southern end of Courtenay Place between the proposed canal and the harbour’s edge –  the area we know today as Allen and Blair Streets. On the plan it looked like prime real estate but English buyers might not have been so keen had they understood the discrepancy that existed between it and the actual landscape. In particular, the provision of a canal extending south from the foreshore to a proposed boat harbour called the ‘Basin’ should have been a warning that this was in fact swamp land. These town sections were part of the waterlogged fringe of a shallow lake known as Waitangi, which stretched from the beach to the Basin Reserve. According to local Maori these waters were the home of a taniwha but, fortunately for the settlers, ‘having a foreknowledge of the coming of the Europeans, it vacated that place prior to their arrival’. Waitangi was fed by a series of creeks which drained the slopes of Mount Victoria, Mount Cook and the shallow valley which was to become Newtown. However, where the stream reached the harbour’s edge it was frequently cut off from the sea by a mound of shingle thrown up by the waves. During floods this barrier was breached and the lagoon emptied; this occurred, for example, on 4 May 1853, when small islands of peat supporting clumps of flax floated out into the sea.

      These swampy sections were transformed by a dramatic event - one with which English investors were unfamiliar, but which the early settlers knew all too well. In 1840, and again in 1848, Wellington had been rocked by moderate earthquakes which caused some damage. However, these shakes were far smaller than the massive earthquake which struck the settlement in 1855. In less than three minutes various parts of Wellington were transformed. Previously impassable headlands around Wellington Harbour suddenly became negotiable on an upraised shore platform which had lain submerged, and hundreds of acres of low-lying land around the Waitangi Lagoon was abruptly lifted by up to 1.5 metres.

      This previously unusable land soon began to be utilised. Before 1855 it had been possible to row a dinghy along the waterway from Courtenay Place to the Basin. Subsequently, Kent and Cambridge Terraces became major roads.Similarly, the original city block bounded by the beach, Cambridge Terrace, Courtenay Place and Tory Street (consisting of town sections 222-225) was developed for housing. To allow access to the centre of the block two new streets were created. Allen Street extended north from Courtenay Place to meet Grainger Street which ran westward from Cambridge Terrace, forming a curious dogleg.

      Captain Mein Smith may not have welcomed this unspecified subdivision but it created a number of small sections on which worker’s cottages were built. This was the poor end of town where industry was concentrated, well away from the grand mansions on the Terrace and in Thorndon. A photograph of the area, taken in the 1870s, shows tightly packed dwellings, some facing in towards Grainger Street with their backs to the sun and the sea, and others facing onto Courtenay Place.The adjacent block at the harbour end of Tory Street was taken up by the gasworks where, presumably, many of the residents of Allen and Grainger Streets worked. To the north of these streets lay the City Corporation’s Yard where horses, drays, milkwagons, nightcarts and streetworks equipment were kept.

      During the 1890s Wellington began to prosper as never before. Its congested cargo handling facilities at Queens Wharf were inadequate and port expansion was restricted by a shortage of land. Progress depended on reclamation. New land was created for new docks and for another railway station, known as Te Aro, which was built on reclaimed land north of Allen and Tory Streets in 1893. In spite of these developments the area was still prone to flooding because simply filling in the harbour did not change existing drainage patterns. Grainger Street, in particular, was known for its floods; ‘the water was half way up the windows’ recalled one man who had experienced them. The sea also used to wash over reclaimed land behind the Te Aro Station.

      It is unlikely that George Allen was flattered by having his name associated with such a sodden section of the city. Nothing is known of Grainger but (s)he would have had even less reason to be pleased because that street was known as one of Wellington’s worst slums. In 1898 both streets came under Harbour Board control when legislation to allow further reclamation also made the Board the reluctant landlord of areas adjacent to the port. The Board, not the City Council, was given the job of clearing ‘the insanitary properties’ in Allen and Grainger Streets, redefining the roads and selling the land. Not all the residents wanted to leave, however, and it took three years of evictions and compensation claims before the Board got its way, at a cost of almost £35,000. Even with the residents removed and the land cleared there was still the problem of flooding to be faced. This was not solved until 1903 when the reclamation contractor, Charles Pulley, built culverts to channel the floodwaters which flowed down Kent and Cambridge Terraces out to sea.

      While he improved the drainage the layout of the original town block was re-designed. Allen Street was widened and extended north to join Victoria Street (now Wakefield Street) which in those days followed the edge of the harbour reclamation. At the same time a new road was built parallel to Allen Street, further to the east. It was named Blair Street in acknowledgement of John Blair’s important contribution to the development of Wellington; in particular, his critical liaison between the City Council and the Harbour Board during his term as Mayor (1897-99) when he was also on the Harbour Board. It was at this time that the complex issue of the overlapping interests of these two bodies was resolved, thus allowing the redevelopment of Allen and Grainger Street to proceed. The latter simply disappeared.

      The creation of Blair Street and the new look Allen Street had a significance beyond slum clearance and port expansion. They, and other new streets, were the response of the city fathers to the dawning age of motorised transport. The redevelopment of Allen and Blair Streets was also important because it created an area of vacant land close to the capital’s southern railway station (Te Aro), yet some distance from the congested port at Queens Wharf. Here was a golden opportunity to divert activity away from clogged central city streets towards the southern fringe of the commercial area. It was an ideal location for a produce market.



      Daily vegetable markets were held by firms which had operated in the city for many years –  George Thomas and Co. began in 1869 and Laery and Co. the following year –  but there was no single market place where all the vendors were concentrated. Fresh fruit and vegetables came from a number of places. Chinese growers (who were not permitted to own land) rented sections on the fringes of the city especially in Karori and Miramar, and also grew produce in the Hutt Valley and at Otaki. As the city expanded, suburbs encroached on arable land and the city became increasingly reliant on supplies from further afield. Unfortunately, it took a long time to get produce to the city from places such as Otaki, so it wasn’t fresh when it eventually arrived. The opening of the Wellington to Manawatu Railway in 1886 changed that.Fruit and vegetables could now be picked in Otaki in the late afternoon, and railed to the city during the night in time to be on sale at the markets the next morning.This was a significant improvement but there was still one problem to be solved. Lambton Railway Station was located on Waterloo Quay at the northern gateway to Wellington, some distance from the city markets, which meant that produce had to be transported from the station to the markets. The 1893 railway extension south from Lambton Station around the edge of the new reclamation to a new station at Te Aro, allowed produce to be brought right into the city.

      Between 1904 and 1906 buildings sprang up along both sides of Allen and Blair Streets. They were two or three stories high with a variety of street facades, some more ornate than others. Most were of a similar size except the two largest, which extended from one street to the other with vehicle access from both Blair and Allen Streets. This was an ideal arrangement for premises which had to provide space for numerous vehicles to load and unload. Markets were held on the ground floor with offices on the floors above.



      The market’s location close to Courtenay Place meant that sometimes events and occasions spilled over into the nearby commercial streets. In February 1927, for example, an Open Air Concert and Military Tattoo was held in Allen Street to raise funds for returned soldiers.

      The following year local evangelist, Robert Lawrence, sought Council permission ‘to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ’ in Allen Street on Saturday nights ‘to lift mankind and make them better citizens’, which suggests that these streets were a popular venue independent of the markets.The Council was more concerned for the physical wellbeing of its citizens especially the illegal use of buildings, like Thompson Brothers’, for public meetings. The market buildings had large spaces but they were not designed for use as public halls and lacked appropriate fire exits and toilets. Despite this, the Oddfellows Society, the Wellington Gaelic Society and other groups were known to hold meetings there. On occasions meetings were also attended by Council officers sent to gather evidence. The Council’s concern was validated on the night of 26 November 1928 when a huge fire engulfed the markets. It was an hour before the alarm was raised by which time the fire was well established inside the premises of Thompson Bros. As the building extended from Allen to Blair Streets the fire was fought from both sides, but it was difficult to prevent flames spreading throughout the block. The blaze, one of the biggest in the city for years, caused damage estimated at £300,000.

      The building’s gutted interiors were soon rebuilt but in 1942 a significant earthquake, which caused moderate damage throughout the central city, also took its toll on this precinct. Most buildings survived intact except for the Tui Bottling Company’s premises at 7-9 Allen Street. The owners were given one week to remove its ‘exceptionally high and heavy parapet’ which was cracked and had become separated from its inner retaining wall. Similarly, Laery and Company’s ornate parapet on its Victoria Street facade was also removed and it is likely that other buildings in the area were shorn at this time.

      Earthquake safety remains a concern for the area’s buildings. In the early 1970s the City Council identified buildings at risk and their owners were given the choice of strengthening or demolishing them. During the subsequent decade many central city heritage buildings were demolished as a frenetic wave of redevelopment, fuelled by a rising stock market, swept the capital. It was followed by a recession which made strengthening a more attractive option. At the same time new engineering techniques for upgrading old buildings were developed. By the 1990s most of the vulnerable buildings had been given new life, sometimes with assistance from the City Council.

      Nowhere is this more apparent than in Allen and Blair Streets where a near complete collection of turn of the century buildings remain – bar one on the corner of Courtenay Place. In 1993, after an association of 90 years with these streets, the produce markets were relocated to a new site at Grenada on the northern outskirts of the city. Bars, a bakery, furniture showrooms and a variety of restaurants appeared in their place. The precinct’s distinctive heritage character made it attractive for the new uses that have since revitalised the area.  These businesses have taken advantage of the generous spaces available in the old warehouses and produce halls. Today the historic precinct is renowned for its nightlife and, in particular, its diverse selection of eateries, which complement the entertainment available in Courtenay Place. That revitalisation has come at a considerable cost to some of the buildings, with regular fitouts of heritage spaces, rooftop additions and alterations to ground floor elevations undermining the heritage values of the area. 

  • close Cultural Value
    • Significance Summary close

      Not assessed

    • Aesthetic Valueclose
      The architectural and aesthetic value of the Courtenay Place Heritage Area is derived from its townscape quality which is significant for the consistency and quality of the buildings, the range of heritage on display and the low-rise and open character of the area. There are excellent examples of buildings from the late Victorian period to the present day, with a particular concentration of buildings of the first two decades of the 20th century. Blair and Allen Streets, in particular, contain buildings of a relatively uniform height and scale and while their design often varies, the common purpose and architectural character of each building is such that they form a compatible whole. As befits the nature of the uses these buildings were intended for, they lack extensive decoration, which enhances their visual cohesiveness and demonstrates on a fundamental level the link between use and design. Together these two streets have a strong sense of place that enhances the heritage value of the wider area. While the remainder of the area, particularly Courtenay Place itself, contains buildings of much greater variety in age, style and scale, this contrast plays a key part in the overall heritage value of the Courtenay Place Heritage Area. Because the buildings in this area have remained in reasonably authentic condition for up to a century or more, they provide a valuable record of commercial, warehouse and office building technology from the late 1890s onwards. The work of many notable Wellington architects is represented by buildings in Courtenay Place and environs.
    • Historic Valueclose
      The historic significance of this area lies to a considerable degree in the sheer diversity of its history. It has been a place of industry, commerce, entertainment, transport and living, and while Courtenay Place and its associated streets bear no evidence of their swampy beginnings, there is an overall theme of continuous historical development that adds to its obvious visual quality. Against a backdrop of anxiety about poor housing and unsanitary living conditions, the transformation of the area surrounding what was Grainger Street into a warehousing precinct in the early 1900s was a calculated and historically significant attempt at urban renewal. Blair and Allen Streets also have important historic value as the focal point of the area that housed the wholesale produce markets for the city for approximately 90 years, from shortly after the turn of the century until 1993. The markets saw an immense amount of life, some of it when the city was otherwise quiet in the early hours of the morning, and they brought into the area a wide variety of characters, including growers, wholesalers, auctioneers, retailers, truckies and others. The markets strongly influenced the growth and development of this part of the city, and left behind an important legacy of Edwardian warehouse buildings.
    • Scientific Valueclose
      The heritage area has a recorded history that spans several centuries and is likely to have high archaeological value. Because the buildings in this area have remained in reasonably authentic condition for up to a century or more, they provide a valuable record of commercial, warehouse and office building technology from the late 1890s onwards. The work of many notable Wellington architects is represented by buildings in Courtenay
    • Social Valueclose
      Courtenay Place’s growing social value had its origins in the theatres, hotels and cafés that appeared in the 20th century. Today it is Wellington’s premier night spot and nationally (and even internationally) famous for that. Its theatres have long been a significant part of the city’s cultural life and include landmark buildings such as the Embassy Theatre (1924) and Hannah Playhouse (1974), and the historically significant Paramount (1917), Wellington’s oldest surviving picture theatre.
    • Level Of Cultural Heritage Significanceclose
      The Courtenay Place Heritage Area contains significant number of buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a good example of an early 20th century NZ commercial streetscape, and contributes to the continuity and sense of place of Wellington city and the Wellington Region.
    • New Zealand Heritage Listclose
  • close New Zealand Heritage List
  • close Additional Information

Last updated: 3/3/2020 9:48:09 PM