Dixon Street Steps

  • Dixon Street Steps were formed in 1879 to provide access to Te Aro for residents of The Terrace, then developing as a residential area. It joined the two parts of Dixon Street, which, in common with a number of other early roads surveyed around the city, were separated by a particularly steep section not suitable for vehicles.

    The steps were first formed in timber and then, sometime after 1897, were made more permanent. Use of the steps increased markedly in the early 20th century, with the establishment of the suburb of Kelburn and the founding of Victoria University. They have been frequently renewed over their life, often in response to community concerns, and more than likely attained their present appearance in the 1950s. The steps remain in regular use to this day.

    The Dixon Street Steps provide a zig-zagging connection of the two parts of Dixon Street; the alignment of the steps is flanked by old houses on each side, with the margin between steps and houses heavily planted, lending the whole area a leafy tranquility that belies its location. The steps are made of a mixture of concrete pavers, asphaltic concrete, brick, timber and steel handrails and stone, concrete and brick retaining walls. Although little of the fabric of the steps is demonstrably ancient, the alignment is presumed to be little different from the original.


  • close Physical Description
    • Setting close

      The Dixon Street Steps form a prominent visual terminus to the west end of the Te Aro section of Dixon Street, which ends at the steep landform that runs up to The Terrace. Viewed from Te Aro, the area shows as a distinctive verdant gap in an otherwise heavily built-up area, overlooked by the distant buildings of Victoria University. The steps zig-zag between the two disjoint ends of Dixon Street, rising to the west. The combination of steep terrain and dense vegetation means that the whole alignment of the steps is only fully apparent from the air.

      The built surroundings of the steps are architecturally varied, with nearby buildings including St John’s Church (1885), Spinks Cottage (1860s), the Dixon Street Flats (1938), an assortment of modern commercial buildings and, further up the street, a large collection of interesting Victorian houses. Two orderly ranks of these houses bound the zig-zag alignment of the steps on the north and south sides, with the margin between houses and steps densely planted.

      The steps proper only become visible upon close approach; from Dixon Street, the lower end is demarcated by an assembly of brick retaining walls that leads around from the adjoining Dixon Street Flats and turns up the first flight of steps. From here, the handrails of the zig-zags can be made out through the trees and mature plants.

      The steep terrain, the irregular alignment of the steps, and the density of the planting, is such that there are few distant views from the steps, and the experience of using the steps is primarily that of the immediate setting of plants and Victorian houses. The planting gives the area a leafy tranquility that belies its busy location in the central city; in conjunction with the interesting geometric interplay of steps and houses the whole area has a well-established character.


    • Streetscape or Landscape close

      Not available

    • Contents and Extent close

      Not available

    • Buildings close

      Not available

    • Structures and Features close

      The steps proper are made of a mixture of precast concrete pavers for the treads, with half-bricked risers and asphaltic concrete to the landings; the ground is retained to the sides of the steps with a mixture of random-rubble stone walls, concrete walls, and, at the low end of the steps, brick walls. The stairs are finished with white-

      painted timber handrails (steel pipe rails at the bottom run). The lower brick retaining walls marry in with the brick walls running along the street edge of the Dixon Street Flats.

      Many of the houses have direct connections to the steps, with a range of access arrangements made in a variety of materials, most compatible with the appearance of the steps.

      Other features along the steps (none of any particular heritage value), include lamp-posts, metal service covers and a post and wire fence on the upper section of the steps, and the built-in memorial seat for Elizabeth Sewell.

      Although little of the visible fabric of the steps is demonstrably ancient, the alignment is presumed to be little different from the original.


    • Other Features close

      Not available

    • Archaeology close

      Reference: N/A

      Not relevant.

  • close Historic Context
    • Dixon Street was named after early settler, cordial manufacturer and city councillor Edward Dixon (1825-1890). The street was in two parts – not unusual in Wellington where the roading ambitions of early town planners were from time to time thwarted by actual topography – with the eastern side mostly on Te Aro Flat and the shorter, western end on a spur adjoining The Terrace. Between these sections the street rose steeply from Willis Street, far too steeply to build a formed road. In 1879 a timber zig-zag of steps was constructed to link the two sections of Dixon Street and in doing so created a convenient pedestrian route from The Terrace to Te Aro and the city centre. The stairs were formed about the same time that auctioneer and developer Thomas Kennedy MacDonald built MacDonald Crescent, which provided a usable vehicular route from The Terrace to Dixon Street.

      By this time The Terrace was becoming a popular place to live and the convenience of the steps meant they were well-utilised by local residents. In 1886, John Duthie, a successful businessman, politician and soon to be Mayor of Wellington, contacted the Town Clerk, drawing his attention to the steps on which ‘certain boys have devised a sort of sled on which they slide from one flight of steps to another, arriving on the asphalt landing with considerable violence, thereby cutting up the asphalt.’

      Just when the steps got its name is not known. It does not feature in newspapers until 1895, although the name is an obvious one. By 1897 further wear and tear and damage to the steps led to 17 ratepayers and residents of Percival and Upper Dixon Streets to petition the Mayor and City Councillors. They advised that ‘the steps are now old, much worn as rotten and broken away and looking to fault in original design they urgently require to be reconstructed.’ It is unclear if this prompted any immediate action, but the steps were paved sometime after this, certainly by 1924 which is the earliest date found that refers to the paving. In 1903, the Wellington City Council’s gardener was asked to ‘improve the ground’ at the steps. In 1915, lighting was installed on the steps.

      The increasing use of the Dixon Street Steps (and the nearby Church Street Steps) prompted a petition to the Wellington City Council in 1911 for the construction of a subway and a lift to take pedestrians to the Terrace. A report was prepared and although the concept did not get a favourable response it showed how the fast growing suburb of Kelburn and the rapidly expanding campus of Victoria University (as it later became known), both established in the early 1900s, were contributing to pedestrian use of the steps. A count of users one day that year (1911) revealed that 988 pedestrians used the Dixon Street Steps.

      By 1944 the steps were in such a bad state that they were described as ‘a definite danger’ and major repairs were undertaken. Further improvements were undertaken in 1953 when contractors Smart and Green reconstructed and repaved the steps at a cost of £62. Two years later the South Bay Contracting Company was hired to construct a handrail at a cost of £300.These two improvements probably established the present appearance of the steps.

      Periodic complaints were received by the WCC about the state of the steps until, in 1974, a generous donation of $1,600 was gifted from the William H. Denton Trust to the Wellington City Council ‘for the purpose of beautifying the Dixon Street Steps/Zig-zag area.’This sum allowed the Parks Department to clear the steps of old rubbish and replant the shrubbery around the steps. A wall at the bottom of the stairs bears the plaque acknowledging the Denton Trust gift but as this is in exactly the same style, bricks and mortar as the brickwork at the adjacent Dixon St Flats, it probably dates from the late 1930s.

      In 1988, a seat was installed at the lower end of the steps in memory of Elizabeth (Bid) Sewell, a feminist and activist and former head of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, who died that year at the age of 47. The landscaping that incorporates the seat, which is inset into the garden, includes a random-rubble rock wall.



  • close Cultural Value
    • Significance Summary close
      • Dixon Street Steps is a relatively old example of a public pedestrian access route built to facilitate pedestrian movement in Wellington.
      • It is one of the most heavily and frequently used of its kind in the central city.
      • Although there are hundreds of these shortcuts in Wellington, only two are listed on the district plan and this is one of them.

    • Aesthetic Valueclose
      The steps have some aesthetic value, for the interesting geometric interplay of the zig-zag steps, Victorian houses, and dense plantings, and for the surprising sense of tranquillity that belies the busy central city location. The steps form a prominent visual terminus to the west end of Dixon Street; the verdant break between ranks of buildings is a distinctive feature of the townscape in this area. The steps are well known and well used, particularly by Kelburn residents and Victoria University students. Wellington is characterised by its paths and steps that link streets, even suburbs, and save walkers much time. The city has hundreds of these and Dixon Street Steps is one, albeit prominent example, of this. The steps are characteristic of mid-20th century path construction. The fabric of the area is largely cohesive.
    • Historic Valueclose
      As a path / steps linking the city with its adjacent hills since 1879, Dixon Street Steps has had a long, albeit rather prosaic, history. Originally built for residents on The Terrace to get easier access to the city, the steps gained significantly more use after the founding of Kelburn and Victoria University in the early 1900s. It remains well used by local residents and students alike.
    • Scientific Valueclose
      The area of the steps may have some archaeological value, mainly for the potential evidence of earlier configurations of the steps. The area has educational value; it demonstrates some of the common issues in the early development of the city where town planning aspirations were mismatched against terrain. The area has modest technological value, for the existing mid-century design and construction of the steps.
    • Social Valueclose
      The steps have been a constant in the Te Aro landscape since the 19th century and have been used by generations of Wellingtonians. Their proximity to the city and university means they are among one of the most used paths in the city.
    • Level Of Cultural Heritage Significanceclose
      Just two of Wellington’s hundreds of public paths are listed for their heritage value. So Dixon Street Steps have a particular role to play as a representative of the many similar paths and steps that have facilitated the business of getting about the city’s terrain for many decades.
    • New Zealand Heritage Listclose
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  • close New Zealand Heritage List
    • New Zealand Heritage List Details close

      The Dixon Street Steps are not a registered Heritage New Zealand historic area.

      There are no individually listed items found with the Dixon Street Steps Heritage Area

  • close Additional Information

Last updated: 1/14/2020 12:39:31 AM