How often do you take a close look at familiar buildings that line your usual routes through the city? Our group of fourteen walkers took the opportunity to view some old landmarks with new eyes.
The inter-war period was a rich time for Wellington architecture. Two hundred non-residential buildings were constructed between 1919 and 1939. New architectural styles appeared, based partly on the past but with a definite look to the future. Buildings got bigger. However, prompted partly by the experience of the 1931 Napier earthquake and partly as a response to new overseas styles, heavy decoration was shed and sleeker forms favoured. Art Deco, the style most commonly associated with the 1930s, arose out of the Industrial and Decorative Arts Exhibition in Paris in 1925. It was characterised by simplified ornamentation and an emphasis on geometrical decoration.
Starting at the small Courtenay Place branch of Westpac Bank, wedged between two larger buildings, we found a good example of a simple art deco design. Originally built as a shop and office building for Mrs MW Powley in 1936, it was later converted into a bank. Around the corner in Cambridge Terrace, is the former Wellington East (later Cambridge Terrace) Post Office which, for most of the 20th century housed the Post and Telegraph’s Radio Section and now serves as a backpackers’ hotel.
After pausing to look at the Central Fire Station with its imposing symmetrical façade and set-back central tower decorated with vestiges of Art Deco, we continued to the former Van Staveren building in Taranaki Street built in 1937 for the Van Staveren Brothers, merchants and importers of sporting goods, tobacco and accessories, hair products, clocks and watches. The firm closed in 1980. Next was one of the outstanding Art Deco buildings - the Hotel St George, known by Wellingtonians of a certain age mainly because the Beatles ‘wowed’ a screaming crowd of fans from its balconies in 1964.
Other stops included the Hibernian Building in Willis Street (originally owned by the Bristol Piano Company and now occupied by Pandoro on the ground floor); MLC building on Lambton Quay; and its elegant neighbours across the road – Prudential Assurance building, former CBA building and South British Insurance building. Around the corner, the Tower Insurance building and the former Brandon House in Featherston Street afforded a glimpse into the past through their quaint foyers and lifts. Finally, we trekked to the former State Insurance Building (now Te Puni Kokiri) with its innovative design of a wavy façade wrapped around the corner site. Next door is the former Departmental Building (now housing the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) where we had planned to enjoy lunch at the Home Café inside the building. To our disappointment, we found that the cafe had been closed to the public since the mosque shootings in Christchurch, but we found a good substitute in Sierra.
- Gwen Levick