Friday, December 23, 2011

The 100th for Auckland Town Hall

The grand old dame of Auckland's CBD, the Town Hall, was recently open to guided tours led by George Farrant, Auckland Council's heritage advisor (and the expert when it comes to the 1994-1997 restoration), plus an open day, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the building's official opening on 14 December 1911.

The apex of land at the junction of Greys Avenue and Queen Street on which the Town Hall sits had been set aside as a reserve right from the period of original Crown Grant land sales in the 1840s, just as the land on the other side of what was to become Grey Street, much later (20th century) Greys Avenue was optimistically declared a Market Reserve. In fact, it was the Wai Horotiu Swamp. Later drained, that part became the site of the Auckland Market Building, then a carpark, then the Aotea Square. But the apex reserve seemed to be a bit of a cinderella for most of the 19th century.

The apex reserve in the 1860s (centre) with Queen Street in the foreground, and Grey Street heading up the ridge towards Pitt Street. The Army and Naval Hotel can be seen at the far left -- this later became part of the Town Hall's site. Ref. 4-53, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

A pine plantation existed at the apex reserve land from at most the late 1860s to around 1900, along with a fire bell tower from 1871. The site of today’s Auckland Town Hall was once where the proprietors of the Army and Navy Hotel (c.1864-1884) did business, along with Evitt’s Building (c.1864-1908) which became Penzholz’s wickerwork factory before demolition in the 20th century. 

From after 1871 (July 1871 is when the Council decided to erect a firebell tower at the foot of Grey Street, according to the Auckland Star.) The pine plantation is well-established in this image. This could date from 1883. Ref. 4-54, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

The suggestion of the site on the apex between Grey and Queen Street as suitable for a Town Hall was first raised in 1872, and decided upon in 1873. In the early 1880s legislation was passed empowering the Council to purchase land for such a project, so gradually from that time private owners sold their land adjoining the apex site to the Council – and the project was on.

Both images from the Observer, 14 October 1893.

Even so, many alternative sites for the Town Hall were proposed, even as late as 1907, but Council had reaffirmed the choice of the Queen Street-Grey Street site in 1905, and stuck to their guns.

Auckland Weekly News, 21 March 1907. J J and E J Clark's winning design for the Town Hall. Ref. AWNS-19070321-2-2, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

The winning entry in a competition for the building’s design was that of the Melbourne architectural firm of J.J. and E.J. Clark. The building’s design, combined with the location, prompted criticism, one critic describing it as “a deformed wedge of cheese or a decrepit flat-iron”. Nevertheless, critique aside, the contract for the building’s construction was signed in October 1908, and the foundations were completed by 1 April 1909, along with the cellar walls as far as the lower ground floor. 

From Auckland Weekly News, 2 December 1909, looking south towards the Karangahape Road ridge. Queen Street is left, Grey Street to the right. The construction of the Concert Hall (left) and the Great Hall (right) can be seen, along with the brickwork (foreground) of part of the South Light Well area. The future municipal offices and Council Chambers would be in the section directly at the bottom of the image, out of shot. Ref. AWNS_19091202_p001_i002, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

From Auckland Weekly News, 7 April 1910. The Queen Street worksite for construction of the Town Hall. Must have been a heck of a difficult mission travelling up Queen Street past all that! Ref. AWNS-19100407-13-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

1910, showing the blocks of Oamaru Stone used as facing for the building being placed above the level of Melbourne basalt. During restoration, Council went to great lengths to match this stone as exactly as possible when replacing exterior ornamentations taken down in preceding years. According to George Farrant, this including a quarry worker in Oamaru abseiling down the face of the quarry, taking samples. 2-V1409, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

The architectural style of the building is a free treatment of the classic. The material used for the facades is "Oamaru" stone with a bluestone base. For the main Queen and Grey streets fronts a columnar method of design has been adopted. These two elevations terminate at the apex formed by the junction of the two streets in a segmental colonnade, surmounted by a tower 18 feet square and 130 feet high, with provision for 9 feet diameter clock dials. In front of this colonnade is a terrace enclosed by a stone balustrade with provision for a statue at the extreme angle. A feature of the construction of the building is the arrangement of the foundations. The great depth of a good rocky stratum necessitated a special treatment. Accordingly concrete piers have been carried down at intervals to the rock and the spaces spanned by concrete beams cairying the walls. All these beams are reinforced with "Kahn" steel bars. This method of piers and beams has been used by the architects, Messrs. Clark, in several important buildings in Australia ...
Progress, 1909.

From Progress, 1 May 1909, showing east and west elevations of the Town Hall.

Auckland Weekly News, 2 February 1911. The dome being carefully hoisted to the top of the clock tower. Ref. AWNS-19110202-12-5, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

The clock in the tower was donated by former mayor Arthur Myers.

The building opened on 14 December 1911, with “the celebrations extending into a week of cultural bacchanalia.” The first public show was by the Huddersfield Bellringers Band, “direct from the London Hippodrome”.

From the Observer, 18 December 1911

The difference in level between Queen and Gray streets, makes an upper and a lower ground floor. The great hall is situated on the lower floor, level with Grey street, and adjacent to it is a large supper room under the small hall, which is on a level with Queen street. These halls are arranged so as to be en suite with the Mayor's rooms for the convenience of public receptions. They have ample escape doors direct into the street. The public staircases and landings throughout will be fireproof. Every convenience has been provided in the way of dressing rooms and lavatories, both for performers and the public, and the retiring and cloak rooms will be most commodious, and there is a large smoke room. In connection with the supper room is a large kitchen and serving room conveniently placed at one end and arranged so as to provide for the largest functions.
Progress 1909

Some sources put the value of the original construction of the Town Hall at around £126,000. If so, in today's terms, that's nearly $20M. (Amusingly, the Auckland City Harbour News of 21 December this year, reporting on the centenary, simply doubled the 1911 figure, changed it to dollars, and then described it as "around half the average price of a house in Auckland today." Another Auckland heritage fallacy is born ...)  The restoration work in 1994-1997 cost around $33M (according to the ACHN), strengthening areas like the floors you see here, applying a special U-shaped truss to the Great Hall, and going a lot of extra miles to try to recreate the same tiling patterns and even carpet designs as they were before alterations and modernising in the mid 20th century.

Up above, impossible to notice with the eye, thin carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer strips were glued to the underside of the concrete slab floors. This strengthened the floors, without significantly adding to the depth.

The main entrance to both halls is in Queen street, a grand staircase 12 feet wide leading down to a large crush room off which are the cloak rooms before mentioned. Above the entrance vestibule is a large promenade and lounge on the level of the galleries. 
 Progress 1909

The flooring was the topic of an anecdote George Farrant told those of us on the 15 December morning tour. Apparently, one kind of brown tile eluded the team while they were trying to find a match for what remained of the original flooring. Then, in a McDonalds of all places, brown tiles were spotted. A piece uplifted carefully from the Town Hall was hurriedly taken to the restaurant, compared, and found to be a match with the one specially made for the restaurant chain. With McDonalds' assistance, the Council were able to source a supplier for the tiles -- and fill in some of the gaps back at the Town Hall.

Through this post, you'll see I've taken photos of windows, especially like these, showing wonderful Art Nouveau patterns. I'd noticed, while walking through the various areas, that each part of the Town Hall had different patterned windows, unique to each chamber or area.

The small hall comprises a ground floor and gallery, accommodating together 800 persons and 150 in the chorus gallery. The galleries of the two halls are constructed on the most up-to-date principles, being carried by steel cantilevers, thus leaving the ends of the halls free from obstruction both for seeing and dancing. 
 Progress 1909

The Concert Hall's windows.

Auckland Weekly News, 21 March 1907. Impression of what the Great Hall might look like, probably from the Clark & Clark  design. Ref. AWNS-19070321-3-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

Auckland Weekly News, 2 January 1935. Civic reception in the Great Hall for the visit of Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester. Ref. AWNS-19350102-41-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

The great hall includes a ground floor. balcony and gallery, the whole capable of seating 3000 persons, exclusive of 350 in the chorus and orchestra. The organ space provides for an organ which will be the largest in New Zealand, the electric apparatus of which will be situated in the cellar underneath. The orchestra platform is made to slide under the choir front, thus giving more dancing space on the main floor when required, making a total area of 122 feet by 75.

Progress 1909

The Great Hall was where I was inundated by nostalgic memories. Back at primary and intermediate school, I was a member of school choirs. Now, I am not a great singer. Mainly, I think I was included because, although the musical side of my voice wasn't in anyway magical, I had a lot of lung power, and therefore could control volume. (These days, I don't sing in public, I talk there instead). But -- I did, at least once, perform during a concert of massed choirs from a lot of other schools in the Great Hall here. I think I was standing just to the left of the organ pipes, on one of those wooden steps.

Another time, I was here on a school trip to listen to the Vienna Boys Choir. That time, we were seated up here, in the seats photographed just above.

Two more occasions that came to mind -- sitting down there, listening in 1975, probably November that year, to Robert Muldoon charging up the troops of National Party supporters towards his victory in that year's election. Banners, balloons, a lot of music and noise. His state funeral was held here in 1992.

And in the 1980s, attending PSA union meetings, deciding on what steps to take during government service restructuring. I don't think any other building in the central city, aside from perhaps the library and council archives complex, holds so many memory triggers for me as does the Auckland Town Hall.

16 September 1920. The Great Hall laid out for a meeting of the Auckland Orphan Club (which had the intriguing motto: "All Ye Who Enter Here, Abandon Care." Ref. 4-1796, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

The original 1911 organ was donated by another former mayor, Henry (later Sir Henry) Brett, also well-known as a journalist, as the man behind the Auckland Star, and as a historian in his own right. The organ was largely replaced by a redesign and installation of 4000 new pipes in 1970. The original look of the 1911 organ was restored from 2010, costing around $3.5M.

16 September 1920, apparently taken on the same day as the previous historic image. Ref. 4-1798. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

The rear windows to the Great Hall now blocked off.

A couple of up-close views of the organ.

The north (plain brick) and south (painted brick) lightwells were originally open to the air, to provide ventilation spaces for the performance halls section to the south, and the municipal offices section to the north. During the 1990s restoration, with the installation of air conditioning replacing the need for air ventilators, the lightwells were sealed in.

Up until relatively recently, this was the Council meeting chamber. Another memory of mine, coming here just a few years ago, during the first of John Banks' two terms as Mayor. I'm not sure I recall exactly what the issue was that brought me here, but I remember sitting in the public gallery, listening to the councillors.

A mayoral chair?

The grand building in 1920. Ref. 1093-ALBUM-214-5, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

I'll do another post shortly about some of the objects of interest in the Town Hall.


  1. Great post!!!! Loved the photos and the info. I love the Auckland Twon Hall. Fond memories myself too of going there for concerts and other different things. It's still a very cool place.

  2. What a wonderful building. Lol at the McDonald's floor tiles.

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  4. I'm kicking myself for having missed that tour. So thanks for the detailed review. Did George Farrant point out the Chandelier from Kilbryde?

  5. Yes, we were taken around and through the municipal offices part of the building as well. The chandelier will come up in another post shortly.

  6. Do you know any info about a story (urban myth perhaps?) that, during renovations, a secret WWII signals room was uncovered in the Town Hall?

  7. There's one way of finding out: I'll send an email to George Farrant.

  8. Here is George's reply:

    "No, not discovered during restoration, but it is a longer-standing story that it happened - there seem to be no authoritative origins to the idea.

    "The notion is related specifically to a small prow room on the Aotea side, that has a circular window to the outside.

    "Nothing actually in the room vindicated this, but it is possible. I also have wondered if some redundant lift switchgear that was left in the room might have suggested something?

    "It could also have been spawned by the reality that battle communications HQ for Guadalcanal was in the Dilworth building. It apparently was the case that control HQ for major actions were intentionally remote from the action for security of communications."

  9. The story of the WWII room probably derives from the Air Raid Headquarters fitted out in the basement of the George Courts Department Store on Karangahape Road. When the building was converted into apartments in the early 1990s signs of the wartime usage of the basement were uncovered.