Friday, January 11, 2013

The building of Mob 6: 1943-1944


Avondale College when it opened, 2 February 1945 (Auckland Star). Builders' ladders still in evidence, with conversion work still ongoing.


In March 1943, the US Naval Operating Base in Auckland wrote to the New Zealand authorities requesting that Mobile Base Hospital No 6 (Mob 6) be constructed. The Public Works Department received instructions to prepare plans for this, the second American Naval Hospital to be built in Auckland. An area at Avondale bounded by Rosebank Road, Victor Street and Holly Street was chosen, a portion of the site (closest to Holly Street) already designated by the government as land for a future school. Because of this, Tibor Donner’s design (the project overseen by the department’s resident architect in Auckland, Eric Price) incorporated a ready conversion at the end of the facility’s military and medical use to being that of a primary and intermediate school (later this was changed to an intermediate and technical high school). Construction began in the middle of May 1943.

Step out onto Avondale College grounds today, and you’ll see a fairly expansive complex. Back when I was attending the school, though, from 1977-1981, I would have had a hard time imagining just how vast the American hospital once, and briefly, was.

The full scope of the Mob 6 project was to provide 2000 beds in 22 wards with 11 lavatory blocks, a mess and galley, clinic, four surgeries, physiotherapy and occupational therapy facilities, X-ray department, dental clinic, sick officers’ quarters, ships service room, its own post office, and quarters for the American Red Cross. Temporary housing units of State House standard, built by Residential Construction Ltd of Penrose, were also added to the site for accommodation purposes. There was a standalone laundry, morgue, boiler and generating houses, garages (35 motor vehicle capacity, with greasing racks, car washing facilities, repair shop and gasoline storage tank), a fire station, a brig (enough for 40 men, including offices, guard room, and a “bull pen”), and crews recreation quarters. At one point, an adjoining piece of land along Eastdale Road was considered for lease to be used as a baseball diamond, but this didn’t eventuate during the brief period the hospital was in operation by American armed forces. There were also 16 barracks (barracks in the original proposal were to have housed around 500 corpsmen and 100 chief petty officers), 14 stores and a guard house built from pre-fabricated steel units. In total 60 buildings were erected on the site, with a total floor area of 388,000 square feet.

According to Frank Grattan in his history of the Public Work Department wartime projects, “The permanent buildings comprising the school proper were constructed on concrete foundations, with timber framing covered externally with brick veneer up to sill height and rusticated weather boarding above. Fabricated wooden truss roofing was sarked and covered with corrugated fibrolite. The interior was panelled in plywood to dado height with fibrous plaster above and pinex ceilings.”

The principal contractor was Fletcher Construction Ltd. As it so happened, James Fletcher was the wartime Commissioner of Works. A total of 450 men were employed during the project’s duration to both construct the hospital, and later to demolish and convert the site and remaining buildings to school use. There is a belief that the school buildings were constructed by American forces, the Naval “Seabees” (construction units) – but out of those working on the project, only 150 belonged to those units, and they assisted with the steel temporary buildings. The original parts of Avondale College and Avondale Intermediate were built by New Zealand contractors and tradesmen, to New Zealand design.

There were issues almost immediately during construction. In late June, Fletcher Construction complained to the Public Works Department that “we are hemmed in more or less all the time by drains, and at most times by deep ditches, which are right alongside our job. This means we have no hope of getting the timber carted by our trucks anywhere near the site.” The drainlayers were, apparently, under contract direct with the department. Fletchers asked for more money as an extra to cover the time spent hauling timber over the drains.

This was also a project undertaken during an Auckland winter, with the former market gardens transformed into a near-bog by rain and a progression of American vehicles; the Labourers’ Union reported that their members were often working in 1 foot of muddy slush, without the benefit of employer-supplied gumboots (the gumboots being unavailable.) The labourers asked for an extra 2d per hour in lieu of the gumboots under the terms of their award, over and above the 9d daily wet place allowance they were already receiving. The department made a counter-offer of 1 ½ d per hour plus the 9d daily allowance.

In September, there was additional urgency to complete the project as soon as possible, with the announcement of the intention to use the hospital for shock cases from both American and New Zealand forces. The department’s district engineer appealed to the Master Builders’ Association that they “kindly make a survey of any teams engaged on work not of National importance with a view to having them transferred to Avondale. Such action will help, not only the US forces, but our own boys who may be urgently requiring treatment.” The Association responded that they couldn’t find any spare teams, but pointed out that “it is apparent that the Fletcher Construction Co have considerable numbers of men engaged on less essential work and it might be suggested that some of this work be carried on with skeleton staffs so that the work at Avondale and Pukekohe can be carried on with greater dispatch.” I don’t know if this exchange helped speed things up at the hospital site or not.

The first patients were admitted 21 October 1943, five and a half months after construction began. The maximum number of patients at any one time ended up being 1050. Even so, as at February 1944 there were some wards still in an unfinished state. James Fletcher, as Commissioner of Works, wrote: “The work on the Avondale Hospital has now reached the stage when every effort must be made to get the wards that are unfinished completed and handed over for occupancy. It must be recognised that the Hospital buildings are temporary, and it would appear that too much emphasis is being placed on the general finish of the building which is resulting in delays which can be avoided.” It could be said that the hospital complex was never truly completed; an intended chapel by the time buildings were demolished existed only as a set of foundations, the work on it having been stopped at an earlier point.

The hospital ceased to function from 10 May 1944, and work then began to convert the site to the two schools. Portable cranes were brought in to remove the temporary housing units, many of which ended up as part of the transit camp at Western Springs. Education Board architect Alan Miller stepped in, and was in charge of the setting out of the two future schools. The mess and galley were demolished, moved in sections, and became the manual training wing of the new technical high school (now Avondale College). The central portion of the ships service and the laundry block were similarly reused as a home science wing. The crews’ recreation building was shifted to become the school’s engineering workshop.

Total cost of the project, excluding demolition, was £641,727. To the dismay of the Education Ministry, given to understand the contrary at the outset by James Fletcher, the cost of converting the hospital fell onto the vote for education funds, rather than those of the war assets realisation department. Discussions, correspondence and negotiations regarding valuation and quantity surveying was still ongoing for the school buildings right up to May 1945.

In October 1945, the Labourers’ Union was still in dispute with the Public Works Department, claiming for their members a 1½d per hour demolition allowance, while the department argued that the workers had been engaged in dismantling, rather than demolition, and therefore were not entitled to the allowance. The union countered by quoting the dictionary meaning of the word “demolition”. Whether they were successful in obtaining the backpay for their members is unknown.

Sources 
Frank Geoffrey Grattan, Official War History of the Public Works Department, 1939-1945, (1948) Archives New Zealand files held at Auckland: 
Defence - USA hospital (accommodation) Rosebank estate, Avondale (BBAD 1054 Box 2267 8/130/55, parts 1 & 2)
Defence - USA Navy hospital Avondale, -- Legislation (BBAD 1054 Box 2660 8/130/55A)
 

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