Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rationalist House

Rationalist House at 64 Symond Street is another of those landmarks along a bus journey into the city which I've often wondered about.

Originally part of a crown grant to Thomas Outhwaite, by 1871 it had become part of three allotments totalling just over 11 acres owned by 19th century business tycoon Thomas Russell. The area of his property included Whittaker and Cintra Place. Russell subdivided, and sold some sections, but most was purchased by Sir Frederick Whittaker in late 1885. In 1888 Whittaker took out a mortgage on the property with the Bank of New Zealand, and sold a bit more of the property, rather like nibbling at a piece of cheese. Perhaps buyer reluctance came not only from the Long Depression at the time, but also the steep nature of the ground, falling into the Grafton Gully. The mortgage still unpaid by 1891, the bank transferred the mortgage to its estates company, and Whittaker transferred title to them that year.

The estates company sold a few sections, then by 1897, the Assets Realisation Board, tasked by the BNZ directors to liquidate land assets such as this one, had begun an active campaign to sell the remainder. In 1898 widow Esther Keesing purchased a quarter acre made up of four sections. Two were purchased by Oliver Nicholson and Dr. George Toussaint Girdler in 1909, and sold by 1912, to Dr James Hardie Neil. This became 64 Symonds Street.

Dr Hardie Neil commissioned architects Wade and Wade to design a splendid 16-room Edwardian townhouse, two stories high at the Symond Street frontage, and three at the rear. The value of the building permit was £3200, and Dr Hardie Neil named his house "Pahi". (Possible on a humerous note, an unknown Council valuer in his notes in the 1920s suggested the name might also be "Pay High"). Much of the original exterior can still be seen. 

The doctor was born in Dunedin 27 February 1875, graduated as Bachelor of Surgery in 1898, served as surgeon-captain with the 4th NZ Mounted Rifles during the 2nd Boer War 1900-1901, and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1902. Returning to New Zealand, he was appointed ear, nose and throat surgeon to Auckland Hospital in 1903, and remained in service there for 45 years, until he was appointed consultant surgeon in 1948. During World War II, he served as lieut-colonel in the NZ Medical Corps, and commanded No. 3 Field Ambulance with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade 1915-1918. Dr Hardie Neil served in Egypt, Gallipoli and France. He was awarded the DSO and the Belgian Croix de Guerre.

A German medical officer, identified as Lt Schnelling of the 14th Bavarian Regiment, watching the removal of a wounded soldier at a New Zealand Field Ambulance near Bapaume in World War I. Colonel J Hardie Neil stands beside Schnelling. Ambulances wait in the background. Photograph taken 27 August 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders.  
From Alexander Turnbull Library.

His medical career here included research on the anatomy of the tonsil in 1908, first president of the Auckland Clinical Society in 1921, and presidency of the NZ League for the Hard of Hearing. During World War II, he worked with the Emergency Precautions Service. His obituaries say that he was even once almost an All Black -- but was unable to go overseas to play with the team in 1905. He died  in 1955.

The house was purchased by the NZ Rationalist Association in 1960, and underwent a change of name. For a time from the late 1960s, number 62 Symonds Street next door (once a private hotel called "Avonhyrst") came to be occupied by the Baptist Youth Hostel, causing one of the Auckland papers to suggest that the answer to what is the dividing line between belief and disbelief was -- not much.

Today, though, Rationalist House is the only survivor in this part of Symond Street's landscape.

Valuation field sheet, ACC 213/171c, Auckland Council Archives
Plan No. 3765, 21 May 1912, Auckland Council Archives
Obituaries: NZ Herald 29 January 1955; British Medical Journal 12 February 1955, p. 420


  1. Hi there, just found your blog (can't quite remember how) and have bookmarked it! Great stuff

  2. Very spooky...believe it or not we passed this lovely building a few days back and i said to partner Timespanner should blog that!!! ARGHHH!

    I also photographed a fellows grave in Sydenham Cemetery, Christchurch a year or so ago and he was a Rationalist! :)

    Beaut piece of history.

  3. So, I read your mind now? Heh! Thanks Sarndra. Cheers!

  4. Timespanner, congratulations on your excellent website, which I recently came across. It’s good to see pics and read informative articles about the history of Auckland, which I haven’t lived in since the late 70s. When I was a kid growing up in Ellerslie back in the 50s and 60s, “you should be in Avondale” was an insult of the worst kind. Later, I trained as a psych nurse at Carrington Hospital. If you have anything on this place (it used to be the Auckland Lunatic Asylum, built 1867) I would be keen to see it.
    Dennis, NSW.

  5. Hi Dennis,

    Thanks! If you search Timespanner for "Asylum Days", you'll see a timeline I've put up on part of the story of the asylum at Pt Chevalier. Curious, isn't it, that since 1867, when it opened, it has never been known by the suburb in which it has always been -- Pt Chevalier? Always "the Whau" or (incorrectly) Avondale Mental Hospital.

    Cheers, Lisa.

  6. The Esther Keesing you mention was my Grt Grt Grandmother. Widow of a wealth Jewish businessman and as a consequence part of the large and prominent Keesing family that were major founders of Auckland.

  7. Hello there, Was Rationalist House a clinic at 1 stage in the 1970's?

    1. Don't know. Once Auckland Council Archives are available to visit again, you could try checking their valuation file records.