Friday, December 30, 2011

A farewell to the Aotea Chapel

In early February this year, when I heard the former Aotea Chapel was going to be demolished on Queen Street, I took the following shots. These date from 8 February.

Next door, the 1950s MLC Building, now recently renovated as a hotel, is probably what could be described as faux Art Deco, if the true period pretty well dwindled out during World War II. This was definitely after that period (built by Fletcher Construction).

Still -- it's a great part of the streetscape.

But, across the stub of Airedale Street from the MLC, said stub left by the formation of Mayoral Drive just above in the 1970s, the Methodist Central Mission Chapel, once the Aotea Chapel, was doomed.

 Reference 4-1923, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries

Looking up Airedale Street on 22 January 1928, you'd see a completely different streetscape. Where the MLC Building is today (right) was Richard Arthur's auction house, while across the way, to the left, site of the chapel -- Armitage's store for ladies' and children's wear. This was Probert's Chambers -- while the Methodist Church can be seen just up Airedale Street on the left. 
The church was the first Primitive Methodist Church in Auckland, opened 16 March 1851. "The kauri structure," according to Rev Wesley Parker, author of In the midst of the city: Methodist Central Mission, Auckland Civic Square (1971), "measuring 35 feet by 25 feet, was built for £130 15s. This was the lowest of eight prices tendered in reply to advertisements 'in both papers'. The successful tenderer was Walter Robertson. The land had been given by the Government, for Sir George Grey was fully sympathetic towards the work of the Churches."

Primitive Methodism joined the other branches and ceased to be separate in 1913 as the Union of Methodist Churches. One of the well-known personalities associated with the Airedale Street church in the 20th century was Colin Graham Scrimgeour, still famous in New Zealand's history for his "Man in the Street" broadcast in 1935 being deliberately jammed by the Coalition Government before the election of that year which saw victory for the Labour party opposition and Michael Joseph Savage. His radio devotional services began in 1931, while he was still in charge at the Airedale Street church.

His successor, Rev Albert Everill Orr, started the process towards the creation of an Auckland Central Mission. When he took over, he found "a mere handful of faithful supporters, together with large debts, a decrepit church building, and a parsonage alongside with a great flight of wooden steps leading to it, all strangely out of character in the heart of a city now boasting a population of 200,000." (Parker, p. 33) He changed the name of the Airedale Street Church to Auckland Central Mission, and saw the start of the Central Building Fund for a new church. Over the course of the next three decades, buildings on the total site bounded by Airedale, Queen and Wakefield Streets were purchased, tenancies extinguished, and then structures demolished to make way for the new Central Mission, along with the old kauri church from 1851. A model of the proposed development was prepared in 1960, involving a church and multi-storey Mission facilities next door. Fletcher Construction built both, and the new Auckland Central Mission was opened by Prime Minister Keith Holyoake on 7 February 1964.

Cover to Rev Parker's book. The chapel building is seen in the centre.

"In 1969," according to Rev Parker, "a large stained-glass window was installed in the gallery of the church facing Queen Street. The Saviour is depicted with His face toward the world and His hands open in wide gesture, signifying His invitation 'Come unto Me.' At night the window is brightly illuminated."

In 1992, the Mission Chapel was redeveloped. Whether it became the Aotea Chapel at that point, I'm not sure -- but it certainly bore the name on the frontage from that time. There is still a webpage up which shows images of the Aotea Chapel in its heyday. I don't know how long that page will remain -- if you are reading this and the link doesn't work, well ... it's gone the way of the chapel itself.

Several hundred packed the chapel for Christmas celebrations in 2000. A public meeting over the future of Auckland's Hero Parade was held there in November 2001. A meeting to mark the 20th anniversary of the Labour government of David Lange, with emphasis on our country's nuclear-free policy, was held there in July 2004. A mayoral debate between John Banks and Dick Hubbard was held there in 2007.

But in July 2008, the site was sold.  The sale price was confidential, but the value on the property was put at $25M.
Methodist Mission Northern executive director John Murray said it had been a difficult choice, given that the site had strong sentimental value, but he believed it existed to support the mission's services and generate income. "We certainly got the price that we wanted and he was prepared to pay. We are well pleased," he said. 

Mr Murray said last year that the mission gave the issue "heart-searching" thought, but decided that it could not afford to upgrade the buildings to modern standards.It will use the proceeds from the sale to extend its social services beyond the core group of homeless men who are the main users of the existing soup kitchen."We can deal with issues relating to youth and women," he said. Mr Murray said the mission's lease would expire on July 31, 2010. 

The barest of remains of where the Aotea Chapel neon once shone red into the night.

And so, to demolition. I think it started in early December. I remember seeing just the outer shell of the building remaining as I passed by in a bus. Best views of the end of 160 years of Methodist gatherings and community voices on the site, however, are from the Town Hall. Quite a few of us on the 15 December tour, when the following shots were taken, paused at the windows, hearing with our ears about heritage preservation and conservation, a success story for the Auckland Town Hall -- only to look out at the machinery of change across the street.

And above -- is what will replace the chapel: another retail block, Queens Court. They may even sell clothing there, although most likely boutique style.

Some of the tradition of Mr Armitage from back in the 1920s, therefore, looks set to return.


  1. *sighs* Another landmark gone I suppose. Still things do change in an ever changing architectural landscape. I can understand the City Mission making that decision where the economic side of things goes. Yes another retail block will go in and most likely in 30 years of so will get bowled as well. The MLC Building I do remember well. At least that is still there thank goodness. It's been so familiar to me all these years.

    1. Yep, how sad, thought I’d check on the Methodist Central Mission where I worked all those years ago, 1970, as a 20 year old in the office for Rev Orr. Wow, and now it’s gone. Well, at least I know, won’t get such a shock now when we return for a nostalgic walk down Queen St! Have lived in Australia since 1978! Cheers to all 😊

  2. Damn, more history lost :(
    Although, I must say the artists impression of what will be built there is a huge improvement on some of the monstrosities we're copping this side of the ditch.

  3. Yeah, it isn't bad, Jayne. Someone with some style must have come up with it -- which does make a change.

    Cheers to you both.

  4. My dad was working as a glazier, putting the first windows into the MLC, when he heard his wife had had twin boys. He dropped the sheet of glass he was holding and sliced off the meerest tip of his nose :-)

  5. Oh, my word, the poor soul! -- were you one of the twins, Jono?

  6. No, I came along several decades later :-). One of the twins did not make it, sadly, but the other is in thriving middle age.

  7. To my mind, neither the Chapel nor its retail replacement look architecturally inspiring unfortunately.
    I'd have thought on such prime real estate that a caveat would demand something impressive!

  8. I agree. The chapel deserved a suburban setting, rather than a central city one. Perhaps the new development is bound by height restrictions and impact on surrounding buildings, therefore seems to be a single level.

    Frankly, it's as I said regarding the Queen's Head Hotel facade schmozzle -- the developers don't seem to care two bits as to the effect their precious plans have on the surrounding streetscape. More's the pity.

  9. My great grand father was a missionary at this church. My mother was baptised there and married there. I was also baptised there by Rev Orr. It is sad to see it gone. I spent many happy sundays there as a child.

  10. This comment was accidentally deleted.

    From Ash:

    "And now I know who Rev Everill-Orr was! There's a rest home or the like in his name in Mt Albert.

    I was down there a few weeks ago and didn't even notice that the chapel had gone. "

  11. This comment accidentally deleted.

    "The MLC Building is an exact copy of the MLC Wellington building on Lambton Quay - Hunter St corner, built before WW2. It always looks as though they should be in Napier to me. "

  12. Some interesting reading in 2018. I grew up as part of the old church until the new church was built and opened not as recorded in 1964, more likely 1965 - my father hoped that our wedding would be the first in the new church, however we were married in May 1964 when the church was under construction. I was pleased to have the opportunity to play the new organ since my mother was the organist and I would deputise for he on many occasions - hard to view the demolition photos and not feel some regret that money became the deciding factor - where was God in all of this ?

  13. Wondering if there are any pics of the Maori Methodist Mission(late 50s-early 70s) which was on Wakefield St.Backed onto to Aotea Chapel and the rear kitchen entrance where my Mum ran the soup kitchen?

  14. Does anyone know what happened to the pipe organ in the chapel ?