Friday, February 17, 2012

The risque gates to the Domain

Another TradeMe purchase – this one quite possibly a Tanner Bros photo of the gates to the Auckland Domain (right), with the Auckland Hospital’s Wallace Block to the left, and possibly taken in the 1940s. 

First came the Wallace Block, 1924-1925.

The foundation stone of a new block of the Auckland general hospital was laid this afternoon by the Minister for Health (Hon. Sir Maui Pomare). The new building, which will be of six storeys, will cost £78,000 and it will contain accommodation for 140 patients. The first, second and third floors will be used as wards, there will be an outpatients' department in the basement, X-rays' and a dispensary on the ground floor and a pathological department on the top floor. The total accommodation in the hospital will then be 685, with 230 nurses. The block will be named the Wallace Ward in honour of the chairman of the board, Mr William Wallace.

The Minister said the new building contained provision for another branch of specialisation, VD cases. He promised to do something in regard to this scourge. A Bill was on the stocks and he hoped to introduce it this session. It would be on the lines of the recommendations of the special commission on the subject of health. He hoped to introduce this session a Bill for the superannuation of nurses.

Hawera & Normanby Times 18.9.1924

It opened in May 1925. By the 1960s, the original block was much altered with additions around the 1924-1925 core. By the late 1970s, the Hospital Board proposed to tear it down by 1982. It eventually went the way of all things between 2006 and 2008. Today, the site is a multi-storey carpark building.

Next, the Domain gates. These originated from out of a May 1934 landscape improvement scheme for the park announced by Auckland City engineer J Tyler, calling for “dignified entrances, the principal one to be in Stanley Street” as at that time there was no entrance to the Domain except through Newmarket Borough. An offer of a gift to the city of £10,000 was received later that month to pay for the cost of erecting one, if not two, ornamental gateways to the Domain, designed by the donor’s preferred architect. The donor, revealed after his death that year in Townsville, Queensland, turned out to be William Elliot. He had previously contributed just under half of the total £9500 cost for the completion if the Wintergardens in the Domain, raising the remainder along with other prominent Aucklanders of the time in a grand fundraising scheme; Auckland Zoo also received its first collection of birds from him. Now, his generosity to the city in the form of the ornamental gates at Park Road totalled £10,000.

Elliot’s architects of choice was the firm of Gummer and Ford. Their design was approved by Auckland City Council in November 1934, when the Council were also shown a model built by sculptor Richard Oliver Gross (1882-1964). No one apparently thought anything was untoward at the time …

In February 1935, the Fletcher Construction Company was awarded the contract to build the gates, from “red” Putaruru vitric tuff (also known as Darley Dale sandstone), as had been used for the base of the Wellington war memorial carillon tower. Originally turnstiles were incorporated. Two pylons in the design are topped by sculptures executed by Richard Gross – that nearest to the Auckland Hospital site features a figure of an athlete, while the other features a swan. The first pylon also features a frieze of running human figures encircling it.

On 29 June 1936, Richard Gross after three months work revealed the sculpture of the athlete on the top of the tallest pylon of the gateway. The Auckland Star described it as “Grace of movement, rhythm and vitality is incorporated in the statue. The figure is posed on one leg, with one arm reaching towards the playing fields to urge youth on to greater effort and prowess, and also to stir Auckland youth to further conquest on fields afar … The figure of the athlete, representing a shot putter in graceful attitude at the end of his throw, weighs well over a ton. A well-known Auckland athlete posed for the sculptor while the model was completed.”

Initially, the athlete figure is said to have drawn “favourable praise … from several qualified to judge.” However, there was just one detail which the city fathers who approved the whole concept appeared to have overlooked: the statue was that of a male nude. Atop a tall pillar, where people looked … up … and it almost immediately attracted a storm of shock-horror protest from individuals and groups within the community who felt that it was immoral and needed to be altered.

Image: Richard Oliver Gross, [ca November 1930], Reference Number: PAColl-6303-33, Alexander Turnbull Library

Gross didn’t intend to be controversial with his design. According to Michael Dunn, in New Zealand Sculpture: a history (2002, p. 54), “This figure was controversial because of its supposedly corrupting nudity, not because of its artistic merits or lack of them. Gross’ figure captures the spirit of the nude figures of athletes, based on classical prototypes, found in Italian and German stadiums in the 1930s. It is a celebration of physicality and vigour, the body beautiful so beloved by Fascist theorists of the time who wanted to recapture the idea forms of classical Greece in life and art. For Gross it was the most complete sculptural realisation of his interest in the ideal male nude.”

A debate was waged between opponents and supporters of the statue until Auckland City Council’s Parks Committee voted to approve the statue as it was, with a proposal to modify the statue “to conform to public good taste” defeated by 14 votes to 5.

In a long discussion, Councillor H. P. Burton advocated modification of the statue on the ground of its possible effect on the youth of the community. He said the general attitude of the man in the street had been to make a jest of the statue, and not one per cent, of the public was artistically minded. There was no question of the quality of the sculpture—it was excellent— but he considered the statue wholly unnecessary in its existing form.

Evening Post 21.7.1936

The Auckland Council of Christian Congregations, at its annual meeting tonight, discussed the statue of the nude athlete on the domain gates, but decided to take no further action in the matter in view of the inability of the council to obtain the support of church and educational officials who, according to the president, the Rev. J. A. Thomson, were loath to offer the subject again for public discussion. Without the help of such persons the council felt it would be futile to make any further move.

Pastor Campbell said many persons were waiting for a lead and he moved, "That the council considers the nudity of the statue to be offensive to a considerable number of citizens and deleterious to the morals of passers-by and requests the City Council to take suitable steps to modify it." Mr T L Caley, seconder, said the statue was "unspeakably shocking and horrifying to many women." The Rev E D Patchett—-said it would be a mistake for the council to give undue publicity to the subject, as the meeting was not representative of the strength of the council. The motions were then withdrawn.

Evening Post 6.10.1936

Well – we still have the statue, which is good to know. I do wonder how many young ladies back then (and even gents) averted their eyes unless they thought no one was looking …


  1. Something similar happened here, but it was only in the 1980s. The modifications were the addition of fig leaf type covers.

  2. I remember when, back in the 60s, some students dressed the statue in a nappy as a way of mocking those who found it "unspeakably shocking and horrifying". Of course, it looked completely ridiculous, which was no doubt the intention.

  3. @ Andrew: Good grief. I thought they only fig-leafed in the Victorian-Edwardian era ... far out.

    @ Dennis: Were that to happen now, and I was around to spot it, out would come the camera for the blog. After I laughed out loud.

  4. I recall some Auckland University students putting shorts on the statue in the 1980's as well. Stunning piece of work. May it remain for many decades yet.

  5. My dad (born 1937) recalls a story from his childhood. He believes alterations were made to the statue at a later date to aid the flow of water on rainy days away from, well, it became quite the amusement to see. From that height it could reach a remarkable distance with the run off.