Sunday, May 27, 2012

Auckland's Customhouse

From out of the TradeMe lists: this card, filled out on the back in February 1917, and showing Winkelmann's view of the Auckland Customhouse.

According to Les Andrews, in his book Auckland's Old Customhouse: How It Was Saved (2004), the Customhouse site was once Point Stanley, the western tip of Commercial Bay before the harbour side was changed forever by reclamations. He adds that it was once a pa site, Te Ngahuwera.

Come the dividing up of the city area for sale in the early 1840s, the government kept Lot 15, Section 17 (the part fronting Customs Street West, and site of the Customhouse today, as a reserve. (DI 1A.128) Just to the south, Lot 16, was sold, and the series of owners form a list of familiar names: Dudley Sinclair, Whitaker, Smale, Graham, and finally Newton. That part was, according to the deeds index (1A.129) privately-owned until proclaimed under Public Works in 1948; however, sometime before that the government took it over anyway.

In 1866, according to Vercoe & Harding, the two lots were bare ...

... and remained so when Hickson drew up his city plan in 1882.

In January 1887, the Government approved plans drawn up by Mahoney & Son for Auckland's government building on the site, intended for not just the local customs branch, but also ultimately for the Native Land Court, Survey Department, Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Audit Inspector, Sheep Inspector and Government ministers.
Beyond seeing the announcement in the Star that their design for the new Customhouse has been accepted, Messrs _E. Mahoney and Son have received no intimation regarding the work. The building, which will occupy (he large vacant allotment at the earner of Customs-street West and Albert-street, adjoining Messrs A. Heather and Company's premises, is to cost about £12.000. Originally the Government intended that, besides the Customs Department, the Native Lands and Crown Lands Departments should be domiciled in the building but now we understand that it is proposed to locate the office of the Registrar of Deeds there also. If this is decided on, it may necessitate a modification of the plans. We have been favoured with a cursory inspection of the prize design. It provides for a building in classic style with a frontage of 150 feet to Customs-street and 80 feet to Albert-street; three storeys high, and surmounted by a tower and clock. The design is a beautiful one, a novel feature being the introduction of slight wing projections on the Customs-street frontage, with pavilion roofs.
Star, 13 December 1886

There was an outcry from timber merchants over the architect's specification calling for Baltic wood for the outer doors and sashes, rather than local timbers, especially kauri, (Star 10 March 1887) but four days later, tenders were advertised. Charles M Newson won the tender for constructing the new government office building. (Star 12 January 1888)

The foundations were laid after a considerable amount of fill was taken from the site and dumped at Freeman's Bay (probably assisting reclamations there.) By August 1888, progress up to the second storey was reported (Star 7 August). In February 1889, more grumblings -- the local Trades and Labour Council complained that Newson was subletting his contract piecemeal, labour only, "getting men to work at starvation wages." (Star, 23 February 1889) Still, the work proceeded, and in mid July 1889 Newson took down his hoardings from in front of the building, but the job was still not finally finished until around February 1890. Lands and Survey moved in around that time.

According to the NZ Historic Places Trust, "French Renaissance in style it bears a strong resemblance to the Marshall and Snelgrove building in Oxford Street, London, which must have influenced [Thomas] Mahoney when on a trip to Britain in the 1880s."

The Customhouse, with additional government buildings at rear (right), February 1921. Ref. 1W-1751, 
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.

By the 1960s, the Customhouse and associated buildings were surplus to requirements.

In 1972, Les Andrews began a campaign to save the older building on the site, and have it converted into a centre for the Performing Arts in Auckland. In the end, he was successful, and so Auckland is just that much richer in terms of the Downtown streetscape. A hotel occupies the remainder at the rear.

I recall going to a cinema there in 1986, to watch Back to the Future. The cinema didn't last very long, however. Pity -- I enjoyed the atmosphere.


  1. People may not have have done so well at saving streetscapes, but they haven't done badly with some individual buildings. Back to the Future 1986, I can only roll my eyes and then remember that I too saw it in 1986.

  2. What was the name of the bar which was on the ground floor in the 90s?

    1. From memory the bar was up on the mezzanine floor above the ground floor lobby. On the ground floor there was my store, the Natural Foods Centre - with it's coffee and tea room, natural cosmetics room, book store and demonstration kitchen - the Customhouse Theatre lobby, ticket office and main lobby and the California-style restaurant. Lower floor had the bookstore run by Bob Goodman and John Fay and the more informal cafe. Upstairs was the Arts & Crafts Emporium run by Chris Park and the Children's Kingdom run by a lovely woman who would become a full-fledged clown at the drop of a hat (her hat). Further up the stairs above that floor were offices, meeting rooms and a kitchen where I'd ocassionally conduct small classes in how to use avocados, etc (always popular because I'd make a guacamole for the class to enjoy). It was a great experience I'm grateful to have had and the people I worked with were the best.

  3. After finding this page I decided to start a new group on Facebook for those of us who were part of the restoration project and worked at The Old Auckland Customhouse before the company (The Old Auckland Customhouse Ltd) went into liquidation. As I stated in my earlier comment about the Cellar Café being part of that experience was great and it would be wonderful to reconnect with the other people who were involved.