Friday, June 21, 2013

The still lamented Victoria Arcade

We had a beautiful building on Queen Street once, called the Victoria Arcade (1885). I wish in my first fifteen years of life, I'd been aware of it enough to have looked up and seen it for myself. But, sadly, I didn't.

It was designed in 1883 by architect Alfred Smith, built in 1884 by Allan McGuire, for the New Zealand Insurance Company. Smith started his Auckland career with Charles Le Neve Arnold in 1882.
An opportunity has been afforded us of inspecting some very fine architectural and other drawings executed by Messrs Smith and Arnold, architects. Amongst the more important works we noticed a beautifully finished perspective, in sepia, of the sanatorium, erected for the well-known Mr Holloway of London, and a very fine set of drawings of the Army and Navy Club in Pall Mall, of which Mr. Smith was the architect and for the successful arrangement and completion of which he made a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Failing health -- the result of too close application to his work -- has compelled Mr Smith to try the milder climate of New Zealand. Mr Arnold, his partner, was formerly in the office of Mr. Norton of London and Florence, architect for the Yarmouth and Newcastle Aquaria, and he was subsequently pupil and draughtsman to Mr Lawson, of Dunedin, whom he assisted in many important works. We understand that Messrs Smith and Arnold intend to practice their profession in our city. 

NZ Herald 2 February 1882

Early in 1883, the New Zealand Insurance Company obtained a lease for city endowment property between Queen Street and what was then the post office and custom house sites, in the block between Shortland and Fort Streets. The company offered a prize of £250, open to architects "in all the colonies." 45 plans were received, including five from Melbourne. The proposal for a tower for the building seems to have been common to many of the plans the company received. Smith's design won out, resembling the Charlemont Hotel at the foot of Wakefield Street (also gone)

The principal entrance is at the corner of Shortland and Queen Streets to a vestibule 20 feet in width, leading to a grand staircase, and the elevator, behind which is a sloped to the basement. On the Queen-street side of entrance on ground floor is a single shop, and on the Shortland-street side a double shop. On the Queen-street frontage to Fort street corner (where there is a double shop) there are six shops, inclusive of Fort-street corner. There are on the Shortland-street frontage, next to the Post Office, two shops. Then an arcade running through to Fort-street, the frontage to which on either side is occupied by a series of shops, The space above is an open court used for a lighting area. There is also a small court for lighting purposes to shops on eastern side of arcade. The Fort-street frontage, east and west of the arcade, is also devoted to a series of business premises. The basement is so arranged that the cellars are lighted and ventilated; both from the street and arcade. The elevator, which runs up to the gallery of the tower, communicates with the basement, as also with a staircase at the opposite corner, provision being also made for a hydraulic lift. Round the shaft of the elevator is a handsome staircase to every floor. The first floor contains 23 offices, and the second and third 22 each. The roof being high pitched will afford an excellent range of room, suitable for artists or photo, graphers, or any occupation requiring special lighting. 

NZ Herald 8 August 1883

Detail from drawing of east side of Queen Street. Ref 4-337, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.

On 30 August, the partnership of Smith and Arnold dissolved. Charles Le Neve Arnold went on to become relatively prominent in Auckland's architectural history, becoming a preferred architect to John Logan Campbell. Arnold joined the Auckland Institute of Architects in 1885. His association with John Logan Campbell, president at the time of the building of the Auckland Golf Club’s clubhouse at One Tree Hill, seems to have begun by the early 1890s, when both were on the committee deciding upon plans for extensions to the Auckland Art Gallery for the Mackelvie collection in 1891, and he also did design work later for Campbell & Ehrenfried. In 1893, Arnold designed and superintended the building of the St Mary’s Parish Hall beside the Anglican church of the same name in Parnell, and was on the sub-committee for Building & Lighting for the 1898 Auckland Industrial and Mining Exhibition. He is credited with the design for Huia Lodge in Cornwall Park, with producing a design for Admiralty House in 1900, Auckland Chamber of Commerce in 1903, and in partnership with R Atkinson Abbott won first prize in a competition for a design for the Auckland Grammar School (1913), the Dilworth Ulster Institute School of Agriculture in Papatoetoe (1916), Memorial Chapel at King’s College (1922) and shops for George Kent & Sons in Newmarket (1922).

Smith, practicing alone,  met with trouble.
There is considerable dissatisfaction among the local competing architects at the decision arrived at. A premium of £250 was offered by the company for the best design for a block of buildings, four storeys high and the cost of which was not to exceed £25,000, whereas the premium has been awarded to a design, which from the practical test of tendering will cost, with foundations, £40,000. They hold that having complied with the conditions, by keeping their designs within the limits assigned, £25,000, they are now unjustly treated by the present decision. It must be said for the company, on the other hand, that several alterations have been made in the accepted design, involving an increase of cost to the extent of several thousand pounds. Among other change there is an extra bay in Queen-street; a projection to the Queen-street facade; enlargement of the grand staircase large strong-rooms bath-rooms; caretaker's rooms on fourth floor, fittings, etc. 

NZ Herald 23 February 1884

Things didn't go too well for Smith right from the start. By March 1885, he withdrew as architect to the insurance company.

As you have alluded to my withdrawal from the post of architect to the New Zealand Insurance Building, and as the public are already spreading reports not very flattering to myself, I shall be much obliged by your allowing the following facts to appear in. an early issue, as some of your readers may feel interested. The present contract for erecting the New Zealand Insurance Company's block of buildings in Queen, Shortland, and Fort Streets, for which my plan was chosen in competition with forty-seven other architects, took effect in March last year, and according to the terms of said contract the building was, and ought to be, completed by the end of August in this year. All the detail and full-size drawings have been supplied a long time, and it is very creditable to Mr George Boyd, of the Newton Pottery Works, who has been entrusted with the ornamental brick and terra-cotta work, that this portion of the work has all been prepared, and is ready for fixing, even to the terminals of the gables. The building itself, however, has been advancing by very slow degrees from the first, and, notwithstanding my unceasing remonstrances to the contractor of want of proper tackle and force to carry out such a building, month after month has gone by with no improvement, until I got quite wearied, worried, and sick. Knowing that I could not possibly do more than I had done, and that there was nothing else left for me to do than to see that my drawings were properly carried out, and having found that Mr Roberts, who I recommended from the first as clerk of works, was a capable man, and I could trust him to have the work carried out properly, I asked the directors to allow me to withdraw, and they have kindly allowed me to do so. In all other conditions of contract with builders that I have seen power is given to the employers, in case of want of diligence on the part of the contractor, to hire men themselves, and deduct their wages from my monies due to the contractor. Here no power is given at all, and the tenor of the conditions is not at all calculated to induce a contractor to do his duty. They want revision badly, and I trust, for the sake of those who build, this will be done. I am, etc, Alfred Smith. Auckland, 22nd March, 1885. 

NZ Herald 24 March 1885

In April, Smith transferred his practice to R Mackay Fripp. The building was still unfinished.The tower was only just being completed in October 1885. As for Smith -- he fades back into history at that point.

The Victoria Arcade soon after completion. Ref 4-259, Sir George Grey Special Collections,
 Auckland Library

The NZ Herald reporter's words, back in 1884, regarding the Victoria Arcade's attraction to those in the arts proved prophetic. This, from Art New Zealand, No. 134, Winter 2010:

What was realised by few, perhaps, is that Victoria Arcade-quite apart from any aesthetic merits it may have as a piece of Victorian architecture - was a very tangible link with a whole past era of art in Auckland: a period stretching from the mid-eighteen-eighties through to the early decades of the new century. A roll-call of painters who had studios at the Arcade would include the names of Frank and Walter Wright, Robert Atkinson, Charles Blomfield, E. W. Payton, Kennett Watkins, Louis John Steele and G. C. Goldie, And a bird of more exotic plumage, Girolarno Pieri Nerli, seems to have made a stay there, albeit a brief one. The list reads like a litany of the most notable artists of the period. While there were other buildings with artists' studios (Palmerston Buildings, for instance) there was not one that had so long an association with art in Auckland. In addition, Victoria Arcade, from the mid-thirties, was to house the Auckland Society of Arts itself, after the ill-considered, and later much regretted, sale of its own building in Kitchener Street.
Decorations outside George Fowlds' store, Victoria Arcade, for the visit of the Duke & Duchess of Cornwall, 1901. Ref 236-7558, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.

It was demolished in 1978 by the Bank of New Zealand for a corporate headquarters which I visited in 2001 while preparing Heart of the Whau. This in turn has been replaced by the Deloitte Centre, which has also replaced the Jean Batten Building, in 2010. Thus, we lose gems of our heritage in this city.


  1. Oh golly, this building is more interesting than I thought. I just amended my blog on the 1901 Royal visit, thanks for the identification! I don't have much on Auckland but maybe a couple more next year.

  2. Pulling it down was an act of vandalism and destruction of architectural heritage!!!! I don't like brick buildings normally, but your 1901 photo of the visit of the Duke & Duchess of Cornwall showed just how important the building was.

  3. Your post on the visit deserves a link, Don. Let me know when you do any more Auckland posts, and I'll link to them from Timespanner. Cheers!

    Remembering The 1901 Royal Visit to Auckland, New Zealand

    Yes, Hels, I absolutely agree with you. Utter, utter vandalism. :(

  4. I was at uni when it was demolished, and recall being allowed to have a wander through the upper floors prior to its demolition- I recall that the offices were dingy with modernised décor but the old white marble fireplace surrounds still remained in some. The demolition of the Victorian-gothic building was a great loss to our architectural heritage, the loss not mitigated by the bleak structure that replaced it.

  5. Recently the Diamond family donated JT Diamond's personal brick collection to The Portage Ceramics Trust / Te Toi Uku Clay Museum in New Lynn. Among the bricks are a couple collected by Jack Diamond during the demolition of Victoria Arcade. The Bricks are stamped 'G.Boyd Auckland N.Z.'

  6. Yes, I remember the building very well from when I leased the top floor turret corner facing Shortland and Queen Street in 1973-74.
    The building manager at the time was a Mr. Eric Old and I had set up an art gallery/ studio where I indulged in painting reproductions of the old masters. I self taught this skill with the intention of pursuing portrait painting as a possible career.
    The atmosphere of the architecture made me feel I was really somewhere in Europe painting, not knowing what others artists had set up occupation there earlier than me.
    My first live portrait was infact of Eric Old who patiently sat form me. He told me I could very well be using space that had been occupied by C.F. Goldie. (I completed and sold several reproductions of Goldie portraits attempting to emulate his amazing skill).
    Hugh Wright senior learnt about my skill after I received promotional publicity published in the Auckland Star evening newspaper whence he commissioned me to do a painting of the the building from an historical print (but in colour) which he subsequently hung in his office. Hugh Wright’s anchor retail men’s wear business occupied much the ground floor of The Victoria Arcade then.
    I was 26 Yrs old then and treasure my experience of my time there . I met my first love there never forgetting how we met passing each other on the rear staircase. I was carrying a large reproduction of Courbet’s “The Sleepers” that I painted down the steps as it was too large to take down the shaky lift !
    I’ll never forget the particular aroma of the interior building that reeked of history. I loved it every time I went there. An escape into another era!

    I thought it was criminal to have destroyed what occupied a unique part of dowmtown Auckland’s architectural history and culture , especially with so much of the artistic culture of Auckland passing through it in it’s early days.
    It showed the lack of foresight of the city fathers at the time.

    Leyland Cross.

  7. I use to go to the wimpy bar at end of arcade by custom street.. they had small juke boxes on the wall we all hung out there before going clubing.. iwas 15 yrs old.. 51 years ago.. great memories😊😊

  8. My great-great-grandfather, Henry Goulstone, had his accounting offices in this building when it was quite new. Thank you for this article.

  9. My husband was part of the demolition team. I remember him saying how sad it was to see it come down. He was able to bring home a piece of Kauri and made a bowl out of it.