Commercial Building Façade
181 High Street And Tuam Street, Christchurch
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 2
Private/No Public Access
26th November 1981
Extent of List Entry
Extent includes part of the land described as Lot 3 DP 496233 (CT 729816) Canterbury Land District, and the structure known as Commercial Building Façade, thereon. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the List entry report for further information).
Lot 3 DP 496233 (CT 729816) Canterbury Land District
The three-storeyed stone-faced Commercial Building Façade, on the corner of 181 High Street and Tuam Street in central Christchurch, provides a noteworthy streetscape presence as a post-Canterbury Earthquakes (2010-11) survivor from what was previously a prominent 1910 Edwardian building on the site. It was designed by the England Brothers, one of the foremost architectural practices in Christchurch during the early twentieth century. The façade is a tangible reminder of the building’s long and respected history as a city furniture and furnishings store, first as A J White’s and later as McKenzie and Willis. The Commercial Building Façade has aesthetic, architectural historical and social significance or value.
The 1910 building was constructed for A J White’s, one of New Zealand’s longest established furniture manufacturing and retailing firms, as a replacement of and addition to existing buildings owned by the firm on and adjoining the site. At the time of its opening, the building’s large plate-glass windows were recognised as lending themselves to modern methods of display of goods, attracting attention from the public.
When viewed from the street, the Commercial Building Façade retains much the same prominent corner appearance as it did before the quakes. It is three storeys in height, with restrained detailing and generous use of glass. The first and second floors are dominated by large stylised attached columns that rise through the two upper floors. The large window openings have leaded fanlights with an oriel window at the corner. The first floor windows are squared whilst the second floor windows have segmental arches. The façade has a high level of craftsmanship, particularly in the use of a stone veneer, including carved decorative reliefs and decorative leaded windows.
The building was severely damaged in the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010-2011. In 2015, the badly damaged rear of the building was completely demolished but the original façade was carefully strengthened and restored. The Commercial Building Façade has been retained as the celebrated front to a whole new retail and hospitality complex behind. The significant financial contribution from business, local and central government demonstrates the efforts made to ensure retention of the façade and the value placed on retaining the historic street front appearance in the context of loss of so many historic buildings in the central city.
General Background Information
Early History of Christchurch
Christchurch and the wider area have a long history of Māori occupation. The vast network of wetlands and plains of Kā Pakihi Whakatekateka o Waitaha (Canterbury Plains) is inherently important to the history of its early occupation. The area was rich in food from the forest and waterways. Major awa (river) such as the Rakahuri (Ashley), Waimakariri, Pūharakekenui (Styx) and Rakaia were supplied from the mountain fed aquifers of Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (Southern Alps). Other spring-fed waterways such as the Ōtakaro (Avon) meandered throughout the landscape. The rivers teamed with tuna, kōkopu, kanakana and inaka; the wetlands were a good supply of wading birds and fibres for weaving, food and medicine; with the forest supplying kererū, kokopa, tui and other fauna as well as building materials. Ara tawhito (travelling routes) crossed over the landscape providing annual and seasonal pathways up and down and across the plains and in some cases skirting or traversing the swamps. Permanent pā sites and temporary kainga were located within and around the Plains as Ngāi Tahu established and used the mahinga kai sites where they gathered and utilised natural resources from the network of springs, waterways, wetlands, grasslands and lowland podocarp forests that abounded along the rivers and estuaries.
Most of the Canterbury region was purchased from Ngāi Tahu by the Crown in 1848. The Canterbury Association oversaw the systematic European settlement of Canterbury and surveyed the town of Christchurch and rural sections outside of the town boundary.
Canterbury Earthquakes 2010-11
The situation with the Canterbury Earthquakes of 2010-11 was summarised by the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission Te Komihana Rūwhenua o Waitaha as follows: ‘On 4 September 2010, at 4:35am, an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 struck Christchurch and the surrounding Canterbury region. The earthquake had an epicentre near Darfield, a small town about 40km west of the Christchurch Central Business District. An aftershock sequence began, which at the time of writing is ongoing. All of the earthquakes were the result of ruptures on faults not known to be active prior to the September event. ….However, many unreinforced masonry buildings were damaged and there was extensive damage to infrastructure. The eastern suburbs of Christchurch and Kaiapoi were seriously affected by liquefaction and lateral spreading of the ground. The September earthquake was followed by four other major earthquakes occurring on Boxing Day 2010, and 22 February, 13 June and 23 December 2011. Of these, the event on 22 February was by far the most serious, resulting in 185 deaths. …’
Severe damage to heritage places caused by the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 has meant unprecedented, rapid loss of items from the New Zealand Heritage List, particularly in Christchurch. Significant historic places have been lost, and many places have been removed from the List.
The Heritage New Zealand response to addressing the high number of formal reviews required in post-quake Canterbury, under Section 78 of the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, has been to adopt a shortened review format report and not cover a detailed historical narrative or land history.
Historical Significance or Value
The Commercial Building Façade has historical significance. The façade is a tangible reminder of the large retail department stores that once formed a significant part of lower High Street and specifically points to the site’s continuous use by noted furniture retailers since it was built in 1910. A J Whites and McKenzie and Willis are two of Christchurch’s best known furniture retailers, both family firms that traded in the city for well over 100 years. The building was recognised at the time of its construction as changing the face of this part of Christchurch, especially with its modern methods of displaying goods with its large plate glass windows fronting the street. The more recent dramatic changes to the building tell the remarkable story of the drastic events and unprecedented rapid change due to the Canterbury Earthquakes of 2010-11 and considerable efforts to retain and incorporate original fabric at a time when many historic buildings were demolished altogether, especially in the Christchurch CBD.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
The Commercial Building Façade has aesthetic value. In addition to having a pleasing visual appearance, it also elicits an emotional response as a survivor of the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010-2011. There would have been a real sense of loss that would have occurred if it had been destroyed. This is demonstrated by the extensive efforts made to retain the façade, at considerable financial cost. Significant donations and grants were made by private, public and governmental organisations, as well as owner commitment, all of which ensured the retention of the façade within the new development complex.
Architectural Significance or Value
The Commercial Building Façade has architectural value. It is noted for its Edwardian classical design by the well-known architectural firm of the England Brothers. Even when the entire building was standing, it was the façade that was the most intrinsically important physical element of the historic place. Despite the changes behind, the façade itself continues to form a noteworthy part of the cityscape and provides a visual continuity of proportion, scale, use of materials, relationship of solid to void, colour and texture. The large plate glass windows, noted at the time of construction in 1910 as being a modern approach for selling and displaying goods, remain a key element to the building’s frontage. The façade has craftsmanship value, particularly in the use of a stone veneer, including carved decorative reliefs and leaded windows. The Commercial Building Façade retention tells a story of heritage improvisation in the Christchurch Rebuild.
Social Significance or Value
The Commercial Building Façade has social value. It represents characteristics that demonstrate the way of life of central city shopping and how it has changed over time. Retention of the heritage façade, a time when many historic buildings – not least in the CBD – were demolished has been much celebrated in the community. Evidence of strong support for retention and strengthening is demonstrated through owner effort and commitment and the significant financial contribution made by private, public and governmental organisations. The Commercial Building Façade is a much hailed success story as part of a new retail and hospitality complex on the site, in the context of the loss of considerable heritage in Christchurch.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The Commercial Building Façade is a tangible reminder of central city department store shopping, which was at its heyday in New Zealand city centres through much of the twentieth century. During that time, it was customary for those living in the suburbs to shop at department and other inner city stores, both during week days and, as an occasion, on Friday nights. The A J White’s (later McKenzie and Willis) furniture and furnishings store was a key player as a central city shopping drawcard.
The damage, partial collapse and subsequent demolition of the rear of the Office Building (McKenzie and Willis) while retaining the strengthened façade into a newly built complex behind is a response brought about by the Canterbury Earthquakes of 2010-11, a major event in New Zealand’s history as a seismically active landscape.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The history of the Commercial Building Façade is associated with well-established and respected business owners, A J and Eliza White, and later Joseph Willis and R S McKenzie, as well as the accomplished architectural firm of England Brothers. It is also associated with the major events of the Canterbury Earthquakes (2010-11).
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place
The profile of the Commercial Building Façade and the architectural solution to retain, strengthen and restore it as the street-presenting face of a new complex behind, has been raised in the light of loss of many historic buildings through damage and demolition during the Canterbury Earthquakes. The façade was saved as a result of the combined and extensive efforts by the owner, public and government. The owners of the building received a Christchurch Civic Trust award in 2017, recognising that they had overcome obstacles in a courageous project to retain the heritage façade and streetscape.
Summary of Significance or Values
The Commercial Building Façade has significance as a central city commercial heritage survivor following the dramatic total loss of many of Canterbury’s historic buildings due to the 2010-11 Canterbury Earthquakes. It demonstrates a solution that allowed the retention and strengthening of the street frontage following severe quake damage to the building and has been celebrated by the community for this. It is considered to meet the threshold for entry on the New Zealand Heritage List as a Category 2 historic place.
England, Robert William & Edward Herbert
Robert William England (1863-1908) was born at Lyttelton, the son of a timber merchant. Educated in Christchurch, he chose to go to England for his architectural training and began practicing as an architect in Christchurch around the age of twenty-three. In 1906 he took his younger brother Edward (1875 - c.1953) into practice with him.
Among the notable residential designs the England Brothers were responsible for are McLean's Mansion, (1899 - 1902), and the third stage of Riccarton House (1900). Robert was more concerned with the final effect achieved than stylistic fidelity and drew on a variety of styles including the English Arts and Crafts movement. Some of their more well-known public works include the former D.I.C building in Cashel Street (1908), the A.J White building on the corner of Tuam and High Streets (c.1904-1910) and the Kaiapoi Woollen Mills building in Manchester Street (now demolished). They were also involved in designing a number of churches around Christchurch, including Knox Church in Bealey Avenue and St Albans Methodist Church.
The firm continued after Robert's death in 1908 until 1941, although it is generally considered Edward was a more conservative architect than his brother and the firm's most notable commissions occurred before Robert's death.
Southworth and Co.
No biography is currently available for this construction professional
David Pearson Architects
No biography is currently available for this construction professional
Shearer Milkin Consultants
No biography is currently available for this construction professional
In 1863 Alfred White and his wife Eliza, both noted hard-working English immigrants, established a second-hand furniture store in Christchurch. A J Whites became one of New Zealand’s longest established furniture manufacturing and retailing firms. In 1870 the Whites leased a two storeyed timber building on the corner site of High and Tuam Streets. By the late 1870s the business had prospered and A J Whites was able to build an adjoining three storeyed brick and stone building at 236 Tuam Street. In 1901 a brick and stone building was constructed at 232 Tuam Street and then in 1910 the two storeyed timber building on the corner (181 High Street and Tuam Street) was replaced by a three storeyed stone faced building designed by prominent Canterbury architects, the England Brothers.
A newspaper article dated 15 October 1910 described the new building: ‘it has filled in the whole corner in a most effective manner and has completely changed the face of that part of Christchurch. It is built of brick and stone. The front has been treated somewhat differently from the usual method, the object of the architects, Messrs England Brothers, being to obtain as much light as possible. The front has been carried out with Oamaru stone piers and grey stone filling, and the general effect is much admired by all who have seen the building.’ The large plate-glass windows lent themselves to modern methods of display of goods, attracting attention from the public. Newspaper advertisements of the day specially invited visitors to Christchurch to inspect their ‘new showrooms and enormous stock of all the newest things relating to complete house furnishing…’
By the time the building was constructed in 1910, both Alfred and Eliza White had already died but the business was carried on under the name A J White’s. The Whites had become great philanthropists and left a lasting legacy in Christchurch.
The central city enjoyed its shopping heyday from around 1900 to 1960, which coincided with the peak of reliance on a public transport system that radiated out to the suburbs from the city centre. During that time, it was customary for those living in the suburbs to shop at the department and other inner city stores, both during week days and, as an occasion, on Friday nights. A trip to A J White’s was a drawcard.
A J Whites continued to trade from this site until the early 1980s when the company was bought out by another long-established furniture retailer, McKenzie and Willis, founded in 1906 by Joseph Willis and R S McKenzie. McKenzie and Willis refurbished the building and continued to trade from there until it was badly damaged in the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010-11.
The Canterbury Earthquakes had a dramatic effect on the area. The adjoining nineteenth century A J White’s brick building at 236 Tuam Street was destroyed in the quakes and, on the other side of the building, at 167 High Street, the England Brothers- designed Billen’s Building was soon after destroyed by fire. As a result of the quakes, the corner Office Building (then commonly known as the McKenzie and Willis building) was badly damaged at the rear but the façade remained. There was a real risk that the whole building would be demolished. Eventually, with the assistance of a major donation from Fletcher Building through the Canterbury Earthquake Heritage Buildings Fund, and further significant contributions from that fund and Christchurch City Council, it was agreed that the façade would be retained and stabilised to ensure that it continues to be a heritage feature of the central city streetscape. A new developer purchased the site in late 2014 and subsequently the restored and strengthened façade was incorporated into the new development which comprises shops, eating premises, laneways, and offices. In 2017 the owners received a Civic Trust award for the restoration project, recognising that ‘they had overcome obstacles in a courageous project to retain the façade and streetscape, giving a boost to the area’.
The Commercial Building Façade is located on a prominent corner site at the busy intersection of High and Tuam Streets in central Christchurch. It is three storeys in height and is an Edwardian interpretation of more traditional classical style commercial buildings, restrained in detailing and notable for its generous use of glass. The first and second floors are dominated by large stylised attached columns that rise through the two upper floors. The large window openings have leaded fanlights with an oriel window at the corner. The first floor windows are squared whilst the second floor windows have segmental arches. The façade has a high level of craftsmanship, particularly in the use of a stone veneer, including carved decorative reliefs and decorative leaded windows. The original parapet and verandah no longer survive.
Behind the England Brothers’ masonry façade is a totally new complex of laneways, shops and offices, but these are hidden from view from the street front. A steel frame behind the masonry façade connects to the new build. Dave Pearson Architects and Shearer Milkin Consultants were the construction professionals involved in the façade retention and redevelopment phase.
Demolition of rear of the building
2016 - 2017
Restoration and strengthening of façade
2016 - 2017
Creation of offices, shops, lanes behind the façade (not included in Extent of List entry)
Brick, stone, glass
13th February 2019
Report Written By
John Wilson et al, Contextual historical overview for Christchurch City, Christchurch City Council, Christchurch, 2005.
Tau and Anderson, 2008
Tau, Te Maire, and Anderson, Atholl (Eds) ‘Ngai Tahu: A Migration History – The Carrington Text’, Bridget Williams Books Ltd, Wellington 2008.
A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Canterbury/West Coast Office of Heritage New Zealand.
Other Heritage Recognition
In 2017 the building was awarded a Christchurch Civic Trust award for the restored McKenzie and Willis façade, recognising that the owners had overcome obstacles in a courageous project to retain the façade and streetscape, giving a boost to the area.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.
Archaeological sites are protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, regardless of whether they are entered on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero or not. Archaeological sites include ‘places associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand’. This List entry report should not be read as a statement on whether or not the archaeological provisions of the Act apply to the property (s) concerned. Please contact your local Heritage New Zealand office for archaeological advice.