Chief Post Office

283 Princes St, Dunedin

  • Chief Post Office, Dunedin.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Jane O'Dea. Date: 31/03/2016.
  • Chief Post Office, Dunedin.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Jane O'Dea. Date: 31/03/2016.
  • Chief Post Office, Dunedin.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Jane O'Dea. Date: 31/03/2016.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 2145 Date Entered 2nd July 1982

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City/District Council

Dunedin City

Region

Otago Region

Legal description

Sec 1 SO 14450

Summaryopen/close

The former Dunedin Chief Post Office (1937), designed by Government architect J.T. Mair, occupies an entire city block in The Exchange, the historic business centre of Dunedin. The impressive building, constructed of reinforced concrete faced with stone, provided a long-called for central location for government services in Dunedin, and was considered a monument to the importance of the role of the state and also to Dunedin's preeminent position as the country's most prosperous city. The building housed postal services until 1997 when New Zealand Post was restructured, and postal services shifted to Strathallan Street. Since that time the building has stood empty, with a number of suggested development proposals faltering. In 2007 the future of the building continues to be discussed, with a proposal for hotel and apartment accommodation.

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Historical Significance or Value

The Dunedin Chief Post Office's historical significance results from its importance as a nationally significant architectural symbol of the Government presence in the provinces. The bulk form and scale of the Chief Post Office represent the Dunedin's golden past, a centre worthy of such an imposing architectural statement.

Historically the area on which the CPO was eventually built was a landing site for Ngai Tahu when they visited the head of the harbour, and it became more important as a trading post after the establishment of Dunedin in 1844.

The postal service in New Zealand began in 1840 And the first post office in Dunedin opened in 1855. By the early twentieth century the Post and Telegraph Department had become one of the major government departments, with branches in all the main population centres. As well as the postal service, the department administered the telegraph system, broadcasting, and the Post Office Savings Bank, and was therefore intimately involved with many aspects of New Zealanders' lives. The importance of the post office in the first half of twentieth century can be seen in the continuing agitation by Dunedin citizens for a post office building that both provided adequate space for the department and that reflected the contemporary status of Dunedin as a major city. The Dunedin CPO which finally opened in 1937, is significant as one of the last main centre post offices to have been built under the auspices of the Public Works Department. Since the restructuring of the post office during the 1980s, the Dunedin CPO also stands as an important reminder of the central role that the post office once played in New Zealand life. Its position in the Exchange reflects the historical importance of this area as the major business centre of Dunedin.

Conservation architect Greg Bowron described the Dunedin CPO as one of the last surviving main centre Post Offices built under the auspices of the Works Department, ranking alongside the Auckland CPO and Christchurch CPO as grand central spaces that marked the importance of postal communication. He argued that given the restructuring of NZ Post, and Dunedin CPO became a more important illustration of New Zealand social history.

There are five CPOs on the New Zealand Historic Places Trust Register - Christchurch (1879) , Oamaru (1884), Palmerston North (1905), Auckland (1912) , and Dunedin (1937). Auckland, Christchurch and Oamaru CPOs have Category I registrations, while Dunedin and Palmerston North have Category II registrations.

Government Buildings on the Historic Places Trust Register

The Dunedin CPO was also a significant centre for government departments in Otago. The CPO provided an essential link between the Government and the public, and allowed for the centralisation of government services.

On the Historic Places Trust Register, it is one of a number of such buildings built in the 1930s - including the Departmental Building in Wellington, completed in 1940 and also designed by J.T. Mair. It remains an important example of Government presence in the provinces, and is arguably one of the later neo-classical architectural representations of the omnipresence of the state in the main centres outside Wellington.

The Dunedin Chief Post Office's architectural significance is related to both design and construction methods. The Dunedin Chief Post Office was designed at a point when Modernism had not made a significant impact on the appearance of large New Zealand civic buildings. The Princes Street façade employs a traditional but simplified classical treatment drawn from the Beaux-Arts neo-classical style of the inter-war period. This style can be defined in relation to the Dunedin Chief Post Office by the use of simplified classical ornament on a symmetrically organised façade, often given a strong vertical emphasis by the use of dark bronze spandrels separating the window openings and dividing the walls of the building into contrasting bands. Mair's minimalist approach to detailing is particularly noticeable in the rear Bond Street elevation The architect made conscious use of New Zealand materials for both the interior fit-out and exterior cladding.

The Chief Post Office's technological significance rests on its modern construction techniques including a floating raft foundation, structural steel and concrete construction. The architect also made use of modern technological advancements in the building's earthquake proofing, and its lifts and alarm system.

Post Offices provided a vital function within their communities - as a social meeting place, and as an actual link between the Government and its communities. Even no longer functioning as a Post Office, this building symbolises the omnipresent role of the state in the lives of its populace, at a level no longer likely to be found within provincial New Zealand. There is on-going public concern about the future of the building as it is seen as a vital part of the architectural and social history of Dunedin.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history.

The Dunedin Chief Post Office in its size, location and style represents a history of significant State involvement in the daily lives of the population. The Chief Post Office is part of The Exchange, the historical centre of business and government functions in Dunedin. This area of Dunedin, and the Post Office within it, represents the significant history of Dunedin's development as New Zealand's first city, built on the prosperity of the gold rushes, and then suffering later decline in economic and population growth.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history.

The Dunedin Chief Post Office represents a significant work overseen by the second Government Architect J.T. Mair. Designed in the mid-1920s, it heralds a significant departure from earlier architectural styles and a sophisticated handling of contemporary technological construction issues.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history.

In its scale and positioning, the Dunedin Chief Post Office provides insight into the importance of the Post Office in the community. In its mix of traditional architectural style and use of new technology, it marks a significant moment in the development of architecture in the twentieth century.

(d) The importance of the place to the tangata whenua.

The area on which the Chief Post Office was built was once an important trading post between the Ngai Tahu of Otakau and the early Pakeha settlers. The Toitu Stream once ran into the harbour where Water Street is today and was the traditional landing site for Ngai Tahu when they visited the head of the harbour. After the establishment of Dunedin in 1848 the site became used as a trading post between Maori and Pakeha and in 1859 the government built a Maori hostel on the north side of the Toitu for Ngai Tahu to stay in when they visited from Otakau. This hostel was demolished in 1865.

There has been an on-going debate since the nineteenth century as to whether the area around the mouth of the Toitu was promised as, but never made into, a reserve in the 1844 purchase of Otago, and this issue, in conjunction with the debate over the Princes Street Reserve (situated further south down Princes St from the Chief Post Office). Recently the Waitangi Tribunal found that there was insufficient evidence to establish that a reserve around the landing site had been promised in 1844 and therefore dismissed this part of Ngai Tahu's claim. However, the site on which the Chief Post Office was built has a significant association for local Ngai Tahu.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place.

The Chief Post Office provided a focus for the community in Dunedin, as a meeting place, and a place to transact the daily business of their lives. It remains an important symbolic building in the townscape.

There is significant Dunedin City Council and public interest and concern about retaining this significant building, representing Dunedin's postal, government and social history.

(f) The potential of the place for public education.

The Chief Post Office is a vital part of 'The Exchange' area, which is included on heritage walking tours run by private individuals as well as the Otago Settlers Museum. It is also part of the Dunedin City Council's historic plaque system, which provides interpretation of significant aspects of Dunedin's past.

The future use of the building is currently undecided. There might be the possibility of using the building for public education, depending on the eventual decision regarding its fate.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place.

In its mix of traditional architectural style and use of new technology, it marks a significant moment in the development of architecture and building technologies in the twentieth century.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place.

The Chief Post Office strongly symbolises the omnipresence of the state in the daily lives of its constituents. This becomes particularly significant in the context of decentralisation of government functions and the selling off of state assets in the 1980s.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places.

The rarity of the Dunedin Chief Post Office rests in its representation of a significant development in architectural style; of Dunedin's historically pre-eminent position; and, as a physical reminder of the importance of the State in citizen's lives.

The Dunedin Chief Post Office represents an important architectural link between the Beaux-Arts style and the Modern Movement, not evident in other registered Chief Post Offices which represent earlier architectural styles. The Dunedin Chief Post Office is comparable in importance to the Auckland and Christchurch Chief Post Offices both of which have Category I registrations.

In the concentration of government services and postal operations it represents the Welfare State ideology, and the importance of the state in people's lives. With the dismantling of the Welfare State, and the decentralisation of government services, the Dunedin Chief Post Offices rarity increases as a representation of these aspects of social history.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape.

The Chief Post Office is a vital element in The Exchange Heritage Precinct area under the Dunedin City Council Plan. The Exchange was the business and government centre in Dunedin until the 1960s. It is characterised by the scale and mass of the office buildings, with the majority being at least five storeys high. Within the precinct, the Chief Post Office provides an important architectural bridge between the decorative Victorian and Edwardian commercial architecture and the later Modern Movement office buildings.

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Fletcher Construction Company

Fletcher Construction Company was founded by Scottish-born James Fletcher (1886 - 1974), the son of a builder. Six months after his arrival in Dunedin in 1908, Fletcher formed a house-building partnership with Bert Morris. They soon moved into larger-scale construction work, building the St Kilda Town Hall (1911), and the main dormitory block and Ross Chapel at Knox College (1912). Fletcher's brothers, William, Andrew and John joined the business in 1911, which then became known as Fletcher Brothers. A branch was opened in Invercargill.

While holidaying in Auckland in 1916, James tendered for the construction of the the Auckland City Markets. By 1919 the company, then known as Fletcher Construction, was firmly established in Auckland and Wellington. Notable landmarks constructed by the company during the Depression included the Auckland University College Arts Building (completed 1926); Landmark House (the former Auckland Electric Power Board Building, 1927); Auckland Civic Theatre (1929); the Chateau Tongariro (1929); and the Dominion Museum, Wellington (1934).

Prior to the election of the first Labour Government, Fletcher (a Reform supporter) had advised the Labour Party on housing policy as hbe believed in large-scale planning and in the inter-dependence of government and business. However, he declined an approach by Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage in December 1935 to sell the company to the government, when the latter wanted to ensure the large-scale production of rental state housing. Although Fletchers ultimately went on to build many of New Zealand's state houses, for several years Residential Construction Ltd (the subsidiary established to undertake their construction) sustained heavy financial losses.

Fletcher Construction became a public company, Fletcher Holdings, in 1940. Already Fletchers' interests were wide ranging: brickyards, engineering shops, joinery factories, marble quarries, structural steel plants and other enterprises had been added the original construction firm. Further expansion could only be undertaken with outside capital.

During the Second World War James Fletcher, having retired as chairman of Fletcher Holdings, was seconded to the newly created position of Commissioner of State Construction which he held during 1942 and 1943. Directly responsible to Prime Minister Peter Fraser, Fletcher had almost complete control over the deployment of workers and resources. He also became the Commissioner of the Ministry of Works, set up in 1943, a position he held until December 1945.

In 1981 Fletcher Holdings; Tasman Pulp and Paper; and Challenge Corporation amalgamated to form Fletcher Challenge Ltd, at that time New Zealand's largest company.

Williamson Construction Company - main contract

Mair, John Thomas

John Thomas Mair (1876-1959) was born in Invercargill and began his career with the New Zealand Railways on the staff of the Office Engineer, George Troup. In 1906 he travelled to the United States of America where he studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He then worked in the office of George B. Post in New York before travelling to England where he was admitted as an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He became a Fellow in 1940.

On his return to New Zealand he entered private practice, one of his first buildings being the Presbyterian First Church, Invercargill (1915), a prominent building of Romanesque character. He then practised in Wellington, carrying out largely domestic commissions.

In 1918 he was appointed Inspector of Military Hospitals by the Defence Department, and in 1920 he became architect to the Department of Education. Following the retirement of John Campbell in 1922, Mair was appointed Government Architect, a position which he held until his retirement in 1942. During this period he was responsible for a variety of buildings, including the Courthouse, Hamilton, the Post Office in High Street, Christchurch, Government Life Office and the Departmental Building, both in Wellington, and the Jean Batten Building, Auckland. Such buildings show a departure from tradition, with the emphasis on function, structure and volume as opposed to a stylistic treatment of the building fabric.

A Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, Mair was made a Life Member in 1942. His son John Lindsay Mair also practised as an architect.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The first grand purpose-built Post Office building had been William Mason's 1864 Chief Post Office, more commonly known as the Stock Exchange Building. Funded by the General Government it was built after the style of St Martin's Le Grande in London. It was never used as a Post Office and was handed over to the University of Otago with the south gallery used as a museum. In the later part of the nineteenth century it housed the Colonial Bank (later the Bank of New Zealand). In 1900 it was purchased by the Stock Exchange Company. This, Dunedin's first purpose built Post Office, was demolished to make way for Wickliffe House in the late 1960s.

Postal services in Dunedin in the nineteenth century were somewhat nomadic, with no central premises until the late 1930s. With the abandonment of the system of Provincial Government in the 1870s, the Post and Telegraph operations were shifted to the former Provincial Government premises. The Provincial Government building was used as the Chief Post Office from the 1870s until around 1915. The Post Office shifted from the Provincial Government buildings to the Garrison Hall on Dowling Street in early 1916.

John Campbell, the Government Architect, apparently drew up plans for a new Chief Post Office in 1916, but these plans were never built. The District Engineer stated in 1923 that the plans proposed for the new building on the Princes Street site, were found to be unsuitable, and would require so much modification that an entirely new plan needed to be drawn. Cabinet approval was needed before new plans could be begun. In the meantime the Provincial Government building was inspected to ascertain its safety and suitability to continue to house the various departments. A committee made up of H.H. Sharp from the Post and Telegraph Department, John Mair of the Education Department (soon to be Government Architect), and G.W. Simpson, a builder, found that contrary to public complaints, the building was 'thoroughly sound and inherently stable.' The committee described it as well built with its timber and masonry in fine condition. Problems with the building resulted from poor maintenance, with water damage from the leaking slate roof being the main problem. The building was, the committee considered, suitable for Government purposes.

Dunedin citizens did not consider the building suitable. In 1923 a deputation 'representative of every class in the community' met the Prime Minister Right Hon. Mr Massey in the Council Chambers of the Town Hall, to demand the construction of a new Post Office. The Prime Minister stated that it was evident that Dunedin badly wanted a Post Office, but that the financial situation meant that it would take a year to get the money together. In May 1926 the Otago Expansion League made further approaches to the Government presenting a request for the removal of the old buildings and the erection of new buildings on the site. They considered that for ten years the Postal Department had occupied a building that was acknowledged as only makeshift. They argued that the

'various government departments were scattered all over the city, and in the interests of economy as many as possible of these departments should be accommodated under one roof. However, what they were concerned about chiefly was the demolition of the old post office and the erection of a new building on the site. The old building was an eyesore, and should be removed as soon as possible. Some of them were afraid that the renovation of the building, which had been carried out prior to the opening of the Exhibition, was an indication of prolonged tenure.'

The mayor considered that postal workers were working under difficult conditions. The Prime Minister reported that plans and specifications were being prepared, and hoped the building would be begun the following year, after the alternatives were worked through. He said there were alternative schemes, housing the Post and Telegraph Department in one building at a cost of around £100,000, or to have a 'more pretentious building' to accommodate all the government departments, at a greater cost. Plans were being drafted for both options, and a contract would be let for the building before the end of the current financial year unless 'something cropped up.'

In 1926 work was further delayed when the Government Architect was instructed by the Prime Minister to concentrate on plans for Parliament Buildings in Wellington. Tenders for the Dunedin Chief Post Office were to be delayed for at least another year.

In May 1927 there was another deputation to the Minister outlining the delays and frustration of the population. There were rumours that instructions had been given to discontinue the work on plans for the new building. Dunedin had been calling for a new Post Office since 1919, and patience was getting short. The Otago Witness described a 'squall of intense, if not actually angry, discussion'; citizen's patience had been 'tried overmuch.' The Otago Expansion League had entered correspondence with William Downie Stewart, Minister of Finance and member for Dunedin West, asking for fulfilment of previous promises. Downie Stewart replied that he had had discussions with the Postmaster-General, who had stated that the Government Architect was preparing plans and specifications for the work. Tenders were to be invited when the financial position permitted. Given previous assurances that work was progressing, members of the League considered this reply to be an 'insult to the intelligence of the community.'

In October 1927 William Downie Stewart released a telegram from W. Nostworthy, the Postmaster-General, stating that it was hoped to vacate the Princes Street building by the end of the month, and after which arrangements would be made for the demolition of the building. The new building was to be the maximum height permitted by the by-laws - 'a handsome structure of steel and concrete, with appropriate facing material.'

There were signs of movement in 1928 with the demolition of the old Provincial Government Buildings (which had housed the post office prior to 1916). The Public Works Department accepted the tender of Messrs White and Co for the purchase and removal of the building. The contractors were to get any usable building material, while the rest was to be dumped for fill, free of charge to the Public Works Department at certain government sections.

Public opinion concerning the internal wood panelling work was canvassed in 1928. Samples of wood for panelling were displayed in the Princes Street window of Whitcombe and Tombs, but there was no feedback. The sample was then submitted to a number of builders - with the builders considering New Zealand mahogany (Kohekohe) superior to figured rimu, oak, or Queensland maple. Southern saw millers advocated the use of Southern Beech.

In addition to the Post and Telegraph Department, the new building was also to be home of various Government Departments (Agriculture, Customs, Health, Land and Income Tax, Lands and Survey, Land Transfer, Marketing, Audit, Public Works, Stamp Duties, State Advance, Transport, Treasury, and the Valuation Office). These departments were the 'nerve centres of their industrial trading, and private lives, and it would now be possible to handle the increased and growing business with even greater efficiency and despatch than in the past, and permit the departments concerned to arrive at one further stage of excellence in the public service.' Other departments were excluded from the new building on the basis of their function requiring ground floor accommodation.

By 1929 problems with the foundations were being resolved. William Downie Stewart wrote that the plans for the buildings were complete, with the exception of the foundations. The foundation plans would be completed following extensive testing of the ground, and then a method for building the foundations would be adopted. In August 1929 the necessary plant for driving the piles had arrived and the preparatory work was 'going steadily.' A.T. Craven, fresh from supervising the Pareora Bridge on the Dunedin-Christchurch highway, oversaw the erection of the foundations. The building was to be built on the very edge of the original high water mark, where the underlying rock shelves sloped steeply toward the harbour. A floating raft was employed for the foundations. In late 1929 all was ready for the construction of the raft. Excavation and pile driving was undertaken in March 1930, with work on waterproofing the deeper portion of the basement at Liverpool and Bond Street beginning soon after. The occurrence of boulders made pile driving difficult - with the occasional pile omitted where the boulders prevented the piles being pitched. The 1730 timber piles came from Messrs Chisholm and Bentley from Five Rivers in Southland.

Delays continued, however. In July 1932 Dunedin's Mayor once again urged the government to begin the immediate construction of the buildings to accommodate the Post Office and other government departments. Residents had been willing to put up with the current arrangements because of the economic situation, but would probably support the erection of the building under a subsidy plan devised by the Unemployment Board. Local men would be able to use their trade during the economic downturn. There was opposition to the idea of state subsidy of workers - James Fletcher, of Fletcher Construction who were in 1933 to win the tender for the new building, considered that subsidised work was overmanned and incompetently supervised. He estimated that around £100,000 would be spent in direct and indirect wages on the post office structure if subsidised workers were used.

The excavated foundations were a reminder of the stalled work. Money had already been spent, yet the building was not progressing. The Postmaster-General wrote reassuring Dunedin that the project was delayed, not abandoned. Meanwhile the water-filled foundations were known as the 'duck pond' and the 'swimming pool' by students. For some the Post Office was a matter of civic pride. Arthur Paape wrote that Auckland had its palatial railway station, there was the National Memorial at Mt Cook in Wellington, and Christchurch had a fine second Post Office recently opened. The money spent on the foundations in Dunedin was a 'blemish to the city' and Dunedin wanted a fair deal - the completion of the Post Office.

Dunedin citizens were keen for construction to continue - arguing that it would provide local employment and a stimulus for local businesses. There was some local opposition, arguing that the building was a waste of money during the Depression, and would be 'another monument to Government waste and extravagance.'

Delays were extended with the economic downturn of the 1930s, which restricted the building programme of the Post and Telegraph Department. The Departmental Report in 1932-33 stated that although authority was obtained for the erection of several large buildings, it was found necessary for financial reasons to defer the works. Tenders were called for the Dunedin CPO, but were withdrawn before a date was fixed for their receipt. Other postal buildings went ahead, for example the eight-storey Wellington East Post Office, which was completed 10 June 1932. With the restart of many delayed works , the construction of the Dunedin CPO was finally approved in 1933, and the contract was let for construction.

The new Post Office was described as a 'work of some magnitude.' There were some unusual features in its structural design, resulting from consultation with earthquake engineers. The steel and concrete building, which occupied a whole city block, was to be specially strengthened against earthquakes. It was faced with New Zealand stone, the lower part with granite, the upper part with a lighter coloured stone. The whole of the window frames facing on to the four street elevations were to be made of solid bronze, and the design was to be relieved by solid cast bronze panels. The interior, also of 'severely plain conception', had many interesting features, including the use of marble and bronze with a wood finish in selected New Zealand timbers. Mr Fletcher, who won the tender, considered that the plans and details submitted to the tenderers were the most complete that his firm had ever tendered on. The work was to be completed in three years

The contract involved a considerable amount of steel - an order for over 2,600 tons was to be placed in England. Local suppliers also benefited. An order for 10,000 yards of crushed metal gave impetus to local quarries, 4000 tons of cement were to be drawn from local mills, over 3,000 yards of sand were used, and timber mills were to receive orders for over 500,000 feet of timber. The contract for the windows with J. and W. Faulkner of Dunedin represented eighteen months work for over fifty men.

The stone work represented considerable local opportunities. Fletcher's had negotiated the lease of the Bluff quarry from Messrs Frapwells Ltd. The quarrying would employ forty men at Bluff. A stone-working plant was to be installed at Pelichet Bay for finishing the stone. The installation of the plant involved the use of diamond saws, and carborundum moulding machines. The process was entirely new in the preparation of stone for a Dunedin contract.

The style and nature of the building required a company experienced in the 'new methods of construction and new materials.' Fletcher Construction finished the building almost within the scheduled time. This was notable because there was a delay of more than five months experienced because the structural steel had not arrived from England. The contract represented the largest ever let in the Dominion for a building.

Fletcher stated the building 'struck an entirely new note in architectural design, and from an architectural point of view was in keeping with the modern trend of thought.' There had been 'a great deal of criticism' levelled at the Government Architect and his department on the ground that the design 'departed from the orthodox and that its striking plainness would be a jarring note on some of the surrounding buildings.' Fletcher, however, considered that the new post office would be 'one of the outstanding buildings of New Zealand' and would be in 'perfect harmony' with its surroundings. He also believed that the erection of the Post Office would create a feeling of greater confidence in Dunedin.

The completion of the building marked the realisation of the 'dream that has been cherished by Dunedin people for a good many years of having a Post and Telegraph Office worthy of the city.' The city had suffered since 1876 because the Post and Telegraph parts of the service were housed in different buildings some distance apart. The new building was one that would compare well in its construction and facilities with any in the Dominion. Post and Telegraph workers would now be housed in the 'best accommodation that modern design and construction can give them.'

At the opening ceremony the Postmaster-General Hon. F. Jones described the new CPO as a 'very real reward for the patience and forbearance of the people', and in keeping with Dunedin's architectural standing. He described the '“massive, dignified building in the centre of the city' as the pride of the city, with an '“imposing structure' symbolic of the 'place Dunedin holds in the commercial life of the Dominion.' He hoped that the spectacle of the building would encourage a spirit of enterprise among business people - 'who may not be content for long to see this building towering over its neighbours.' He also hoped that the Post Office would become a 'spearhead of a new business centre for the city' - as Post Offices often became a focal point for civic and business purposes. The building was complete with 'every modern attribute', 'affording the greatest ease and convenience for the public in the transaction of business, but also to ensure the most hygienic working conditions for the large staffs which will be accommodated in its precincts.'

The Otago Daily Times described the building as the last word in this type of construction and the

'main impression of a visitor to the building is one of solidity. Plain almost to the point of severity, the architecture of the Post Office at once denotes its utilitarian purpose, and through the structure the impression is paramount that it is pre-eminently a place for work.'

The main entrance gave an 'entirely favourable impression' of the building:

'Broad steps lead into the main vestibule and from there into the main public space, where, at long counters arranged in rectangular form, all the miscellaneous business of the Post and Telegraph Department will be transacted.'

Dignitaries were given a conducted tour of the building, taking an hour and a half to walk from the roof to the basement. A notable feature of the building was that wherever possible New Zealand materials were utilised. All the timber was New Zealand grown, the hard granite was from Bluff, the white stone on the upper part of the buildings was from Putaruru, and some of the decorative effects in the entrances and certain of the stairways used New Zealand marble. Nelson marble was used for flooring in the main vestibule and entrances, and the two front staircases from the street to the first floor had dadoes of Whangarei marble of an amber colour. 'To any person not familiar in this respect the extent to which it has been found possible - and no doubt, profitable - to incorporate the use of New Zealand materials in an undertaking of the size of the new post office must be something in the nature of a revelation.'

The Head of the Chamber of Commerce noted that there was much to admire:

'New Zealand stone, including marble from the North Island, granite from the Bluff, and New Zealand wood (most beautifully-figured heart of red pine) have been utilised, and under expert treatment have become objects of symmetry and beauty. It is a building of which we may be justly proud, and engineer and workman have created, with the aid of electricity, machinery, and careful planning, a centralised home for our most important State departments, whose function is to serve the public.'

All postal and telegraph services were in the one building, Dunedin's citizens could do all their business 'on kauri counters with a surface like glass.' The left hand side of the main public space was set aside for the Savings Bank Department, with private letter boxes also on the ground floor, on the Liverpool Street entrance.

The mayor of Dunedin, the Rev. E.T. Cox, described the building as the 'largest and best-equipped set of offices, not merely in the Dominion, but in the Southern Hemisphere.' Cox congratulated the Postmaster-General for his foresight and statesmanship in recognising that the 'architecture of a country is both a reflection of the character of its people as well as a constant stimulus to its sons to practice great ideals of life and citizenship.' The Mayor noted the importance of the construction to the local economy in a difficult time - the commencement of the building during a period of economic downturn gave employment to workmen, and added impetus to business. The building was fitted with 'electrical and mechanical devices of all kinds' providing a 'striking illustration of the progress made in engineering and electricity.' Cox stated that during all the years of change the Post Office continued to serve with 'honesty, efficiency and integrity.' With the telegraph office and money order and savings bank branches it had become 'part of our national life.'

Layout and Facilities

According to the Otago Daily Times five of the nine floors were to be occupied by the Post and Telegraph Department, with the remaining floors being occupied within two months by various Government departments, at present scattered around the city. Also notable was that no old furniture was taken into the new building. All new desks, chairs, telephones and equipment were installed. Almost the whole of the equipment installed in the building was new with 'modern devices' being introduced where ever possible. The only old material was the departmental records, which were to be stored in a strong room in the basement.

Up-to-date mail facilities were installed. The mail vans unloaded into the basement, where an escalator took the mail to the ground floor. City mail was then taken in a specially constructed lift to the postmen's room. Sorting and delivery of parcels was to be carried out in the basement, with the telegram delivery branch also located there.

The first floor was taken up mainly with the accommodation of the chief postmaster's clerical staff. The suite of rooms overlooking Princes Street was reserved as office space for visiting Cabinet Ministers. Besides the ministerial rooms, there were also waiting rooms, and accommodations for Ministers' private secretaries and typists.

The technical branch of the Telegraph Department was located on the second floor, the south wing being occupied by the engineers and the operating room. The third floor was devoted to the Post and Telegraph Department, but also included recreational amenities for workers - a cafeteria for mid-day meals, a library, reading room, social hall, women's rest room, and billiard room.

Other government departments were located on the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh floors. Access to the upper floors was provided by a stairway in each corner of the building, a set of double lifts at each corner of the Princes Street frontage, and a single lift at each corner of the Bond Street frontage. With the exception of a few small spaces, the whole of the floor space was allotted. Notable users included 4ZB, the Government's fourth radio station in a chain of commercial stations planned to serve listening and commercial interests. Its studios were housed on the third floor - with many memorable moments noted in the station's tenth anniversary publication.

There was considerable competition for space in the new building. Right from the start there seems to have been some problems with adequate accommodations for some departments. Floor layouts changed with the changing usage of the building. At its peak, 1,100 people worked inside the building.

As early as 1941, there were indications that the new building still did not meet the space requirements of the government departments. With the expansion of the Post and Telegraph Department, other government departments gradually moved out of the building. The problems were compounded by the run-down condition of the other government buildings - the Custom House and the Post and Telegraph Building nearby, which prevented them from being used for additional accommodation. These were both considered to be in a 'most discreditable condition [for government buildings] in the centre of such an important city.' The District Engineer considered that there was no room for expansion in the new CPO. He suggested that the only suitable site for expansion was the old Post and Telegraph and Custom House sites. He suggested that a four to six-storey modern building replace the Custom House, and be extended to the Post and Telegraph site.

By 1953 the government departments had largely outgrown the facilities at the CPO. A report in the Otago Daily Times in June of that year describes the departments as pressed for space, and seeking to move from the 'overcrowded' building. Some departments had already moved, and the Agriculture Department would be moved when office space was available. A spokesperson said that another government building had been required ten years previously, but that there were no plans for a new building. As had been the case before the construction of the CPO, government departments were again scattered in different parts of the city.

The Post Office Moves on - The Restructuring of NZ Post in the 1980s

By the mid 1960s the Post Office activities were regarded as falling into three categories: providing services to the public - postal, telegraph, telephone and radio; agency services performed through the Post Office, including the Post Office Savings Bank; and internal maintenance and general services to ensure the efficient operation of the first two functions - stores, buildings, maintenance, workshops and garages. The most extraordinary aspect in the post-war years was the growth in the use of the telephone, only limited by the Post and Telegraph Department's ability to obtain materials and labour for adding exchange equipment. Technological developments such as multi-channel communications enabled the Post Office to meet the growing demands. The Post Office was a social service agency, but also one of New Zealand's largest businesses.

Post Offices served a social function as the government's agency in the community. The Mason-Morris review in 1985 described the post office as an 'old-fashioned organisation that had developed from the original nineteenth century postal operation into the present head office and district structure by the ad hoc addition of function dictated by communications technology and economic factors.' In 1985 there were twenty two districts, each under the control of a chief postmaster, and 17 telecommunications district, each under the control of a District or Regional engineer. Organisational structures were largely unchanged, despite major technological changes. The 1985 review called for the separation of the organisation into three separate businesses each with its own management and support structures. The restructuring under the 1986 State Owned Enterprises Act aimed at rationalising operations. The 'monolithic post offices in every city'” were treated as assets whose value was to be assessed - particularly as in the eyes of the new regime many of the buildings '“no longer fulfilled any useful function in the modern postal business the company knew it had to create.' The result was the closure of 432 post offices, including the Dunedin Chief Post Office. New Zealand Post shifted its operations to Strathallan Street in 1997, breaking a 130 year association with postal services on the Princes Street site. The CPO building has remained unoccupied and unused since this time. Public concern for the landmark building remains high, with continued debate about its condition and its appropriate redevelopment.

Physical Description

The former Chief Post Office is located on Princes Street, south of the Octagon which has historically been Dunedin's business centre. The streetscape is notable for its substantial business premises as the financial and administrative hub of nineteenth and early twentieth century Dunedin. he earlier site of the Provincial Government Buildings that once housed the postal services.

The former Chief Post Office is included within the North Princes Street/Moray Place/Exchange Townscape Heritage Precinct under the Dunedin City District Plan. The building sits on the edge of what had been the high water mark before land reclamation programmes. 'The Exchange' area was the centre of Dunedin's early development. The substantial commercial architecture of The Exchange reflects the prosperity of a city built on the gold rushes of the 1860s. The Chief Post Office is a crucial element of the unique urban quality of The Exchange. The scale of the area is unique in Dunedin - with the majority of the buildings at least five storeys high.

Until the Chief Post Office was built in 1937, there had been little structural change in the appearance of the Exchange. The thoroughfare was much as it had been at the turn of the century. The Depression and the war meant there was little building in the city centre in the 1930s and 1940s. The Exchange was Dunedin's commercial heart through until the 1960s, when development began to move north of the Octagon.

In the 1960s, with the closure of various department stores and the halt in the cable car services, and changes in traffic layout, The Exchange's centrality to Dunedin business declined. The restructuring of government departments, insurance companies and other large employing organisations added to the doldrums of the area. The people employed in these areas had provided the lifeblood of The Exchange. Added to the change in the commercial and retail sectors in the area, there was a further decrease in activity and population. Even without the population it once had, The Exchange remains the historic heart of the city.

Description of Building

The Dunedin CPO is in the neo-classical revival style, used in both America and Great Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century. The style represented a 'process of purification' - away from Art Nouveau and Imperial Baroque - which ultimately led to the pure geometry of the Modern Movement. Architects such as John Burnet, with his 1911 Offices for the Kodak Company in London, provided the model for the stripped detailing and steel construction much imitated in the 1920s and 1930s. Chief Post Office architect J.T. Mair, with his American training, and recent tour to Britain and Europe would have had contact with these developing styles. The return to classicism resulted in a form more suited to the possibilities created by the use of structural steel and concrete - methods used in the construction of the Dunedin Chief Post Office.

Within New Zealand, the Dunedin CPO marked a departure from the use of Imperial Baroque for public buildings. Imperial Baroque, such as the Public Trust building in Wellington, marked the last of the ultra extravagant public buildings, with the styles that followed being more restrained. Alastair Service notes that Baroque styling seemed suitable for load-bearing masonry construction, but no longer appeared valid with the increasing use of steel frames. Peter Richardson notes that the British had favoured Imperial Baroque for their public buildings - the monumentality capturing and celebrating the spirit of a great empire. Expatriates also used the style including John Campbell, Mair's predecessor as Government Architect.

J.T. Mair and Campbell both sought to create a 'new and modern architectural image of government which reflected his own architectural tastes and training.' Mair's model was influenced by his training, and was based on stripped classicism and the modern office.

The interior fabric of the building has been removed, except for main switchboards, stairwells and lifts. The exterior appearance is largely unaltered but neglected.

Construction Dates

Modification
1986 -
Substantial roofing work completed, replacing the pooling flat roof.

Other
1997 -
Postal service vacates premises.

Other
1998 -
Proposal to convert to hotel falters.

Other
2006 -
Further proposal to convert to hotel and apartments.

Maintenance/repairs
- 2013
Redevelopment of the post office as a museum.

Other
1848 -
First Post Office opened in Dunedin, and first Postmaster appointed

Other
1851 -
Post office transferred to corner of Stafford and Princes Sts.

Other
1852 -
Post office placed under control of the Customs Department on the corner of Princes and Jetty Streets

Other
1862 -
First telegraph office opened in Dunedin

Other
1864 -
Erection commenced of William Mason's Post Office building. This was never used as a post office and subsequently became known as the Stock Exchange Building, after which 'The Exchange' area is named.

Other
1866 -
William Mason's Provincial Government building completed on Princes Street, in the block next to the Stock Exchange Building. The Telegraph Office was transferred into the Provincial Government building.

Other
1870 -
Post Office transferred into Provincial Government building.

Other
1882 -
First telephone exchange opened in Dunedin.

Other
1916 -
Post Office transferred to Garrison Hall.

Other
1923 -
£20,000 placed on estimates for new Post Office.

Other
1927 -
Automatic telephone system established

Other
1928 -
Otago Provincial Council building demolished in May.

Other
1929 -
Foundations laid by Public Works Department for new CPO.

Other
1933 -
Contract let in September for erection of new CPO.

Other
1935 -
12 January, foundation stone of new Post Office laid by the Duke of Gloucester.

Original Construction
1937 -
14 April, new CPO building opened.

Modification
1970 -
Putaruru stone facings on upper floors replaced, replaced with precast concrete slabs.

Construction Details

Concrete reinforced with steel 9,108 cubic yards

Boxing for concrete 534,500 sup. feet

Structural Steel: 2,215 tons

Rivets: 126 tons, including about 100,000 field rivets installed by pneumatic hammers

Bluff granite: 12,000 cubic feet

Stevenson and Cook Engineering Co. Ltd.: Structural Steel

General Manager John Knewstubb arranged for the importation of the steel from England, with an order placed with Messrs John Duthie and Co. in Wellington, the New Zealand agents of Messrs Dorman, Long and Co. The steel was to be fabricated on the freezing works site at Port Chalmers. This was an important contract for Otago, with previous contracts mainly going to North Island steel shops. The facilities, it was hoped, would bring other steelwork contracts to the region.

A. and T. Burt: Plumbing and draining, electric lighting

Jenkins and Mack Ltd (Wellington): Heating

L. Bater Ltd (Auckland): Plastering

J. and W. Faulkner Ltd: Bronze and wrought iron

This was an established firm, in business for over fifty years. A new plant was built to cope with the scale of the work for the Post Office, and another contract for the Wellington Railway station. Faulkner's provided a range of bronze fittings including the architraves for the lift doors with rosettes and bronze reveals, the ornamental iron balustrades, landing balustrades and newels; the surround of the main entrance doors, and the fronts to the telephone boxes. The contract was one of the largest of its kind that had ever been placed in the Dominion.

Chas. Sonntag Ltd: Electrical wiring

'Precision' Engineering Co Ltd (Wellington): Bronze doors, grilles, gates, etc

Precision Engineering supplied bronze covered posting-slot canopy and panel, bronze lamps and bronze grille doors and hardware.

Miller, Paterson, and Lees (Auckland): Cast and wrought bronze

Supplied the cast bronze Royal Coat of Arms, and the ornamental wrought bronze stair balustrade and newel.

New Zealand Express Co Ltd: Cartages

A.E. Shank: Stone carving

Crittall Metal Windows (NZ) Ltd: Bronze and steel windows, bronze panels

Smith and Smith Ltd: Glass and glazing

Salmac Ltd: Heat insulation and automatic stokers

Vigilant Automatic Fire Alarm Co Ltd (Christchurch): Fire Alarms

By October 1933 some of the subcontracts had been let. Work had begun preparing the site for construction work, and the engineering and stonework preparations were beginning. J. Gilmour was engaged for the stonework at Bluff; he had previously been employed in the opening of the quarry for granite for the Sydney Bridge. Four gang saws were to be operated for sixteen hours a day, with the first stone expected to be ready for transport to Dunedin via ships in November. Fletcher's obtained the lease from the Otago Harbour Board for a section of the old Milburn Lime and Cement Company at Pelichet Bay on Otago Harbour, for the stonework finishing plant. A railway siding was installed to transport the stone from the ships.

As a modern building the CPO was designed with a fire resisting structure - with metal partitions in the concrete frame. However a Vigilant System Fire Alarm system was also installed in the building. This mechanism was a New Zealand invention, originally created by technician Mathew Moloney, in the Dunedin Post and Telegraph Department in 1909, and had been used all over the world. The system was based on the expansion of metals due to heat. The Vigilant alarms were said to be 90 percent effective, and had an automatic faults indicator.

The fibrous plaster work, including partitions and cornices were the work of Wardrop's Fibrous Plaster Company. This firm was established in 1902 by R.S. Wardrop, and was said to be the first industry of its kind in the Dominion. Since then the material had been widely used.

Briscoes and Co Ltd was a large supplier of materials for the building - the company was shortly due to celebrate 75 years in trading in New Zealand. It specialised in building lines, supplying all furnishings, such as locks and window fittings.

A. and T. Burt carried out all the plumbing and drainage installations. The cold water was drawn from four 1,000 gallon tanks on the roof, and the hot water from a storage calorifier in the basement, through intermediate storage cylinders on alternate floors, and nickel plated copper pipe on interior walls. The modern lavatory installations on each floor were in white fireclay enamel, manufactured by Messrs McSkimming and Son. Drainage piping was heavy cast iron, glass enamel inside. The electrical installation included the supply of substation equipment and the main switch gear. Twenty five miles of Derby cables, and 250 Crompton lamps, all manufactured by Messrs Crompton Parkinson of England were installed.

Hardware merchants Messrs John Edmond Ltd supplied general hardware lines, and were also the successful tenderer for the roofing of the new post office. The type of roof chosen was known as a “built-up fabric roof.” The material chosen by the Government Architect was ruberoid bitumen roofing. The roof, which later received a substantial overhaul, consisted of a layer of half inch insulating board laid in a flood coat of bitumen, and then four layers of ruberoid roofing cemented together with hot bitumen. A final layer of bitumen with a gravel surface containing 35lbs of river bed gravel per square yard completed a roof with an area of about half an acre, which was to withstand all variations of temperature.

The lifts, installed by Waygood Otis, were said to be the first of a “new foolproof, fully automated system of lifts.” Over a mile of hoisting rope, and twelve and a half miles of rubber-covered wire were used for the lifts alone. The lifts travelled at three hundred feet per minute. The six passenger lifts each had a ten passenger capacity. In addition there was a mail and a service lift from the ground to first floors. The lifts were push button automatic type with self-closing doors. The feature used for the first time in these lifts was the ability of the lifts to stop and pick up passengers on the way up or down - with passengers able to push the button for the way they wanted to go - apparently the first installation of the system in the southern hemisphere.

Completion Date

10th September 2007

Report Written By

Heather Bauchop

Information Sources

Noonan, 1975

Rosslyn J. Noonan, By Design: A Brief History of the Public Works Department Ministry of Works 1870-1970, Wellington, 1975

Richardson, 1997

Peter Richardson, 'Building the Dominion: Government Architecture in New Zealand 1840-1922', PhD thesis, University of Canterbury, 1997

Robinson, 1964

Howard Robinson, A History of the Post Office in New Zealand, RE Owen, Government Printer, Wellington, 1964

Robinson, 1970

Neil Robinson, James Fletcher: Builder, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1970

Smith, 1997

Vivienne Smith, Reining in the Dinosaur: The story behind the remarkable turnaround of NZ Post, NZ Post, Wellington, 1997

Ministry of Works and Development

Ministry of Works and Development

A brief history of Public Buildings in New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1970

Other Information

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero 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.