Dowling Street Steps
Princes Street And Dowling Street, Dunedin
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 2
Able to Visit
2nd July 1982
Extent of List Entry
Extent includes part of the land described as Legal Road, Otago Land District, and the structure known as Dowling Street Steps thereon. Refer to the extent map tabled at the Rārangi Korēro Committee meeting on 26 April 2018.
Legal Road, Otago Land District
The Dowling Street Steps, designed by Dunedin’s city engineer Joseph Alexander in 1927, provide pedestrian access down the steep bluff running between Tennyson (formerly Dowling Street) and Princes Streets are a city landmark. The steps have historic, technological and architectural significance.
Dunedin’s topography led to headaches for the settlement’s administrators – surveyors had laid out the city with no reference to the hills – meaning that Bell Hill was a barrier in what was meant to be the centre of town. The removal of Bell Hill, an extensive undertaking that provided fill for much of the early reclamation work at Dunedin’s harbour, created another difficulty – a steep cutting between upper Dowling Street and Princes Street – one of the settlement’s main thoroughfares. Work on the cutting began in 1858, with the first steps providing access between the Wesleyan Church and Princes Street around 1863. These were designed by city engineer John Millar. These steps were subsequently removed after further works saw the further modification of the cliff. New steps had been built by August 1886.
The wooden steps were described as a ‘constant subject of annoyance’, being hard to locate in the dark. For women they were an ‘added vexation’ as the open stairs provided a clear view from below, and therefore it was considered that the steps should be avoided by respectable woman. Added to this indecency was the potential presence of intoxicated men who also made use of the ‘convenience’ of the thoroughfare. Thus, it was no surprise when in 1923 new steps were proposed by City Engineer William McCurdie.
The steps were designed by McCurdie’s successor Joseph George Alexander (1873-1974). A small labour force began working on the new steps in March 1926. The concrete steps and ramp were completed by October 1927. As well as being a useful thoroughfare, their imposing height and prominent location meant they were also used as an outdoor arena for public addresses. A German trophy gun was mounted at the top of the steps. The gun was removed during World War Two because of fears that it would be used as a target, should the Japanese bomb the city. The Dowling Street Steps remained a less than salubrious location, with one Tennyson Street resident complaining in 1934 that the steps were ‘positively filthy, and one hesitates which route to follow, - the “ramp” being decidedly risky any day and night. A good shower of rain is all one hopes for to disinfect our thoroughfares.’
The Dowling Street Steps are a ‘fortress-like’ structure with steps, a ramp and a massive retaining wall. The steps are partially enclosed, and are flanked by the exposed ramp. The grey concrete gives the structure a grim and imposing appearance. In 2018, the Dowling Street Steps still provide thoroughfare between Tennyson and Princes Streets and are a feature on the Dunedin heritage walk, in recognition of their engineering significance.
Joseph George Alexander
Dunedin City Engineer
1926 - 1927
German trophy gun removed
Report Written By
City of Dunedin: A Century of Civic Enterprise
K. C. McDonald, City of Dunedin: A Century of Civic Enterprise, Dunedin City Corporation, Dunedin, 1965
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.
A fully referenced upgrade report is available on request from the Otago/Southland Area Office of Heritage New Zealand