Historical Significance or Value
The former Lake County Council Chambers is historically significant. The construction of permanent material buildings, including the former Chambers, replaced the early timber and canvas shelters. This illustrated the confidence of Queenstown in the future of the township in the 1870s and 1880s. It also represents the fledgling years of County Councils which gained more importance after the abolition of the Otago Provincial Government in 1876.
The historical origins of the Council Chambers are controversial. Locals resented the expenditure on the building, which was deemed to be excessive. This controversy is symbolic of the early relationship between the locals in fledgling settlements and Council members in charge of the purse-strings. Indeed it is not unlike present day wrangles between Councils and communities and serves to demonstrate that ‘[w]e learn from history that we never learn anything from history.’
Aesthetic Significance or Value
The former Lake County Council Chambers is aesthetically significant. Ballarat Street is one of Queenstown's main thoroughfares and holds an extremely prominent position within the town. The street is lined with heritage buildings constructed of local schist. Historic trees add to the area's aesthetic appeal. Ballarat Street is a registered and scheduled historic precinct which included Ballarat Street stone bridge, the former 'Foresters’ Lodge, the Courthouse and Library and the former Lake County Council Chambers. Occupying a prominent corner site, with interesting architectural detailing, the former Chambers is aesthetically engaging.
Architectural Significance or Value
The former Lake County Council Chambers is architecturally significant. This significance lies in its association with noted architect, F.W. Burwell. Burwell’s style was commercial and cosmopolitan; his material solid and durable. His architecture symbolically helped Queenstown dominate the colonial wilderness and transient gold rush image. Also responsible for designing Invercargill’s inner city, these buildings have been largely remodelled, thus destroying much of Burwell’s legacy. The best remembered examples of Burwell’s work are now in Queenstown, foremost among which is the Council Chambers.
Social Significance or Value
The former Lake County Council Chambers has social significance. From its inception, the Lake County Council courted public controversy, particularly in financial matters. The construction of the Chambers also created public opposition to the financial outlay. Even the manner of its opening caused public hostility. As a Council building, it was where matters of local interest were hotly debated. For 120 years it was the focus of community interest in the development of Queenstown.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The former Council Chambers represents the transition from gold rush shanty town to enduring, developing township. The new building meant more than a spacious and convenient meeting place. In its design, solid construction and dignity it helped create a picture of a town of consequence - Queenstown was a more solid, more proud place.
The former Chambers also represents a microcosm of the larger picture of community politics throughout New Zealand. The opposition with which its construction was met; and its place as the centre of community conflicts for the next 120 years reveals the nature of community social and political history. It also reinforces the enduring quality in the nature of arguments between Councils and the public they serve.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The former Lake County Council Chambers was associated with noted architect F.W. Burwell who designed the heart of Invercargill city and made significant contributions to Freemantle’s architectural history as recognised by the Australian Heritage Commission. As much of Burwell’s New Zealand legacy has been lost, the Council Chambers are all the more important as a representation of his skill. They also date from the earlier years of his career and provide a point of reference for later designs.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place
There is community association with the former Chambers. Conversely, there was little public esteem for the building while it was being constructed. Public opinion was set against the financial outlay. Yet once built, it became the centre of community politics for 120 years. It is recognised now as part of a wider historical precinct which contributes to Queenstown’s urban character. Now, as Speights Ale House, it is now more than ever a community gathering place.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place
The former Council Chambers represents a particular Central Otago type of vernacular architecture. The schist façade reflects local construction materials. Due to the abundance of schist and scarcity of timber in the dry Central Otago landscape, a wide range of building types and structures were erected in the area using this material. Burwell’s simple styling successfully elevates the building above a rustic rough-hewn appearance.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape
The former Council Chambers stands as part of a heritage precinct. Its schist construction echoes that of the nearby Ballarat Street Bridge and the adjacent 'Foresters’ Lodge. Most significant is the comparison between the Chambers and the former Courthouse and Library which sit opposite. Both were designed by Burwell. Both are built of schist and exhibit similar Romanesque detailing including round headed windows and framed panels. Together these structures form an architecturally significant group compatible in scale, style and age.
The lakes region of interior Central Otago was traditionally important to Kai Tahu whānui who travelled to sites throughout the region to māhika kai (food and resource gathering sites) to gather resources for their own use, as well as for trade. The hunting of moa, weka, eels, ducks, the digging of fern root and tī root, gathering of taramea, and precious stone resources such as pounamu and silcrete, were a main focus of activity. Numerous ara tawhito (traditional pathways) passed through the area and a number of sites of permanent residence were located near lakes Whakatipu-wai-Māori, Wanaka and Hāwea. Ka-muri-wai (the Arrowtown Flat) and the Haehaenui (Arrow River) area were particularly noted as hunting grounds for weka. The Kawarau River which drains Whakatipu-wai-Māori to the south of Arrowtown was part of the major ara tawhito linking the interior with the east coast of Te Wai Pounamu by way of the Mata-au (Clutha).
The land in the Queenstown area was alienated through the 1848 Kemp’s purchase for the Crown and subsequent declaration as part of the Otago goldfields. Today tangata whenua for the area retain strong connections to the land, and this is borne out by the names and stories of the area.
The Development of Queenstown
European settlement began at Queenstown in 1860, when William Gilbert Rees made the site of the future township his home. In 1862 a large gold rush on the Shotover River turned Rees's quiet peace of paradise into a seething mass of prospectors. Early in 1863 the town was christened 'Queenstown', after a township in County Cork, Ireland. Later that year, after several public meetings, the community elected the Queenstown Improvement Committee, which functioned as 'a vigilance committee and a town council combined'.
Lake County Council
In 1866 Queenstown was incorporated as a municipal borough and the first Lake County Council was elected. In 1876 the Council gained increased significance following the abolition of provincial governments and the centralisation of legislative and administrative control.
In its first year of business the Council was criticised for excessive expenditure. Commentators noted it was ‘fast developing into a bear garden; every succeeding meeting excels its predecessor in riot and violence’. The chairman soon resigned and local opinion held that ‘the sooner the whole conclave follows the chairman up the chimney the better.’ Further problems were caused by private interest, which with ‘the addition of personal feeling, transformed the Lake County Chamber into something resembling our conception of Pandemonium.’ The problem was described by the Otago Witness in 1880:
‘A very general feeling exists, however, against the storekeeper element, which is already too numerously represented in the Council. There are other representatives offering, who, from their occupation are more independent of bye winds than business men are expected to be.’
The ‘storekeeper element’ no doubt referred to Council members such as Bendix Hallenstein who was to build one of New Zealand’s most successful business empires. It was this same ‘element’ who had confidence in the future of the township; who were determined to symbolize the solidity and certainty of the prospects of this fledgling settlement.
Locals noted that while a great deal of money had been spent there was ‘little or nothing to show for it, while our public debt amounts to the nice little sum of £2850…’ Perhaps it is not surprising then, that the decision to proceed with the erection of the County Chambers encountered some strong opposition.
From 1876 Council meetings were held in a rented room at the courthouse. In April 1880 the Council resolved that Messrs Daniel, Hicks and Edgar be appointed to purchase a site or building in Queenstown for the purpose of County Council Chambers at a price not to exceed £1100.
A special Council meeting was called on 10 May to receive the report of a sub-committee concerning new chambers. A verbal report was given that two land sections ‘in a commanding position’ had been purchased for £250. The Chairman, F.H. Daniel, said he had instructed architect F.W. Burwell of Invercargill to prepare the requisite plans.
Born in Scotland, Burwell served his articles with the architect John Matthews and then immigrated to New Zealand in the late 1860s. His uncle David Ross had moved to Dunedin in 1862 and was to become one of the leading architects of the day. Burwell followed in his footsteps and the two sometimes collaborated on projects. By 1871 Burwell had established a practice in Queenstown. Among other commissions, he designed Queenstown’s courthouse and athenaeum. By 1874 Burwell was in Invercargill where, between 1874 and the mid-1880s, his designs transformed the centre of the town. The depression in the 1880s saw his commissions decline and he moved to Australia in 1887 where he practised in Melbourne, Perth and then Fremantle. He was particularly successful in the last, as Western Australia was in the middle of a building boom, and a number of his commercial buildings in central Fremantle are now classified by the Australian Heritage Commission.
Burwell’s style was commercial and cosmopolitan. He designed public and commercial buildings, symbolising the growing commercialisation and dominance of the colonial wilderness through traditional western architectural standards. He built in stone, durable and solid like the commercial and public interests he designed for. His designs were carefully proportioned and elegant, usually classical in style. Typical ornamentation included richly-detailed balustrades and round-headed windows, also favoured by David Ross. Burwell was described locally as having ‘taste of a very superior class’ and several of Queenstown’s historic buildings form a key part of his architectural legacy. Although he designed Invercargill’s commercial heart, in later years ‘the individualists moved in, the remodellers and modernisers, and all character was ruthlessly suppressed’. Now the best remembered examples of Burwell’s work are in Queenstown, foremost among which are the Council Chambers.
On 24 June 1880 Burwell invited tenders ‘for the erection of Chambers (concrete and stone) in Ballarat Street, Queenstown, for the Lake County Council.’ The local newspaper correspondent decreed it would ‘form a handsome addition to the many fine structures of the City of the Lake.’ In July the tender of Arrowtown builder Mr Edwin J. Foord was accepted. Foord, also a mechanic and machinist, was described as ‘remarkable for his energy and enterprise’. The stone mason was likely James McNeill, a Scotsman who came to Queenstown in 1882. Examples of his fine skills survive in other structures, including the Ballarat Street Bridge (Register No. 7097, Category 1 Historic Place).
The architectural styling of the Council Chambers is vernacular, reflecting other types of local architecture and using local construction materials; in this case schist. Due to the abundance of schist and scarcity of timber in Central Otago, a wide range of building types and structures were erected in Queenstown using this material. There are also elements of Romanesque styling in the use of round headed windows and entranceway.
Burwell’s original plans do not appear to be still extant and no contemporary newspaper reports have been found that describe the building in detail. A plan was prepared about 1994 which seems to indicate the Chambers’ original layout. The plans shows the south east elevation facing Ballarat Street contained two pairs of windows and a double door entrance way. This façade remains to the present day. Similarly the Stanley Street facade appears to be unchanged with four windows, set unsymmetrically on the northeast elevation, and a single exterior doorway. The rear, northwest elevation included two single exterior doorways and double doors exactly opposite the entranceway on Ballarat Street. The southwest elevation contained two windows and two doorways, leading to a kitchen and store. Perhaps kitchen and store rooms were housed in a lean-to. Neither original plans nor contemporary accounts are able to shed light on these areas.
The plan also provides an idea of the original interior layout. It shows the building as one open space with a skylight overhead in the centre of the building. Two meeting rooms could be created by the use of sliding doors. It is unlikely, however, that the sliding doors were an original feature. From each of the meeting rooms was a single exterior door. Evidence indicates that the interior was outfitted with tongue and groove panelling to the midpoint of the wall and topped with a dado. The ceiling was also tongue and groove.
The building of the Chambers encountered much public opposition. For example the use of Oamaru stone was an unpopular decision given that the local limestone at Fews’ Creek, a few miles from Queenstown, was ‘much better adapted, to say nothing of its greater durability than Oamaru stone’.
‘There is a public body, elected to watch over the welfare of the district, actually sending several hundred pounds out of the district for an article which abounds within its boundary, and this is called local self-government!’
The cost of the build was said to be about £1000, although the final cost was £915. This did not sit well with constituents who voiced regret over the spending as a similar amount would have ensured the completion of the much needed Macetown dray road. The local newspaper correspondent wrote that ‘it would be more in keeping their financial position if the Council tried to administer the affairs of the county in hired chambers than in a gorgeous hall with empty coffers’, particularly when the Council was already accommodated in suitable buildings at a rental of £35 per year.
‘Their fitting will not be encumbered by the heaviness of their coffers and safes, which, by the time the new building is furnished and fit for occupation, will be pretty nearly exhausted.’
There is an enduring quality in the arguments between Councils and the public they serve. The history of County Councils may seem prosaic; ‘that there is little drama in drains or glamour in gaspipes’. Yet our society is based on the provision of such mundane services; on streets, footpaths, lamps and buildings. This ‘intimate democracy of a city’ reveals in more detail and in more colour the nature of social and political histories than the less personal central government.
By 8 August 1881 the new Council Chambers were finished. The Council met for the first time in the new building on 15 August. Despite heated public opposition, the local newspaper correspondent grudgingly admitted the Chambers were ‘quite a feature in the town’.
‘The building, erected in a commanding position, is one of the most conspicuous in Queenstown, and one of the ornaments of the town. It was designed by Mr Burwell, architect, also of Invercargill, where his skill is well and favourably known.’
On completion of the Chambers a ‘select – a very select – ball of a nondescript kind’ was held to open the building. The ‘cheap and nasty ’occasion, where it was said only nine ladies were present, exercised the ‘public mind…to know whether it was a formal inauguration affair from which they were studiously excluded, or if they still have such an event to expect’. Despite local opposition against the cost of the building, it appears the ratepayers were vexed at being excluded from the festivities. They used the snowy weather to vent their frustration –
‘The guests were left to provide their own music; the programmes were written on the business cards of Messrs “Going, Going, Gone,” and Co., auctioneers; the whisky came from heaven only knows where; the public contributed a plentiful supply of snowballs...and a few “belltoppers” and at least one Sunday-go-to-meeting suit were somewhat damaged….’
As the town grew and administration needs increased, the Council required more office space. In the 1950s rooms were rented for that purpose in the courthouse. Later a number of additions were made on the Stanley Street side. A new chamber occupied the newer portion, while the former was used exclusively for administrative purposes.
A dearth of plans and contemporary accounts make dating and accurately describing changes to the building difficult. A plan drawn up about 1999 indicates the layout of the Council offices at that time. This layout probably dated from at least the 1950s, although it is likely some changes were made in earlier years. The former Chambers were divided to form several office spaces. In total there were nine rooms, seven of which opened off a central corridor. A large safe was included; an exterior door was removed from the south west elevation and the double rear door appears to have become a single exit.
In 1989 a new $1.5 million extension was planned which included restoring the original building and returning it for use as Council Chambers. By 1996 new library and council offices had been built behind the original Chambers. In 1999 the Queenstown Lakes Council decided to sell the old Chambers. The building was purchased by Queenstown’s Mayor of the time, Warren Cooper.
In 2000 the building underwent a major restoration and renovation to fit it for use as a restaurant and bar. Walls were removed and spaces opened up. A commercial kitchen was added. Some original features were retained including the windows and tongue and grove panelling. An old safe was reused and a narrow vault, where town records were stored, was converted into a small, private dining area. The Speight’s Ale House opened for business soon after.
The Council Chambers building was utilised for its intended purpose for almost 120 years, after which time it found an alternative reuse.
The former Lake County Council Chamber sits on a prominent site at the corner of Ballarat and Stanley Streets, overlooking Queenstown’s Village Green. The former Chambers is part of the Council’s designated Ballarat Street Heritage Precinct (Register No. 7070). The scheduled and registered area also includes the adjacent ‘Foresters’ Lodge (Register No. 2332), the Ballarat Street Bridge (Register No. 7097), the Courthouse (Register No. 7655) and former Library (Register No.362) which sit on the opposite corner and were also designed by Burwell.
Together these buildings form a precinct of considerable urban and heritage quality. Lower Ballarat Street includes the historic former Boyne Building (Record no.5226), Colonial Bank, Queenstown Athenaeum and Town Hall, Eichardts Hotel (Record no. 7439) and Van Der Walde Building in the Queenstown Mall - Ballarat Street Heritage Precinct. Upper Ballarat Street includes other historic treasures such as Hullert House (Record no.2343). This relatively compact area is crowded with heritage buildings dating from the establishment of Queenstown. It is within this context that the former Council Chambers sits.
The Council Chambers is a vernacular building; all of the facades are schist stone. The elevations facing Ballarat and Stanley Streets are even and shaped whilst the other two elevations are roughly constructed. The building also incorporates elements of Romanesque architecture such as the round headed windows and entranceway. These Romanesque elements are echoed in the courthouse and library designed by Burwell in 1876, which also sit on Ballarat Street (Register Nos. 7655 and 362, Category 1 Historic Places). Another Romanesque detail of the building is the use of framed panels in the façades. Unformed, unornamented pilaster-strips support a similarly unformed cornice. Known as a lesene, this vertical strip resembles a pilaster but has no base or capital. The lesenes, or pilaster-strips, subdivide the façade into framed panels surrounding the windows and entrance way.
Approaching the front entrance on Ballarat Street a long copper canopy runs from the stone fence (a recent addition) to the entrance way, echoing the building’s arched windows. There are two pairs of round-headed windows on either side of the entranceway. The wooden window frames are painted blue. The double entrance doors are unpainted and unvarnished. The hipped roof is iron and a modern chimney sits above the entrance way.
The northeast elevation on Stanley Street is similar to the Ballarat Street façade. There are four rounded headed windows, although they are not symmetrically arranged. Two are in a pair, while the other two are not. Neither do they include the limestone surrounds of the front elevation. A single entrance way, also with a copper canopy, sits off centre on the facade.
The rear façade to the east is visible on entering the adjacent modern building on Stanley Street. A glass wall links the two buildings and much of the original rough schist wall of the former Council Chambers is visible.
The south western elevation is barely visible as a new build runs close at this side. It is rough unfinished schist stone. A door across the narrow corridor between the former Chambers and the new build blocks view of the remainder of the elevation.
Entering through the Ballarat Street entrance, there is a small foyer framed by tongue and grove panelling. Above is a barrel vaulted ceiling, covered in copper. This foyer opens out into two dining areas on the left and right. The dining area towards the southwest includes a fireplace with a wooden mantelpiece and stone fireplace. The dining area to the north east includes several booths as well as tables.
In front of the entrance foyer is a reception counter. An old safe sits behind the counter and the till is placed on top. At the rear of the counter is a heavy iron door, which is left open. It leads to the former strongroom, and has a barrel vaulted ceiling. This is now a small dining area.
Beyond these dining areas, is an open bar space. It includes a new bar and a recent stone fireplace. Similar to the other dining spaces, it is lined with original tongue and groove panelling up to the mid-point of the wall. A single door leads to an outside entertainment space fronting Stanley Street. A door in the northwest elevation leads to public toilets in the adjacent new build. Double wooden doors beside the bar lead to original spaces which have been converted into a commercial kitchen.
1880 - 1881
1950 - 1959
Altered to office space
Restoration and refit into a restaurant and bar
Schist, timber, limestone
20th March 2013
Report Written By
F.W.G Miller, Golden Days of Lake County, 5th edn, Christchurch, 1973
John Stacpoole, Colonial Architecture in New Zealand, Wellington, 1976
Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, ‘Burwell, Frederick William’, Southern People: a dictionary of Otago Southland biography, Dunedin, Longacre Press in association with the Dunedin City Council, 1998.
A fully referenced registration report is available from the Otago/Southland Office of the NZHPT.
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.