St John Ambulance Building

17 York Place, Dunedin

  • St John Ambulance Building.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Derek Smith. Date: 5/07/2002.
  • St John Ambulance Building. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Benchill - Wikimedia Commons. Taken By: Benchill. Date: 26/04/2009.
  • St John Ambulance Building.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Chris Horwell. Date: 4/02/2014.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 5190 Date Entered 13th December 1990


City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Lots 1-2 DP 3948 Lot 2 DP 7329 & all DP 3377 Pt Sec 4 Blk 20 Town of Dunedin



The Order of St John occupied Church House (1917-30) and the Central Fire Station in Dunedin (1930-38) before its new premises in York Place were built in 1938 to mark the golden jubilee of first-aid activity in Dunedin. The foundation stone of this building was laid on 19 June 1937 by Samuel Saltzman who donated £7000 to the Order of St John to finance its construction. The first registered division of the St John Ambulance Brigade to be established outside of Great Britain was founded in Dunedin in 1892.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The St John Ambulance building in Dunedin is a visible reminder of the generosity of Samuel Saltzman (188?-1963), a local businessman and philanthropist who, during his lifetime, donated more than £35,000 to humanitarian causes, and of the work in Dunedin of the Venerable Order of St John.


The building projects a bold and individual corporate image for the Order of St John in Dunedin and although the interior of the building has been altered in recent years, the exterior retains the freshness of the original vision of the architect. The decorative plasterwork and finely judged symmetrical composition, which is enhanced by a sympathetic colour scheme, make this building one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in Dunedin.


The St John Ambulance building makes a major contribution to the inner-city streetscape of Dunedin because of its prominent site and bold external composition.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

White, James Hodge

J H White (1896-1970) was born in Dunedin and educated in Tasmania but returned to Dunedin to undertake his early training with a local architectural firm. Having served overseas during World War One, White was awarded a British Army Scholarship and subsequently attended the London School of Architecture for three years. He graduated with honours, winning the gold medal of the International Victory Scholarship (1921). Following his return to New Zealand White undertook a study tour of the United States with fellow architect Horace Massey before settling in Dunedin, where he entered into a brief partnership with Leslie Coombes (1925-6). Coombes & White won the national competition for the design of the Southland War Memorial which was erected in Invercargill, but soon afterwards the partnership was dissolved and in 1927 White joined forces with another Dunedin architect, Eric Miller (1896-1948).

Miller & White became architects to the University of Otago, won the national design competition for the Auckland Residential Methodist College and also designed the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, the Willi Fels Wing of the Otago Museum (c.1929), and numerous other commercial, ecclesiastical and residential buildings in Dunedin. James White was the principal designer of the firm and it was in this capacity that he designed the St John Ambulance building in York Place and the New Zealand Road Services Passenger Station in Rattray Street (1939) which is also in the Art Deco style. After Eric Miller's death White entered partnership with Ian Dunn, who had been with the practice since 1933. The firm then became known as Miller, White & Dunn. This practice won the national competition for the design of the Canterbury Museum extensions in 1951. James White retired five years before his death in 1970 and today the firm is continued by his son Geoffrey in partnership with Rodney Dalziel.

Additional informationopen/close

Physical Description


The St John Ambulance building stands on the north side of York Place, near the city centre, where it is used by the Dunedin Order of St John as the administrative, educational and ambulance dispatch centre of the organisation in Otago. Designed in the Art Deco style which achieved international popularity in the late 1920s and 1930s, the two-storeyed building has two principal elevations which face south-east and north-east, overlooking the street and an adjacent carpark respectively. Within these elevations the architect marries the organic decorative motifs of early Art Deco architecture with the streamlined profile and restrained treatment which is characteristic of later Art Deco buildings and reflects the impact of the Depression upon architectural design.

The facade of the building is symmetrical about a slightly projecting entrance bay which is capped by a decorative plaster coping and pierced by a shallow entrance porch and recessed doorway. Above the entrance strip pilasters with rudimentary capitals separate the central first floor window grouping and are in turn crowned by the name and symbol of the order and a second plaster coping. The latter rests upon the parapet which conceals the hipped and gabled roof forms of the front and rear wings of the building. Larger decorative relief panels, which also combine organic and more geometric motifs, are located on the spandrels between the ground and first floor windows and in bands which wrap around the corners of the building below the cornice. True to the Art Deco style the corners of the building are rounded. They are also fluted to evoke the appearance of giant columns which both unify and terminate the main elevations.

The secondary facade is divided into two bays by a recessed entrance bay framed by the same curve and fluted wall panels as on the main elevation. The front section of this elevation has been given a treatment identical to that of the principal facade, but beyond the entrance bay the wall surface is devoid of any applied ornament. The north-west and south-west walls are similarly lacking in applied plaster ornament and on all four sides of the building large rectangular windows with steel glazing bars light the interior.

Inside the building the hallways from the front and side entrances meet at a central vestibule from which a dog-leg staircase rises to the first floor. The vestibule, stair and nearby board room have retained their original appearance, and feature plaster cornices and wooden dados. However, the rest of the interior has been refitted in recent years to meet the changing needs of the order. Administrative offices are arranged on the ground floor, a new stairway provides access to the control room on the first floor, and the teaching rooms are located at the rear of the building and in the former caretaker's flat which was built above the original ambulance garages in c.1940. Additional buildings on the site are located to the south-west of the main wing.


1956 - Single storey freestanding wing erected on the south-west side of the building.

1967 - Garage erected north of main building.

c.1975 - Interior refit.

1984 - Third floor added to rear wing of main building beneath a gabled roof. Garage addition, interior refit. Caretaker's flat converted to training rooms, access provided by passageway cantilevered from building. Original garages (4) converted to office, transit tunnel and store. New stair built to control room.

Notable Features

The decorative plasterwork of the exterior.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1938 -

Original Construction
1956 -
Single storey freestanding wing erected on the south-west side of the building.

1967 -
Garage erected north of main building.

1975 -
Interior refit.

1984 -
Third floor added to rear wing of main building beneath a gabled roof. Garage addition, interior refit. Caretaker's flat converted to training rooms, access provided by passageway cantilevered from building.

1984 -
Original garages (4) converted to office, transit tunnel and store. New stair built to control room.

Structural upgrade
2013 -
Earthquake strengthening and refurbishment works commenced in September 2013

Construction Details

Unreinforced cavity brick walls, plaster exterior, timber floors and roof trusses, Marseilles tile roof.

Information Sources

Wright St Clair, 1985

R E Wright St Clair (ed), St John in New Zealand - A History of the Most Venerable Order, Millwood Press, Wellington, 1985

Knight, 1988

Hardwicke Knight and Niel Wales, Buildings of Dunedin: An Illustrated Architectural Guide to New Zealand's Victorian City, John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1988

Otago Daily Times

Otago Daily Times

24 June 1963, p4

25 June 1963, p4


Architectural Drawings/Plans

Plans: Held by Order of St John, Dunedin

University of Canterbury

University of Canterbury

Files: Index of New Zealand Architects, School of Fine Arts Reference Room

Other Information

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. This report includes the text from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

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.