Onehunga Primary School (Former)

83-89 Selwyn Street, Onehunga, Auckland

  • Onehunga Primary School (Former).
    Copyright: Onehunga Community House.
  • .
    Copyright: Onehunga Community House.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed - Review Initiated List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7109 Date Entered 17th December 1993


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 1 DP 189657 (CT NA119C/8) and Pt Allot 6 Sec 19 Village of Onehunga (NZ Gazette 1971, p.111), North Auckland Land District, and the buildings and structures known as Onehunga Primary School (Former) thereon, and their fittings and fixtures.

City/District Council

Auckland Council (Auckland City Council)


Auckland Council

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 189657 (CT NA119C/8) and Pt Allot 6 Sec 19 Village of Onehunga (NZ Gazette 1971, p.111), North Auckland Land District


The following text is from an Upgrade Report 25 June 2010:

The Onehunga Primary School (Former) is a grand and elaborately detailed building and a prominent landmark in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga. Erected in 1901, it is the largest remaining school building designed by Mitchell and Watt during their time as architects to the Auckland Education Board, and is considered to represent a high point in the design of public school buildings in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Onehunga was occupied by a number of Maori tribes, including Te Waiohua and Ngati Whatua. The Government established a military settlement for the Royal New Zealand Fencibles at Onehunga in 1847 and soon afterwards a school opened in the community. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Education Boards throughout New Zealand were consolidating and expanding state schooling in response to the Education Act in 1877, which provided for free, secular, elementary education for children. In 1898, the Auckland Education Board purchased land on the corner of Selwyn and Arthur Streets to accommodate a building constructed the following year for younger elementary students. In 1901 tenders were called for the erection of a new building for the older elementary students on more elevated ground within the same property.

The new school building was constructed by G. M. Handcock for the cost of £2374, with an additional £60 for the belfry. It was designed by John Mitchell (c.1859-1947) and Robert Watt (1860-1907), who were architects to the Auckland Education Board from 1892 to 1907. Mitchell and Watt designed many schools in the Auckland and Waikato districts, including the former Bayfield School, Herne Bay (Record no. 112, Category I historic place), and produced grand formal compositions in their larger commissions. Their designs are held to represent an important phase in the architectural development of school buildings in New Zealand.

The Onehunga School is considered an outstanding example of Mitchell and Watt's work for the Auckland Education Board. Situated on a commanding site overlooking Onehunga and the Manukau Harbour, the building was designed in the Free Classical or Queen Anne Revival style, favoured by Mitchell and Watt for their educational buildings. The main southern façade of the kauri timber building encompassed three gabled bays, separated by two smaller recessed bays. The highly decorative boxed and bracketed gabled bays incorporated double-hung windows, topped with distinctive triangular pediments. Approached from the main entrance on the Selwyn Street (west) facade, the layout of the building consisted of three wings. It incorporated seven classrooms, a headmaster and teachers' room, a science room and a main hall with a museum. Play sheds were also provided.

The building was officially opened by the Mayor of Onehunga, Mr. Sutherland, on 20th November, 1901. The local press described the building as 'one of the finest schools in New Zealand' and commented on its innovative design, particularly the attention to light, ventilation and heating.

The building served its original purpose for 80 years, until a replacement building was constructed on an adjacent site in 1981. During its use as a school, minor modifications were made to the building, mainly to cope with overcrowding. Alterations included enlarging and partitioning classrooms and the enclosing of verandahs. While the building remained structurally sound, the changes reduced the quality of lighting and ventilation, and from the 1930s concerns were expressed about the adequacy of the classrooms for teaching. The school grounds were landscaped and terraced in 1930 according to plans designed by prominent local architect and politician, John Park. An open air swimming pool was constructed in 1945. The main building suffered fire damage in 1942 and its belfry was removed in 1947.

Since 1982 the building has been known as Onehunga Community House, and has been leased from the Education Board by a committee that has operated it as a venue for community and recreational activities. The building was extensively restored externally and internally between 2005 and 2007. This work included the reconstruction of lost decorative features (including the belfry). Numerous chattels relating to its earlier use as a school, and include school committee minute books. The building currently remains in community use (2010).

The Onehunga School (Former) has special aesthetic value as an elaborate building of grand proportions and as one of Onehunga's most prominent landmarks. It is architecturally significant as an outstanding example of Mitchell and Watt's work, and as the grandest and largest remaining school built by them as architects for Auckland Education Board, during a period which represented a high point in State school building design in New Zealand. It has historical significance as a symbol of the educational philosophies of the New Zealand Government in the late Victorian period and as a reflection of the development of Onehunga township. The building also has high social significance as a major focal point for the Onehunga community since its construction.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

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

Built in 1901, this building was probably the work of architect John Mitchell (I859- 1947) and is a distinctive example of quasi-ecclesiastical late-Victorian school Architecture. With its vigorous ensemble of gabled bays and subsystem of triangular pediments, it can be seen as a timber variation of the Queen Anne style. Prominently situated on a ridge line, it contributes to the Onehunga townscape. It served the community as a district school until 1912 and as a primary school until 1973.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Mitchell, John

Mitchell (1859-1947) was born in Ramelton, Northern Ireland, and received his architectural training in Ireland before emigrating to New Zealand in 1888 and settling in Auckland. He became known for his early use of reinforced concrete. In 1893 he invented a baked earthenware block which was used in domestic construction.

From about 1892 Mitchell was in partnership with Robert Martin Watt (1860-1907) and the firm of Mitchell and Watt was appointed architects to the Auckland Education Board in that year. Mitchell undertook new work while Watt was responsible for rebuilding projects and renovations to existing buildings.

The partnership was appointed architect to the Auckland Education Board in 1892 and is best remembered for designing the former Bayfield School, Herne Bay, built in two sections in 1896 and 1904. The partnership also designed the Mount Eden Congregational Church (1900), Australis House in Customs Street East (1903-1904) and the Leys Institute, Ponsonby (1904).

Mitchell and Watt were also responsible for schools at Te Mata (1905) and Maungatautari (1905), additions to schools at Cambridge (1900) and Dargaville (1905).

Mitchell designed the Seddon Memorial Technical College block (1907 - now part of the Auckland University of Technology) before returning to England in 1912, where he was associated with a pre-fabricated concrete housing project at Bournemouth. He retired in 1922, and upon his return to New Zealand, settled in Rotorua where he died in 1947.

Additional informationopen/close

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1901 -

Demolished - Fire
1905 -
Boys toilets destroyed by fire

1930 -
Grounds extensively landscaped

1942 -
Building damaged by fire

Original Construction
1945 -
Outside pool constructed

Demolished - Other
1947 -
Belfry removed

1957 -
Building re-roofed

1968 -
Building extended and verandahs enclosed

2005 - 2006
External restoration work, including reconstruction of belfry

2007 -
Internal restoration work

Completion Date

10th June 2010

Report Written By

Lucy Mackintosh

Information Sources

Kellaway, 1981

J. Warwick Kellaway, Education 150: From Schoolhouse to Classpace in the Waikato-Bay of Plenty, Hamilton, 1981

Central Leader

Central Leader

'Extreme Makeover', 7 September 2005, p. 9.

‘Old School Receives its Crowning Glory', 21 October 2005, p. 3.

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Northern Region office

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.