Auckland Unitarian Church

1A Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby, Auckland

  • Auckland Unitarian Church. Image courtesy of -
    Copyright: geoff-inOz. Taken By: geoff-inOz. Date: 17/11/2009.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7178 Date Entered 23rd June 1994


City/District Council

Auckland Council (Auckland City Council)


Auckland Council

Legal description

Lot 43 City of Auckland


This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Proposal for Classification report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.


The two foundation stones of the Unitarian Church, the first such church to be built in New Zealand, were laid at a ceremony on 17 August 1901 attended by 200 to 300 people. The opening and dedication of the building took place four months later on 4 December.

The term Unitarian relates to belief in the unity of God rather than the Trinity. Unitarian belief is in reason. In Auckland members of faith met regularly for worship as early as 1863. Services were initially held in the Oddfellows Hall, Queen Street, and subsequently at Cochrane's auction market in Fort Street. The congregation gradually dispersed after the first few years, however, upon the loss of the Minister Franklin Bradley who settled in the Northern Wairoa.

A fresh start was made in 1898. The Church's first minister arrived from England to take up duties in March 1990. A site was leased from the City Council in April 1901 and the present church designed by Thomas White, the Chairman of the Unitarian Church Committee. The design was based on a church White had completed in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Ponsonby church as built differs slightly from White's original design, modifications being necessary in the interests of economy. As a result a central steeple and an apse at the building's northern end were never built. The small annex at the back of the church was built in 1906 and by 1910 the building in its present form was complete, with hall, committee room and kitchen in the basement.

Provision of social rooms and areas for seminars and education were an essential part of the church and its role in the community. The church challenged political and social practices it saw as inhibiting liberty and fraternity. Issues such as socialism, free trade, pacifism, prohibition, military conscription, and proportional representation were debated at the "Free Discussion Society", which commenced prior to 1910 for the teenage boys of the church. The church actively supported pacifism during World War II giving it a controversial profile during this period.

The Unitarian Church library was mentioned by John A Lee, a congregation member, as being the best in Auckland. Writers Frank Sargeson and Maurice Gee were also members of the congregation. The central character in Gee's novel "Plumb" was modelled on Gee's Grandfather the Rev. J Chapple. On occasion Chapple preached in The Auckland Unitarian Church during the 1930's after his retirement to Henderson, West Auckland. Also associated with the church was New Zealand's first Rhodes Scholar, Fred Sinciaire. Harriet Russell Morrison, believed to have been the first woman elected to the Auckland Unitarian Church Committee, had earlier been active in the organisation of the tailoresses of Dunedin exploited as sweated labour. The Church is also notable as the first in Auckland to have a woman minister in Wilna Constable who jointly served from 1928 until 1934 with her husband William Constable, also a Minister.

Of Unitarian Churches started in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Timaru only the Auckland church has survived.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Proposal for Classification report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.


The historical significance of Auckland's Unitarian church lies in its importance as the first Unitarian Church to be built in New Zealand. The church continues to be used by the Unitarian congregation which during its history has contributed extensively to debate of social and political issues and which included in its number prominent scholars, and writers and notable Labour politician John A Lee.

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Proposal for Classification report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.


The Unitarian Church is a find example of non-conformist ecclesiastical architecture. It represents a distinctive interpretation of the Gothic style, now termed Decorated Martineau Gothic which was specific to the Unitarian Church. Martineau supported the development of a Unitarian architecture away from simplicity, in favour of a more detailed Gothicism. Features, such as lancet windows, were used to convey the presence of a Church, and therefore taken out of the context of Trinitarian symbolic language.


The Unitarian Church is one of a group of buildings dating from early this century which occupy this little changed section of Pons on by Road. The building, because of its unusual form, is a significant feature in the streetscape.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

White, Thomas H.

Thomas Henry White (1843-1923) was born in Birmingham, England, and was educated there and in Paris before briefly spending time in New Zealand in the early 1860s. After practising as an architect in Birmingham, he returned to New Zealand in 1873. White undertook architectural work in the Waikato from at least 1875 and was based in Hamilton from 1877 until 1881. He lived on his farm at Taupiri but maintained an office in Auckland as well.

White undertook numerous architectural commissions in the Waikato, Auckland and Opotiki. His work ranged from bridges and substantial brick and plaster commercial buildings to timber shops, churches and dwellings. Notable buildings were the Catholic Church, Hamilton East (1877), Volunteer Hall, Hamilton (1879), the Waikato Cheese and Bacon Company factory (1882), a grandstand at Cambridge (1878), the re-build of the Royal Hotel, Hamilton East (1890) and a hotel at Runciman (1887). He was responsible for the design and construction of a concrete flour mill store at Ngaruawahia (1878), Firth Tower, Matamata (1881-82), St Peter’s Hall, Hamilton, the Royal Hotel, Opotiki, and St John's Presbyterian Church, Opotiki (1907). He designed shops in Matamata (1886) and Hamilton (various dates); houses in Hamilton, Ngaruawahia, Pirongia, Huntly, Waitoa, Whatawhata and Tamahere and six workman’s cottages, Huntly (1888). White was a trustee of the Kirikiriroa Highway Board, an elected member of the Kirikiriroa Licensing Committee, Honorary Secretary of the Taupiri Domain Board and a Justice of the Peace. He was also a musician, playing clarinet and violin.

He died 16 June 1923. see obit Waikato Times 19 June 1923 p.4.

Source: Registration Report for Woodside, List No. 2693, 12 July 2010, with additional biiographical information about his origins and training added by Heritage New Zealand in May 2019.

Additional informationopen/close

Physical Description

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Proposal for Classification report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

ARCHITECT: WHITE, Thomas Henry (b.1843 - d1923)

The Unitarian Church was designed by Thomas Henry White who was born in Birmingham in 1843. After studying in Birmingham and Paris, White qualified as an architect in 1862. He arrived in Auckland in 1863 but returned to Britain in 1866. A deterioration in health brought about his return to New Zealand at an unspecified date, whereupon he bought a farm at Taupiri, Waikato. He began practising architecture in the Waikato in 1877 but in 1896 settled in Auckland. In 1904 he moved to Opotiki continuing as an architect until retirement.

The extent of White's work in New Zealand is largely unknown. However he was an architect of regional importance and a pioneer in concrete construction in the 1870s. He was responsible for the design and construction of a concrete flour mill store in Ngaruawahia; Firth Tower, Matamata (1881-1882); St John's Presbyterian church (now union), Opotiki (1907), and the original BNZ, Hamilton (1878).

White was a member of the Unitarian congregation in Auckland and Chairman of the Church Committee in 1901. Birmingham, where White was born and educated, was a strong centre of Unitarian fellowship in the mid-1880s. Likewise Paris, where White had also studied, was the main European centre in which established orthodox religion was challenged with implications in art and architecture.



The Unitarian Church is one of few ecclesiastical buildings in New Zealand representative of the Martineau Gothic style. The exterior features a steeply pitched roof, the strong vertical emphasis of which is reflected in three lancet windows within the upper portion of the facade. This is expanded in the lower portion which consists of a verandah featuring two wide flanking arches and a central portion, now boarded in. Steps subsequently built to the two flanking arches produce a symmetrical effect rather than retaining the original vertical flow of the design.

The simple exterior of the facade is relieved by minimal detailing featuring a quatrefoil motif within which a cross on a shield is featured. The three lancet windows have external timber trim which stands proud of the window opening giving the effect of windows with trefoil heads. (Similar windows occur along the sides of the building.) These decorative features articulate the facade whilst at the same time communicate the presence of a church. Ventilation holes in the underside of the flying gable on the front and rear facades are trefoil shaped. The horizontal emphasis in the filled-in gable is echoed in the verandah, the strongest horizontal point. The interior, lined with tongue and groove panelling with exposed roof in the nave, shows the Unitarians' preference for local materials and quality craftsmanship. Decorative elements adopted adhere to the Arts and Crafts style. Two separate entrances to the front of the church provide access to the main doors on either side of an entrance vestibule. The vestibule is lit by two 45-pane windows on the left is a library, to the right a small room accommodating the stairway leading to the choir loft.

A lancet arch frames access to the nave. The nave is designed to suggest a meeting hall rather than a church. Six slender crown posts support arch braces creating a subtle but continuous line, emphasising the spaciousness of the nave areas and at the same time 'containment'. This resolves the emphasis on 'space' and the function of the 'hall' as a meeting area and social forum. The arch braces have a singular, elongated motif repeating the movement of the arch.

The chancel area is incorporated into the nave. A matching entrance to that to the nave is flanked by the organ built in two sections. The pulpit is located off-centre of the left. The organ console and a small communion table occupy the central area.

The organ installed in 1904 was build by George Croft and was the first example in New Zealand of tubular prismatic action to a divided instrument. At the time of installation it was the largest organ in Auckland and drew large crowds to the many recitals held by the


The pulpit, designed by White and carved by master carver J H Edwards of Garlic and Co. was also installed in 1904. It features Gothic tracery surrounded and counterbalanced by floral and plant motifs. The strong lineal design and the independent motifs distinguish the pulpit from the rest of the church making it a focal point. The pulpit and organ are central to the aesthetic and historical value of the building.

At the rear of the church is an addition providing access via a flight of stairs descending to the basement area which accommodates small rooms, the kitchen and hall.

Notable Features

- Pulpit (1904)

- Organ (1904), gifted to the church by congregation member Joseph C Mackie, prominent Auckland businessman and Mayor of Devonport.

- Craftsmanship and use of native timber in the building's interior

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1901 -

1904 -
Organ installed. Shelving added in library

1906 -
Central stairway to entrance replaced by steps on each side of the porch

1909 -
Hall below the church added

1910 -
Kitchen (which until this date had been in the cloakroom area) relocated to rooms below the church

1936 -
Church entry modified to enable extension of the library

Construction Details

- Brick foundations

- Timber frame

- Weather-board cladding

- Corrugated steel roof

Information Sources

Auckland Star

Auckland Star

6.12.1901 p8 (2)

New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald, 12 July 1932, p. 6; 28 September 1933, p. 6.

15.7.1901 p8 (4)

19.8.1901 p3 (4)

3.12.1901 p5 (1)

5.12.1901 p6 (8)

New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)

New Zealand Historic Places Trust

NZHPT Building Research file, Unitarian Church, Auckland

Castle, 1981

F W Castle. Annals of the Auckland Unitarian Church, Auckland, 1981.

Other Information

A copy of the original 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.