Nelson School of Music

48 Nile Street, School Of Music Lane And Collingwood Street, Nelson

  • Nelson School of Music.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Rebecca O'Brien. Date: 3/02/2003.
  • Nelson School of Music. 'Built to a design by Frederick de Jersey Clere [1856-1952], the Nelson School of Music building has, since its grand opening in 1901, served almost continuously in its dual function as a high quality concert hall and music training school.'.
    Copyright: Nelson Provincial Museum, F.G.Gibbs Collection, C4961.
  • Nelson School of Music.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Rebecca O'Brien. Date: 3/02/2003.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7426 Date Entered 30th June 1998


City/District Council

Nelson City


Nelson Region

Legal description

Pt Sec 488 City of Nelson (CT NL52/277), Nelson Land District


Opened in 1901, the Nelson School of Music was designed by the noted architect Frederick de Jersey Clere [1856-1952]. Unique in New Zealand, the building was inspired by and based upon German schools of music. Since its grand opening it has served almost continuously in its dual function as a high quality concert hall and music training school.

For nineteenth century settlers from Britain, classical music was inextricably linked with culture and civilisation. In 1860, the year that Nelson was officially declared a city, the Nelson Harmonic Society was formed. The society flourished, and by 1867 it was able to erect a small concert hall in Trafalgar Street. Support for the society's concerts swelled, although concern was occasionally expressed at the quality of performances given.

In 1893 Michael Balling (1866-1928), an eminent German string player and conductor then visiting Nelson, expressed his opinion that a city should 'resolve to reserve a little for higher things such as music'. He proposed that a school of music similar to those found in Germany should be established in Nelson, and accepted an invitation by the society to serve as the school's full time conductor. By offering instruction in practical and theoretical music, the school would raise the standard of musical entertainment and performances given in the city.

Operating from the hall in Trafalgar Street the school, then unique in New Zealand, thrived under Balling and his inspired German successors Gastav Hanke and Julius Lemmer. By 1899 a need for larger teaching rooms and the desire for superior concert facilities for the city prompted the school trustees to commission Wellington architect Frederick de Jersey Clere to design the present Nelson School of Music building on the corner of Nile and Collingwood Streets.

Built of solid brick masonry with a Marseilles tile roof, the Nelson School of Music was designed by Clere in the Free Classical style then popular in Australia and New Zealand. The building expressed the confidence and prosperity of the Nelson School of Music at the beginning of the twentieth century. Based on a rectangular plan the building features a large, arched window and decorative pediment over the entrance door. An auditorium large enough to seat 500 people dominates the interior of the Nelson School of Music. It features a barrel vaulted ceiling and has exceptionally good acoustic properties. Four studios are located to the eastern side and rear of the auditorium. The financial support of eminent Nelson businessmen Joseph Cock and Thomas Cawthron, together with the proceeds from sale of the old hall, supplied the £4000 required to erect the building. It was built by John Hunter and opened by the wife of the governor, Lady Ranfurly, to a packed audience in 1901.

The Nelson School of Music building was an immediate success both as a school and as a concert venue. The excellent acoustics attracted leading national and international performers. It became a vital part of the cultural life of Nelson and, in 1920, served as the venue for the city's civic reception of the then Prince of Wales.

The prosperity of the Nelson School of Music was affected by anti-German animosity during the First World War, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. This, combined with changing musical tastes and increasing competition from theatres and cinemas, forced the Trustees to consider closing the building. The Second World War and competition from local colleges, who began to teach music in the 1940s, caused the situation to deteriorate. In 1955 the building was gifted to the city and a year later the Nelson Harmonic Society was disestablished. In 1968, following the Inangahua earthquake, the original, decorative pediments above the window and on the sides of the building were removed.

Following extensive repairs and the purchase of the neighbouring Snodgrass House (Beatrice Kidson Block) for classroom facilities, the building was gifted back to the Nelson Music Trust in 1974. Further renovations were undertaken in 1984 and, true to its original purpose, the revitalised building is today used as an independent education institution for music teaching and as a high quality performance venue.

The Nelson School of Music is nationally significant as it is the only New Zealand school of music based on the German model. The building is historically significant for its strong associations with persons of national and international importance. Established by internationally recognised conductor and musician Michael Balling, the Nelson School of Music building is testimony to the success of his vision. The building has played host to royalty and notable musicians from all over the world, illustrating both the quality of the facilities and its importance in Nelson city. The building represents wider historical trends such as the focus of tensions aroused by the First World War and its history reflects the economic impact of the Depression. The Nelson School of Music is culturally important for its role in fostering New Zealand music, training music teachers, performers and providing performances. As the work of Frederick de Jersey Clere and as a fine example of the Free Classical style, the building is of considerable architectural interest. It has high aesthetic value and the excellent acoustics in the auditorium add to the technical importance of the building. Though inspired by German influences, the building has established its own, unique New Zealand identity, and is highly valued by the Nelson community.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Clere, Frederick De Jersey

Clere (1856-1952) was born in Lancashire, the son of an Anglican clergyman, and was articled to Edmund Scott, an ecclesiastical architect of Brighton. He then became chief assistant to R J Withers, a London architect. Clere came to New Zealand in 1877, practising first in Feilding and then in Wanganui. He later came to Wellington and practised there for 58 years.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1886 and held office for 50 years as one of four honorary secretaries in the Empire. In 1883 he was appointed Diocesan Architect of the Anglican Church; he designed more than 100 churches while he held this position. Clere was a pioneer in reinforced concrete construction; the outstanding example of his work with this material is the Church of St Mary of the Angels (1922), Wellington.

As well as being pre-eminent in church design, Clere was responsible for many domestic and commercial buildings including Wellington's Harbour Board Offices and Bond Store (1891) and Overton in Marton. Clere was also involved in the design of large woolsheds in Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa.

He was active in the formation of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and served on their council for many years. He was a member of the Wellington City Council until 1895, and from 1900 a member of the Wellington Diocesan Synod and the General Synod. He was also a member of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts.

Additional informationopen/close

Notable Features

The barrel vaulted ceiling of the auditorium


Victorian ventilation cupola on the roof

Wrought iron gate and fence made by the Anchor Foundry of Nelson

Busts of Beethoven and Hayden, donated by J. H. Cock in 1903

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1901 -

1912 -
Small office created in the cloakroom under the platform

1913 -
Orchestral floor lowered to the level of the rest of the platform, Cawthron organ installed, urinal erected at back of building

1968 -
Inangahua earthquake creates serious cracks throughout the brickwork, especially at parapet level and in the bracing walls

1984 -
Foyer, recital theatre, disabled access and kitchen facilities added

1994 -
Landscaping - sections of the fence and gates removed

1984 -
Main auditorium refurbished and enhanced

2000 -
Cupola restored

Completion Date

28th February 2003

Report Written By

Rebecca O'Brien

Information Sources

Tunnicliff, 1994

S. Tunnicliff, Response to a Vision; The First Hundred Years of the Nelson School of Music, Dunedin, 1994

Conservation Plan

Conservation Plan

J. Palmer, 'School of Music Auditorium Conservation Plan', Palmer & Palmer Associates Limited, Nelson, 1996

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central 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.