The Powerhouse

98 Leven Street, Invercargill

  • The Powerhouse.
    Copyright: Eldamos Limited. Date: 13/01/2009.
  • .
    Copyright: Eldamos Limited. Date: 13/01/2009.
  • .
    Copyright: Eldamos Limited. Date: 13/01/2009.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7496 Date Entered 7th September 2001

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City/District Council

Invercargill City

Region

Southland Region

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 15035 (CT SL12A/547), Southland Land District

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An Edwardian Industrial-style building, the Powerhouse was built in 1911 as part of the Invercargill Electric Tramways Corporation complex which comprised three buildings. The Powerhouse supplied power to the electric trams in Invercargill and also provided electricity for street lighting and domestic power to the Southland community until 1956 when the power plant was closed down. A Tangye gentry crane used for lifting equipment in and out for serving and maintenance is still in-situ.

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Technological value of the Powerhouse and the electric Tram system:

The powerhouse building remains as a significant reminder of an innovative technological power scheme that was adopted by the Invercargill Council in 1911 to advance civic progress. Not only did this scheme keep electric transportation services up and running for 40 years in the city but it provided the first reliable source of electricity for Invercargill providing for street lighting and domestic supply long before the more constant power supplies were available from both Monowai and Roxburgh in the 1925 and 1956 respectively. This was clearly advantageous for the early development of local businesses and for commercial growth in Invercargill. (refer to historical description section p.8) During the period of the First World War, residents within a radius of 30 kilometres started to make enquiries about being supplied with electricity from the Powerhouse. Gradual access to the Borough's power scheme added greatly to the comforts and standard of living for residents in the deep South.

The complex comprising the Powerhouse, Tram barn and the MED buildings is a strong tangible reminder of Invercargill's tram service representing an important era in the development of transportation

technology in the city. The move to an electric overhead tram system from a steam and horse drawn one, provided the city with a faster, more efficient system which was an indisputable requirement in a flat city

such as Invercargill. This change in technology also marked the commitment of the Council to an improved transportation service taking over the ownership and management of the trams from various private

Company's for the first time. This aided civic progress of the town contributing significantly to the social, commercial and urban growth of the city in the early twentieth century.

The Power house building has an important historical connection with the nearby Trambarn (registered category II) to which it provided power to the 16 trams servicing the city suburbs and supplied essential lighting to the barn for the maintenance of the trams which often had to be worked on in the evenings.

Powerhouse details

First stage of building completed 1911. ( with Additions in 1916 ) Plant produced 600 volt DC power

Steam driven coal powered plant consisting of a two main parts;

1) Boiler room initially housing three Babcock and Wilcox boilers coal fired steam boilers.

2) Powerhouse Hall or engine room containing vertical steam engines and generators.

In the engine room two compound engines of 330b.h.p.each, each of which drives one 225 k.w. generators. There is also one similar set with a 110 b.p.h. engine driving a 75k.w. generator. The generators are compound wound, and the large ones ran at 400 revolutions a minute and deliver current at a voltage varying from 550 volts at no load to 600 volts at full load. There is also a 15 k.w. horizontal turbine-driven generator which supplies the electric light for the powerhouse and carshed and will also at a later stage supply current to the hospital.

Also in the engine room is a Tangye gantry crane, used to lift equipment in and out for service and maintenance. (still exists). This was used extensively during the erection of the plant.

Coal bunkers with railway siding to deliver coal (no longer exists) Coal unloaded directly into bunkers then manually shovelled into the hoppers above the automatic chain grate stokers, which feed the fuel continuously.

A brick chimney flue was located on the south side of the powerhouse beside the Trambarn (see opening of trams photo, Appendix 7) which was a significant landmark at the Leven street site. (Demolished circa 1960s)

A Jarvis water cooling tower also existed to turn condensed steam into re -usable water again in the condensers.

The plant was manually fed with coal during its entire working life which was 40 years plus spasmodically during the power shortages of the 1950s.

For many New Zealand cities the "tram" became a status symbol. It represented a new sense of freedom and mobility giving people greater access to city suburbs and opening new doors for travel, employment and social and recreational activity. Urban dwellers responded well to this cheap and comfortable transport mode that reigned supreme on the city streets for decades. The tram has been described as the "monarch of the urban people-movers" and its contribution to the quality of life and early development of our cities should not be understated.

In Invercargill the tram system gained fame as being "the Southern most trams in the world" Horse drawn trams had ruled the streets for almost 30 years before the Invercargill Municipality responded favourably to the idea of electric trams for the city in 1909. By 1911 they had committed resources to a modern transportation system that contributed greatly to the city's social and commercial expansion. .

The Southland Times summed it up nicely on 27 March 1912, "Invercargill may pride itself upon the possession of a modern electric tramway system which will add enormously to the attractiveness of the town and to the comfort and convenience of those who live in it...the tram habit is infectious and once formed it remains...With the opening of the trams the town has made a big step forward and has greatly improved its status in the Dominion ."

The Powerhouse is one of three buildings in the Tram complex that are surrounded by important social history. (refer descriptive historical section also). They are a significant reminder of the value of the trams in this city and the effect that tram transportation had on the community during the first half of the twentieth century. There was a strong sense of pride and excitement reported in the papers of the time when the first sod was turned for the tramways construction by the Governor General of NZ (Lord Islington) in the presence of Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward in January 1911and again at the official opening ceremony on March 26th 1912 at the Trambarn in Leven street. Hundreds of locals squashed onto the first electric trams for a ride out to Gladstone and George town. The trams were of great importance and reliance throughout their operation in Invercargill but gained a special status during WWII when petrol shortages and the unavailability of tyres were very real problems. The tram system at this time was heavily relied upon.

When the trams took their last run on the Invercargill streets in 1952 there was great hilarity with people crowding the trams and souveniring of parts of the farewell trams. This ended a very important era in city transportation for Invercargill.

There is excellent potential to educate the general public on the history of the trams in Invercargill within the buildings and to promote the importance of the "tram" as a unique transportation mode and the value of the Powerhouse as the key to the operation of tram transportation in Invercargill from 1912 - 1952.

(a) Built to house a coal fired steam powered electricity generating plant, the Powerhouse reflects the emergence of the electric tram system for Invercargill and the first reliable source of power to provide for street lighting and domestic purposes. This was an innovative Council initiative at the time (1911) which was to greatly aid Invercargill citizens both in terms of their increased freedom and mobility and the commercial and economic growth that was experienced at a time when there was no access to a national power supply. Invercargill's electrical self-sufficiency played a significant part in establishing civic pride and advancing civic progress from 1912 to the 1950s.

The decision by the Council in 1911 to provide an electric overhead tramways system for the city was significant in that it marked the transition from the horse trams to the electric trams and hence the advance in transportation technology in Invercargill. The existence of an efficient Tram system was also the key to fostering the growth of NZ cities by providing greater access to the outer areas that became the suburbs. This was certainly the case in Invercargill.

(c) There is excellent potential to provide people with an increased knowledge and understanding of the trams as a transportation system in the first half of the twentieth century and their importance in Invercargill, as well as their significance in cities throughout NZ. This powerhouse and tram complex is now rare and unique in NZ and interpreting the social history of the place in situ would provide meaning and relevance to the story as well as complement any future use of the buildings. This could range from a tramway museum concept to decorating interior walls with historic images and interesting displays. Educating school and community groups and visitors to the site could also be achieved through heritage trails and civic plaques.

The grand cathedral like architectural style chosen for the building clearly reflects the very high value placed upon the enterprise of public transport and power generation by the community at the time of its construction and later additions.

(j) Strong rarity value. There is no other known Powerhouse (or Tram complex, consisting of administration offices, Trambarn and powerhouse) in existence in NZ that was built specifically to provide electricity for a city tramway system. The hand-operated gantry Crane still housed within the Powerhouse appears to be a rare example of its type in-situ.

Today there remains a rare and unique complex of three buildings constructed to support and operate the Invercargill Tramway Corporation' s electric tram operation in Invercargill.

The MED building, Trambarn and Powerhouse complex appears to be the last and most in-tact tangible example remaining associated with a power generated electric tram system in NZ.

Concurrent with this registration proposal is another for the MED building.

The Tram barn is currently registered with the HPT as a category 2 building.

(k) The Powerhouse along with the MED and Trambarn buildings located at Leven street Invercargill form a unique intact tram heritage precinct that were all purposely built for Invercargill electric tramways system. Together they represent the last visible record of the tram as a reliable and efficient transport mode in Invercargill that advanced civic progress and economical and social well being. These buildings also represent the innovative, self-sufficient local electricity scheme that the Invercargill Council adopted in the first decade of the 20th century and remain as rare and authentic examples of NZ tramways and electrical history in NZ.

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Construction Professionalsopen/close

Symington, Scott

Symington was Invercargill's Council Enginneer

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Historical Narrative

Electric tram systems were up and running in the four main centres in NZ by the early 1900s and the Invercargill Council decided to get in on the act. The overhead trolley tram was selected for Invercargill and the newly appointed electrical engineer and tramway manager Mr Scott Symington, recommended a Powerhouse be constructed to supply the power to the trams. The option of using Lake Monowai was also investigated at this time but this suggestion was overridden mainly due to finances. The Council set aside part of its western reserve to build the powerhouse, tramway shed and administration office building which was financed by ratepayers with a loan of 75 000 pounds being approved in 1909.

To mark the installation of the Invercargill Tramway service the first sod was turned for the construction of the tramways in Dee Street at the Rotunda in Post Office square by the Governor General of NZ (Lord Islington) on January 14 1911. Also present was the Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward. On the same day the foundation stone for the tramway offices in Leven Street (the MED building today) was unveiled by the Governor General. This foundation stone can still be seen today set into the façade of the original offices, (now known as the MED building), a reminder of this important event for Invercargill.

A further celebration of the beginnings of the new tramway service took place "in the form of a conversazione at the Victoria Hall" . Many local citizens turned out to mark the occasion.

The Powerhouse, Trambarn and original offices were constructed during 1911 - 1912 and on March 26th 1912 the electric tram service was inaugurated. The opening ceremony was held at the tram sheds in Leven Street. [see photo Appendix 7] There was an excellent public turnout for the occasion and the first tram was driven out by the Mayor, Mr W.A. Ott. One hundred invited guests were taken for a ride to Gladstone and Georgetown (the first routes to be completed) and many "joy riders", mainly women and children, took the opportunity to join in the excitement. The population of Invercargill was approximately 16000 at this time. The Southland Times reported 27 March 1912, "Invercargill may pride itself upon the possession of a modern electric tramway system which will add enormously to the attractiveness of the town and to the comfort and convenience of those who live in it...the tram habit is infectious and once formed it remains...With the opening of the trams the town has made a big step forward and has greatly improved its status in the Dominion ."

The electric tram service began with ten trams that were in use for the next 40 years. The plant was manually fed with coal mainly from Ohai in Southland during its entire working life. In 1921 to cope with transportation demands in the city, six more trams (known as Birney safety trams) were imported from America. While there were some tough times financially throughout its operation as well as the threat of

replacement by diesel buses in the 1930s, the tram service continued to be an important part of Invercargill's transportation system. At the outbreak of the war in 1939, its existence was clearly justified, through its ability to produce its own power (via the Powerhouse). It was also a convenient means of transportation for increasing numbers of people in light of wartime petrol shortages and the unavailability of tyres. Peak loads swelled to over 100 passengers at times on the carriages.

Buses began to replace some of the main tram routes from 1945 when 15 diesel buses arrived onto the Invercargill street scene. Georgetown route closed on July 2 1951, South Invercargill May 3, 1951 and North Invercargill September 10 1952. And so the "most southern tram car service in the world" finally ground to a halt in 1952. In total there were 16 electric trams operating in Invercargill. The 10 original trams operated for 40 years and the six safety trams for 28 years. A total of 13,972 096 miles ( over 22 million kms) of running was calculated at the retirement in 1952. It was stated that six of the original cars each ran over a million miles, approximately twice the distance to the moon and back!"

The change in technology from horse-drawn trams (1881 - 1911) to the electric tram (1911 - 1952) marked an important transition in the development of transportation in Invercargill city. It also marked the commitment of the Council to an improved transportation service taking over the ownership and management of the Trams from various private companies's for the first time. This aided civic progress of the town contributing significantly to the social, commercial and urban growth of the city in the early twentieth century.

Lighting and Domestic Power supplied from the Powerhouse Complex

The idea of supplying power for street lighting and domestic power from the steam plant in the Powerhouse was part of the original plan, additional to supplying power for the Tramcars A plan was adopted by the Invercargill Council on May 2 1912.

Such an initiative was a significant step forward for the city as the Monowai power scheme had not yet been developed. This interim local solution helped many local businesses to advance. According to the Councils yearbook 1914-15 - "about 50 premises have been connected to a temporary supply from the existing street lighting plant." These included places such as the Grand Hotel, (power for a lift and lighting) the St Johns Church, and beyond the Borough boundaries supplied places like Lorne Farm Home and the New Zealand Milk Products factory at Underwood. During 1920 - 21 demand for lighting and power installations was high. 332 new consumers were connected to the mains and extensions were made to 197 old installations. The population of the Borough then totalled 19 058. Between 1922 - 25 prior to the Monowai hydro power scheme coming on-line, Invercargill supplied Southland Electric Power Board consumers. Provisions for a new plant to cope with increased demand were planned by the Council however the planning and implementation of the Monowai scheme during the early 1920s appeared to override these Council initiatives.

Power shortages and restrictions plagued Invercargill during the late 1940s -50s - a reflection of the war and its aftermath. On May 5 1947 power from the plant was supplied directly to the state Hydropower service to provide some relief to the regions power supply crisis. Initially it worked for 12 hours a day, however later it was running continuously. The possibility of these shortages remained in the South Island until the Roxburgh scheme was underway in July 1956. During the many years of power restrictions, the Councils coal fired steam power plant proved to be a reliable backup relieving the local situation significantly.

The Powerhouse successfully supplied power to the16 trams servicing the city over 40 years as well as supplying essential street lighting and domestic power to the Invercargill Borough until 1926 and thereafter spasmodically until 1956 when the power station plant was closed down.

Physical Description

The Powerhouse is part of a wider Tram complex composing of the Tram barn or carshed and the Municipal Electricity Building which housed the offices for the Invercargill Tramways Corporation. These buildings are representative of industrial architecture of the day (1911 & later c.1920) and are today a strong visual reminder of our industrial heritage in relation to early Tram transportation in a developing city.

The Powerhouse was designed by the Council engineer Mr Scott Symington in 1910. (Mr Symington had previously been engineer to the Christchurch Tramways Board). He produced working drawings and specifications for the Offices, Trambarn and Powerhouse buildings, and layout and design drawings for the power generating plant including the boiler system, generating plant and switch gear; the overhead trolley wire construction; and the tram lines. The original engine room, boiler room, coal bunkers and railway siding to deliver the coal to the bunkers was completed by late 1911. A copy of Symington's original drawings of the Powerhouse are attached, (see Appendix 1)

The Powerhouse is an Edwardian style industrial building consisting of two parallel gables with a shallow lean-to on the east side. The exterior walls to the east, south and west are double and triple brick with plaster render to the east and south walls, scribed to replicate stone blocks. The north walls consist of some plaster smooth and rough cast finished brick and concrete with extensive areas of timber frame clad in corrugated iron and more recent corrugated translucent sheeting. The east wall of the engine room features four very tall steel frame arch top multi-pane windows. The south walls of the engine room and the boiler room feature three similar windows each. The roof structures for both rooms are riveted steel trusses at approximately 3.6 m centres with heavy timber runners over carrying timber sarking. Trusses are supported on concrete corbels supported on brick pilasters. Sarking to the engine room is laid diagonally. Floors through-out are concrete.

The roofing material to the engine room and lean-to is corrugated galvanised iron. The roofing to the boiler room is corrugated fibre cement. The original (partially cantilevered) coal bunker and railway siding roof has unfortunately been removed from the West Side of the building. (circa 2000)

Due to the buildings very tall walls, high gabled ceiling, tall narrow arched windows and open interior the internal spaces can be described as having "a cathedral like feel".

The original drawings for the powerhouse show expressive roof ventilators to both the engine room and the boiler room, (see appendix 1) and locations for these are still clearly visible from within the building.

Other heritage features in relation to the Powerhouse operation

A hand operated ten ton "Tangye" travelling crane and associated steel track and steel service ladder. This is a particularly fine example of Edwardian engineering equipment used to lift plant in and out for service and maintenance. (still exists in-situ). This was used extensively during the installation of the plant.

The original coal bunker doors into the boiler room and remnants of the coal bunker doors are still in situ along the west wall of the boiler room. Covered Coal bunkers were located below ground level immediately outside the west wall with a covered railway siding alongside to deliver coal (all of this was demolished in 2000 & coal bunkers were filled in) Coal unloaded directly into bunkers was then manually shovelled through the bunker doors into the hoppers above the automatic chain grate stokers, which feed the fuel continuously. The plant was apparently manually fed with coal during its entire working life which was 40 years plus spasmodically during the power shortages of the 1950s.

A brick chimney flue was located beside the Trambarn (see opening of trams photo Appendix 7) which was a significant landmark at the Leven street site. (no longer exists, see original plans Appendix 8, demolished circa 1960s).

A Jarvis water cooling tower also existed to turn condensed steam into re -usable water again in the condensers. This no longer exists but appears to have been located on the site of the concrete and brick room attached on the east side of the engine room lean-to.

There are still many internal physical features dating from the operation within the Powerhouse.

Of particular note is

The hand operated Tangye gantry crane and associated track and steel service ladder.

Steam pipe supports in the former boiler room (about 7).

Steps with checkered steel treads which lead into the engine room pit .

Hatches and duckboards to the various engine room house pits.

Two pulleys for the coal bunker doors on the western wall of the building.

Ornate downpipe heaters.

Cable access ports on South wall of the building.

(refer also heritage inventory prepared by Guy Williams held on Tram File, Otago/Southland office, NZHPT)

Architectural comment

The original 1911 Powerhouse with its 1916 addition is a commanding industrial building with a Cathedral like presence. Prior to the relatively recent addition of a large bus barn to the east of it it would have presented an imposing façade to Leven Street. With the removal of later accretions (refer plan in Appendix 6) about the Powerhouse, the architectural detail and imposing presence of the building's street facade would be recovered. Viewed together with the MED and Trambarn building, this Tram complex forms a unique heritage precinct which is an important part of Invercargill's industrial streetscape and heritage.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1911 -

Addition
1911 -
Edwardian crane placed in building

Addition
1916 -

Other Information

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