Municipal Electricity Building
90 Leven Street, Invercargill
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 2
Private/No Public Access
7th September 2001
Lot 2 DP 15035
The MED offices were built in 1911/12 as part of the Invercargill Electric Tramways Corporation complex which comprised three buildings. The MED building was originally a single storied building; a second storey was added in around 1920. Its bold double storey brick exterior was perhaps a statement as to the seriousness of the Tramways operation. The MED building was the administrative centre for the Council's electric tramways and power operation for over 30 years.
The MED 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. 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 Council's Power scheme. . 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 MED, Powerhouse and Tram barn 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 MED building has an important historical connection with the adjacent Trambarn (registered category II) and powerhouse to which it served as central administration offices both for the Tram operations, and for electric power supply into the local, and later, regional communities.
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 MED building is one of three buildings in the Tram complex that are surrounded by important social history. (refer descriptive historical section above). 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 electric power generation in Invercargill, and to promote the importance of the "tram" as a unique transportation mode. This could be achieved creatively within the existing buildings.
The MED building was originally built as administration offices for the "Invercargill Tramways Corporation" in 1911. It appears that once the Council established a Southland Electric Power Board in 1919, that the name changed to the "Municipal Electricity Department". This name was added to the front façade of the building once the second storey was added around 1920.
A Powerhouse was built to house the associated coal fired steam powered electricity plant. The Powerhouse, MED building and Trambarn reflect 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) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of NZ history:
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 MED building, 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 imposing architectural style and use of the coat of the arms and centrally located flag pole as decorative motifs for the building façade 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) Rarity value:
Strong rarity value. There is no other known Tram barn complex (administration offices, Trambarn and associated powerhouse) in existence in NZ that was built specifically to provide electricity for a city tramway system.
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 Powerhouse building.
The Trambarn is currently registered with the HPT as a Category II building.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical complex:
The MED building along with the Tram barn and Power house 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.
Symington was Invercargill's Council Enginneer
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 an Electric Tram Complex be constructed. This was to consist of a Tram Barn and associated Administration Offices and Workshops and a Powerhouse. The Council set aside part of its western reserve to build the power house, tramway shed, workshops and 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 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 original Office building ( later became the M.E.D.building) Tram Barn and Powerhouse 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 power plant was manually fed with coal mainly from Ohai in Southland during its entire working life.
In 1916 additions were made to the Powerhouse and its generating capacity was increased with the installation of further boilers, generators and a condensing unit.
In circa 1920, the prominent Invercargill Architect E R Wilson was employed to design additions to the original administration offices to cope with increased staff requirements, which appeared to be in response to increasing demand and usage of the tram system as well as domestic power. The additions, built in circa. 1920, consisted of widening the original brick office complex by 5.4 metres and building a second floor to the widened floor plan. The design utilised many of the features of the original building, including the lower floor street façade, main entranceway, primary office space lay out, strong rooms etc. These features are still clearly recognisable both from an external and internal perspective. This is particularly noticeable on the original south exterior wall that retains some of its original doors and windows.
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. It was initially used 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 M.E.D. coal fired steam power plant proved to be a reliable backup relieving the local situation significantly.
The Powerhouse successfully supplied power to the 16 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.
The M.E.D. building is part of the wider Tram complex consisting of the Trambarn and associated Powerhouse. The M.E.D. building was originally the Invercargill Tramways Corporation administration offices. It is thought that it became the Municipal Electricity Department building in the early 1920's soon after the passing of the Southland Electric Power Boards Act in 1919. The original MED building was designed by the Council engineer Mr Scott Symington in 1910. (Mr Symington had previously been engineer to the Christchurch Tramways Board) and was completed by late 1911. A copy of Symington's original drawings of the administration building are attached as part of the Invercargill City Tramways Corporation's "car shed, repair shop and offices"
The original form of the building was a simple single story gable laying alongside and sharing a common brick wall with the Trambarn. The street front (and remaining ) section of the building consisted of offices, the rear (and now demolished ) section of the building consisted of toilets, locker room store room, repair shop and associated foremans office. The original office building façade appears to have been of rather severe Edwardian industrial style with a gabled parapet with only one each, strongly arched window and door. The façade was delineated with relief columns and bands with expansive blank infill panels between. It appears likely that surface finish was all in red brick. The south wall was of a more domestic scale and detail with flat arch double hung sash windows and smaller toilet windows.
This original building, along with the tam barn was reported in the Southlander on March 29 1912 p25 as having been built by the "Walker Brothers contractors", builders of Invercargill.
The additions to the offices were designed by the prominent Invercargill architect ER Wilson, and were carried out in circa 1920. (reference to builder not found/unknown) The design chosen for the new street façade moved away from the prior severely industrial look of the original to that more in keeping with important civic and commercial office architecture of the day. It appears that the parapeted gable top of the original street façade was taken down to ceiling level, and a full second storey added. However the original entranceway, arched top window and lower floor infill panels etc have been retained, thus giving the street façade a lack of symmetry that was unusual for civic architecture of the day. Notable on the façade are the coat of arms and moto "Commvni Pro Vtilitate" located in relief over the central entranceway, and the flag pole support corbel. The plaster relief sign "MUNICIPAL ELECTRICITY DEPARTMEN" is thought to have been added in circa early 1920s.. The façade finish is predominantly pointed brick with bolstered brick decorative bands and detailing. The visual impression of the Leven Street façade is one of a building of considerable civic importance, albeit, of a relatively small scale. The new south wall of the building ( also still in its c.1920s form) is detailed in a far more restrained and utilitarian manner with no decorative embellishments. It is constructed of brick with a smooth plaster finish. It is however attractively fenestrated with symmetrically aligned upper and lower double hung flat top windows with two large centrally located multi-pane sashes at the stairwell. To the outer face of the south wall are equally spaced concrete pilasters with corbels on top, which may indicate an intention to add further on to the building on this side.
While a number of the original 1911 building's interior walls have been removed to allow for a reconfiguration of office spaces, much of this original interior detail remains intact. This includes the front strong room and fire proof door, the rear strongroom, fire proof door and pay in lockers for the conductors (possibly modified), the conductors room behind the rear strongroom, the front entranceway (modified) and the central and rear passage into the Trambarn from the offices. All of these features date from the original 1911 building. The c.1920 additions which are still intact within the building included further offices and new toilets downstairs and a generously scaled rimu staircase to the upstairs. All this was located outside of the original south wall, much of which remains, with original windows intact, as an internal wall within the present building. Upstairs a two-chamber safe was added ( still intact) above the lower floor front safe, as were further offices. While there has been a considerable re-organisation of interior partitions, both upstairs and down, much original fabric of the building of the 1911 and c.1920 additions remains and is clearly obvious.
1911 - 1912
Single storey gable structure.
1920 - 1929
Addition by E R Wilson. Widening structure and addition of upper floor.
20th September 2001
Report Written By
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.