Historical Significance or Value
The Sydney Street Substation, constructed for the Wellington City Council Electricity Department in 1925, is a unique memorial to early electricity generation in Wellington. It was built at a time when the Council administered both electricity generation and supply in the City, and the use of electrical power was still relatively new (the first power connections in Wellington date from the early 1890s).
It was one of the first substations to be constructed after the Capital switched to Mangahao power in 1924 and it played a dual role. It was primarily part of the system of substations located around the city that transformed and distributed power for commercial and residential use, in this case supplying power to buildings in the vicinity of the Government buildings (the Sydney Street / Molesworth Street area). It was also used for revenue generation, the rental apartment on its upper floor providing income for the Council.
The existence of this building provides evidence of the involvement of local government in early electricity generation at a time when electricity generation was a local concern, and before the development of the national grid. This reflects the perception of the early twentieth century that municipalisation of public utilities was the best means to deliver these services.
The design is a curious blend of several architectural styles, which are particularly represented in the detailing and bay windows of the front facade. The care taken in the detailing, the sense of balance, and the unique appearance of the Substation all reflect the high standards of design reached by the Wellington City Council City Engineers Department. This level of decoration was unusual for such utilitarian buildings at that time, and may relate to the dual purpose the building as a substation and a residence.
The Substation is unusual in that it had a dual purpose as a substation and a residence. The only other example of this duality among Wellington substations is the Newtown substation in Riddiford Street, which was built with two shops in the front. Whether the apartment was a response by Council to shortages in housing, or merely a revenue generating exercise made possible by the size of the building, is unknown.
The flat has been occupied for most of its life. The first tenant occupied the flat for 22 years, although records suggest these were difficult times for the landlord. The continual chasing up of overdue rent payments ended in 1948 with the death of this first tenant. A friend of his family then occupied the flat for a short period.
Since 1948 there have been only a handful of tenants in the building. The property has been occupied by the current tenants since the mid-1970s, and has had a commercial/community focus rather than a purely residential use.
From the mid-1970s the nature of the building's use as a film set and production facility link it to a number of well known New Zealand artists. In addition, the tenant's policy of providing access to film and video editing equipment, as well as training and teaching young photographers and film-makers, has given it an important role in the development of the New Zealand film industry.
The unique facade of the Sydney Street Substation possesses architectural significance, and the existence of the building provides a strong historical link with the past development of electricity generation in Wellington. The rental flat that comprises part of the building, and the tenants and artists who have occupied or used it over the years, also contribute a social value to the site.
Criteria: a, e, g, j. k
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:
The substation was constructed when the sale and use electricity began to take-off in both Wellington and around New Zealand. Demand for the product was beginning to outstrip supply, and dramatic changes to the distribution system were required. The completion of the new hydro-electric power station at Mangahao caused an overhaul of the city's distribution and supply network. The changeover was one of the largest ever undertaken in New Zealand, involving some 20,000 consumers. The substation was one of the first to be constructed after Mangahao was completed.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place:
The unusual architecture of this building, combined with the progressive development of the surrounding area, has caused the building to attract public attention. It featured in an article named 'A touch of France in Thorndon' in the Evening Post on 7 January 1999 as part of a series of articles entitled 'My favourite building'. The article focussed on the unusual nature of the structure and referred to its history as 'mysterious', indicating that the purpose for which it was built is not generally known.
(g)The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:
The significance of the design of the Sydney Street Substation is seen when comparing it to these other substation buildings, which tend to be uniformly utilitarian.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:
While there is no comprehensive survey of substations available, general research on plans of Wellington substations give rise to the impression that the dual purpose Sydney Street Substation is rare or unusual. The only other dual purpose substation building discovered during this research was a building in Newtown, where retail space was incorporated into the building. The motive behind the construction of the residential apartment above the substation may have been a response by Council to shortages in housing, or merely a revenue generating exercise made possible by the size of the building.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:
The Sydney Street Substation was part of a network of substations that obtained power from power generation stations such as the newly completed Mangahao Power Station and channelled the power into the local supply systems. One of the first to be completed after Mangahao was erected, the power station is an important historical marker in the history of power distribution in Wellington. The Substation is also part of the parliamentary precinct. It supplied the area with electricity for 67 years.
The Sydney Street substation, constructed by the Wellington City Council Electricity Department in 1925, is a unique memorial to early electricity generation in Wellington.
Electricity in Wellington
The first known use of electricity in Wellington occurred in 1879, when a jeweller, Kohn & Co., used it to help advertise his wares in Lambton Quay. In 1888, 27 years after the first use of electricity in New Zealand, the Wellington City Council contracted the London-based Gulcher Electric Light and Power Company to light the city with 480 lamps. Installed the following year, the lamps were powered from a station in Featherston Street that relied on the local water supply to generate power. In 1893 the company installed a new, more reliable steam plant, and by 1894 had obtained the contract to light Parliament. In 1904 the company completed a new plant on Jervois Quay that was capable of powering the city's electric trams. From 1905 the Wellington City Council began acquiring the company's assets and worked to ensure the facilities kept pace with the rapidly increasing demand for electricity. The 1920s marked the take-off in demand for electricity in New Zealand and demand began to consistently outpace supply. On an average, units generated in the 1920s rose by 22.2 per cent per annum, while units consumed increased by approximately 700 per cent. To cope with demand, a new station was constructed in Evans Bay and, in 1924, the Capital changed from a 80-cycle single-phase 105 volt distribution system to take electricity generated by a new hydro-electric power station on the Mangahao River near the Tararua Ranges.
Purchase of Land
In this climate of growth and demand for electric power, the Wellington City Council acquired a strip of land alongside the St Paul's Schoolroom in Sydney Street that consisted of 6.18 perches of Town Acre 514, Town of Wellington. In 1924 the land was taken under the Public Works Act 1908 from the Diocesan Board of Trustees, to allow the Council to construct a substation that could supply power to the vicinity around Parliament buildings. In the distribution system, substations serve a number of functions. The substation planned for the Sydney Street site was to be used as a point of supply; it would collect electricity from the power-generation station at Mangahao, then lower the voltage, and feed it into the local supply network.
In early December of that same year, the Wellington City Council Power Stations and Tramways Committee approved plans for the new substation compiled by the City Engineers Department, and tenders for its construction were called for. The proposed building was two storeys high, with a flat roof surrounded by a wrought iron balustrade. The substation equipment was to be installed on the ground floor. The original proposal featured a shop in front of the substation with offices on the upper floor. This was dropped in favour of a residence on the upper floor, with two garages directly in front of the substation. The residence consisted of two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and kitchenette, and was expected to return a rental of £3 per week. The second garage would be let for 10/- per week, giving a total yearly return of £182. The total construction cost was expected to be £3000. A permit for the substation was issued on 20 February 1925. The successful tenderer was the Fletcher Construction Company Limited (£3903/7/2) , and construction was completed in mid-1925.
The Sydney Street Substation was the only station constructed in the Wellington Region between 1925, after the opening of the Mangahao power station, and early in 1927. However, it was one of a number completed in the Wellington Region between 1927 and 1939. At least six further substations were built around the city in 1927. However, the Sydney Street Substation differed from later substations in design. The majority of stations constructed were single storey, utilitarian buildings with minimal decorative elements. The decision to include a residence on the upper storey allowed its designers to experiment with design of this early substation. A combination of architectural styles was employed. The concrete entablature above the lower left-hand entry door and concrete pilasters of the upper level oriole bay window on the right hand side show a classical influence. However, the overall treatment of the upper level bay windows is more reminiscent of the Jacobean and Arts and Crafts style, characterised by the use of small glass panes, decorative latticework and wooden windows and shingles. The substation would serve the Parliamentary area until 1992.
Occupancy of the Flat
In September 1925 tenders were called for the lease of the substation flat, the lease consisting of the first floor as well as the yard, coal shed, and one garage on the ground level. Access to the flat and substation was by a common door facing Sydney Street; the Tramways and Electricity Department retained the right both to use the door and passageway at all times, and to inspect from time to time any portion of flat that may affect the operations of the substation. Possession was to take place from the 1st October 1925 for an initial term of five years. The successful tenderer was able to ask the Wellington City Corporation to wallpaper the rooms on the first floor and to choose the wallpaper used, as long as it cost less that six shillings per roll. An electric range and electric heaters came installed in the flat.
The first occupant was Maurice Gillon, a Hansard Supervisor's Assistant at the Parliament buildings. His tender was accepted on the 30th September 1925, although he did not move in until the 14th February 1926. His rental was set at £221 per annum. Maurice occupied the flat for 22 years, until his death in May 1948, although Council records suggest his occupancy was not easy to manage. Initially he was continuously behind in his rent, and refused to pay until the Corporation fixed a number of faults with the property, such as the non functioning hot air service (although this had actually been blocked up by the WCC as it was too noisy). Although an agreement was made in 1929 to reduce his rent in compensation, the ongoing problems of non-payment rent continued, and in 1937 the Tramways and Electricity Department accountant suggested taking legal action. It appears the matter was sorted out in 1939, when the accountant again wrote regarding problems with rent payment. His letter states that 'This tenant is a most difficult person to deal with. He makes payments only to stave off legal action. In view of the existing housing shortage, I think we would have no difficulty in securing a reliable tenant for our property, and Mr Gillon should be evicted unless payment in full be made by a specified date.' It is unclear whether a summons was finally issued, however there are no further papers on file regarding rent payment issues.
In April 1948 it was reported that Mr Gillon was bedridden and close to his death. A friend of his family, Miss Rankine, was staying in the flat, waiting to clean up his affairs following his death. The WCC was concerned she or other relatives of Mr Gillon would take the tenancy, and prepared a letter stating she was not acknowledged as a tenant, warning her not to take in any friends or relatives, and to hand over premises unencumbered at the end of a term mutually agreed. No rent or correspondence was accepted that might establish the legitimacy of her occupancy. However, following Maurice Gillon's death on the 26th May 1948, it was found his will named Miss Rankin sole executrix and only beneficiary, therefore she was able to take Mr Gillons rights as tenant, which she did. In late 1948 Miss Rankin married William Hislop, and by June 1949 they were occupying the flat. At this time the City Solicitor received a rumour they were planning to vacate the flat, and wrote advising they were not permitted to allow anyone else to occupy it, or to deal in any way with the tenancy. The premise was to be left empty, in good order and condition, and the key handed to the General Manager of Tramways Department.
Although name and family details are not known, the next tenant to occupy the property moved in around 1949. A married couple with two sons lived in the flat until around 1953. Their father had worked for the Electricity Department in Palmerston North and, upon moving to Wellington, he got a job with the WCC Electricity Department. Unable to find a house due to the housing shortage at that time, they were given tenancy of the Electricity Department flat. Their stay was relatively short, as the area was thought too noisy (with a pub at each end of the street). The father was a strong trade unionist, and supported the 1951 waterfront lockout. It is said he operated the illegal printing press in a shed at the back of the building.
Tenancy details between the mid-1950s and 1970's are sketchy. One subsequent tenant was Jack Roach, again a MED worker. It is thought he occupied the flat until the end of the 1960s.
By the early 1970s the flat was largely unoccupied, and the target of break-ins and vandalism. Keen to have the property tenanted, in 1974 the MED leased the property to Rob Prosser, whose father was an MED employee. In 1975 Rob began working with Alister Barry, and in 1977 the pair formed Vanguard Films, and began using the substation building as an office. The building has subsequently been used as a film set, although its primary use has been as a facility for editing both 16mm film and video. The Community Media Trust currently use the building as an office.
The tenancy has always been at short notice, reflecting the ongoing plans to demolish the building to allow the Crown to develop the site. In mid-1993 Capital Power sent a notice to Rob Prosser to quit the premises, so that vacant possession could take place when the property passed to the Crown. The Wellington City Council was the interim owner following Capital Power becoming a separate entity however, and preferred to have the property tenanted, so the tenant was subsequently advised that the tenancy would be extended on a monthly basis until further notice.
In the first two years after Rob moved into the building, it was not used exclusively for film production. For example bands practised in the front room in the evenings (such as Andy Anderson, and Bruno Lawrence's band Blerta). From 1977 however the building was used solely for filming activities.
As stated, although the building has been used as a set a number of times. For instance, it was used to create the documentary 'Backroom Troubles' (A Media Peace Award finalist), a number of music clips (who usually used the roof), and more recently, for the brothel scene in the film 'Stickmen', and for a Watties pasta commercial. The building has also served as an editing facility for film-makers. A number of films have been made and edited there by Vanguard Films and Community Media Trust, such as 'Someone Else's Country' and 'In a Land of Plenty', and 'Wildcat'. Campbell Walker has also edited a number of his digi films on the premises.
One significant area of filming was the 1981 Springbok Tour. Vanguard Films were involved in making the film 'Patu', recording footage in Wellington and as far afield as Nelson and Napier. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday they would go out and film at the protests/matches, then come back and edit the film. Because of the risk of police raids, the film footage was hidden at a location in the Hutt Valley. One recollection in relation to this was a visit by a police officer, who was sent away to get a warrant. At the same time the Vanguard Films lawyer was called. When the police returned with SIS officers, they claimed the building was being used 'as a bomb factory' and proceeded to search the premises. It was clear that this was a pretext to search the building for protest material, although none was found.
Use of the film facilities is connected to a number of significant artists. For example, photographers including Miles Hargest and Yan Nauta used the dark room. Upcoming New Zealand film-makers, such as Geoff Murphy were able to used and train with the film-editing suite. The building was made available to people from throughout New Zealand, who would stay in the flat and use the equipment. As Rob commented, 'the building was like a railway station sometimes'.
As such, the premises played a significant role in the early film industry in New Zealand. 16mm film and or video editing facilities were not widely available in the 1970s and 1980s, such a set up incurring a significant cost. By making their facilities available to a wide audience without any financial restrictions, and with a philosophy of training and access, a number of people were enabled and encouraged to enter and develop in the industry.
Decommissioning of Substation, sale to Crown
In the late 1960s the Government began planning work on a proposed 'government centre'. A proposal to build a National Art Gallery fronting Molesworth Street was put forward. The proposal required land along Sydney Street, including the substation site. The Wellington City Council and the Crown agreed to a land swap: a replacement substation would be constructed at another site that would be vested in the Council, and the existing site would pass to the Crown, who would also cover any costs involved.
In June 1973 cost estimates for the replacement substation were passed to the Ministry of Works. Building work was estimated at $30,000, heavy electrical works at $24,000 and demolition of the old building at $8,000. It was also noted that alternative accommodation to replace the staff flat above the old substation was essential.
In October 1973 the Wellington City Council and Crown agreed in principle to the replacement of the Sydney Street substation and decided upon a site on the corner of Sydney Street and Lambton Quay. The final agreement did not include a replacement for the flat. The tender of H P Coleman Ltd was accepted in May 1974 to construct the replacement substation, which was completed soon after.
It appears there were long delays in the planning process, as there was no request for the site from the Crown, and the original substation kept operating into the 1980s. The new substation was not fitted out with equipment and cabling until 1984; even then it was not commissioned.
In April 1985 the decision on the final use of the old substation site was further delayed. Government decided that the proposed National Art Gallery would no longer be built on the Molesworth Street site, but instead the site would be used for a proposed High Court building. As this alternative had not yet been developed, it was likely to be several years away. As a result the originally proposed vacation date of the 31st May 1985 was no longer relevant, and the proposed demolition of the Sydney Street East premises was suspended as the continuation of power supply was required.
By February 1989 the substation was still in service, supplying existing consumers along Sydney/Molesworth Streets. There was still no clear plan from the Crown as to the extent and programme of redevelopment of the area. Both the Crown and the Wellington City Council, however, were anxious to finalise the land swap agreement and negotiations continued.
An agreement was finally reached in August 1989 whereby the Municipal Electricity Department would relocate the Sydney Street operations into the new building sited on Lambton Quay at the Crown's expense. Once the electrical installation was finished, the new substation could finally be commissioned. The old substation would then be decommissioned and the site would pass to the Crown, and the Lambton Quay land would be vested in the Council.
Problems with equipment in the existing substation and the need to source replacements meant the Municipal Electricity Department could not vacate the old substation until mid-1990. Further hold ups were caused by a 1989 Government proposal to close Sydney Street, which affected the cost of relaying pilot cables connected to the old substation.
By August 1991 the Municipal Electricity Department reported all that was required to decommission the old power station and transfer the property to the Crown was for the power cables to be laid at an estimated cost to be $103,800 plus GST. They did however require assurance that funds were available before the work was commenced.
It was not until December 1991 that the cable laying issue was resolved (the road closure did not go ahead) and the Municipal Electricity Department got authority and funding to relay the cable. By this time the new substation building was operational.
Although by early 1992 the old Sydney Street substation had been decommissioned, the new substation was operational, and the sites were ready for a formal change of ownership, the process was still not formalised. As the City Solicitor wrote to the Capital Power Planning Engineer in February 1992, '[the] various government agencies involved in the settlement of land issues between Council and Crown have been extremely slow to accept responsibility for the resolution of these issues and act accordingly. Do not worry that presence not legally formalised, there will be no impediment to such formalisation other than the Government's inertia'.
In 1994 a Certificate of Title was issued under Vector Limited, a successor to United Networks, who can be traced back to Capital Power. The final land exchange, between Vector Limited (United Networks) and Land Information New Zealand, has not yet taken place.
The building is two storeys high, with a flat roof that is surrounded by a wrought iron balustrade. The ground floor is no longer used as a substation and is currently empty, the equipment having been transferred to a new substation building. The first floor consists of a single apartment. On the left side of the ground floor there is a corridor running to the rear of the building. There were originally two doors off this corridor, one leading to stairs up to the apartment, and the other to the transformer room at the rear of the building, which is now blocked up. There is a wrought iron fire escape at the rear of the building.
The building originally had two single garages, however at some time both garage doors were been removed. One has been completely blocked off and a double door has replaced the other one. Both now also have windows made of glass blocks.
A combination of architectural styles were employed in the design of this building. The concrete entablature above the lower left-hand entry door and concrete pilasters of the upper level oriole bay window on the right hand side show a classical influence. However, the overall treatment of the upper level bay windows is more reminiscent of the Jacobean, and Arts and Crafts style; styles characterised by the use of small glass panes, decorative latticework and wooden windows and shingles.
The east and west facades, however, lack ornamentation, with the exception of the leadlight window to the first floor hallway on the west facade.
The building's exterior is in a dilapidated state. Cracks appear in the facades and in the floor, walls are covered in graffiti, and several windows and doors are boarded up to protect the building against break-ins. A hole has been cut into the eastern ground floor wall next to the corridor to allow the removal of the transformers, and the wooden shingles on the front facade are partly missing.
The apartment interior is largely unchanged. It was, however, renovated in the 1940s, when the kitchen layout was changed, and the doorway plastered. One wall upstairs was removed between the two front rooms in the mid-1970s when the current tenants first moved in.
The use of spaces within the building changed from the mid-1970s. The washhouse was used as a dark room, and the front bedroom was for a long time used for 16mm film and video editing (the equipment for this is still in the room, however is no longer used). The original living room is now used as office space.
One of the main features of the interior is the extensive use of timber. Jarrah is used for the main staircase, which makes for a very impressive entrance. Rimu is used for wall panelling throughout, and below the bay windows, though it is now painted white.
One very noticeable feature in the lounge area is a beautifully tiled fireplace with a timber surround, which creates an atmosphere of warmth and cosiness.
Attention to detail is also apparent in the treatment of the bathroom, characterised by beautiful wall and floor tiling.
Another significant feature of the interior is a beautiful lead window in the stairwell, and stained glass in the oriole window in the lounge, which add to the uniqueness of the substation.
In the walls of the hallway are heater vents, which were used to transfer excess hot air generated downstairs, to the upstairs flat.
Overall the interior is in a much better condition than the exterior, apart from paint peeling off walls, boarded up doors and windows, and broken windows here and there. Though the wall panelling has been painted white and minor alteration work has been done in the past, one can imagine how beautiful the original apartment would have looked and that it would have been an experience to live there.
Though the substation building is in dire need of repair, its poor appearance does not diminish its architectural significance. The curious combination of different styles gives the front facade a unique appearance. Great care was taken in its composition. The bay and oriole windows provide a sense of balance. Attention to detail and contrasting construction materials, both inside and outside, add to its uniqueness.
The detailing is also unusual given the building's proposed use. Most substation buildings tend to be utilitarian and featured few interesting design elements. This building clearly stands out. The dual purpose of substation and rental accommodation is also uncommon, possibly reflecting the housing shortage at the time of construction.
Registration includes the building and its fittings and fixtures, and Part Lot 1 Application Plan 488 as shown in Certificate of Title WN43C/734.
The building is constructed of reinforced concrete and has concrete foundations. The exterior walls are rendered in plaster. Concrete blocks are used for the ground floor walls. The roof has an asphalt cladding. Totara was used for all external joinery, and rimu and jarrah was used for the internal work.
27th January 2005
Report Written By
Adrian Humphris and Inka Gliesche, with NZHPT
J. Martin, People, politics and power stations: electric power generation in New Zealand 1880-1998, Wellington, 1998
N. Rennie, Power to the People; 100 Years of Public Electricity Supply in New Zealand, Wellington, 1989
The original, fully referenced version of this report is available from the Central Region of the NZHPT.
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.