Empire Hotel

396 Princes Street, Dunedin

  • Empire Hotel. August 2010.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Owen Graham.
  • Empire Hotel. Building detail. September 2011.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Owen Graham.
  • Empire Hotel. Building detail. September 2011.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Owen Graham.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 9548 Date Entered 19th April 2012

Locationopen/close

Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Pt Sec 11 Blk VI Town of Dunedin (CT OT3A/1094) Otago Land District and the building known as the Empire Hotel thereon, and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Dunedin City

Region

Otago Region

Legal description

Pt Sec 11 Blk VI Town of Dunedin (CT OT3A/1094), Otago Land District

Location description

Located on the north side of Princes Street, south of the Octagon in central Dunedin.

Summaryopen/close

From gold miners trading hope over an empty glass to another band of hopefuls belting out their new tune to a sea of faces, the Empire Hotel has played a special role in the culture of Dunedin since the mid nineteenth century. The Empire Hotel has provided accommodation, victuals and a gathering place for those passing through the town, until it became a tavern in the 1970s. In the 1980s the Empire became famous as a venue which gave local bands a place to strum and jangle their creative energies, a collective voice which became internationally recognised as the ‘Dunedin Sound.’

The Queen’s Arms was the first hotel on this Princes Street site and was built on the west side of Princes Street in 1858. It sits on the main thoroughfare, located south of The Exchange in what was the commercial heart of Dunedin during the nineteenth century as it was next to the coastline and located close to the port. Businesses and hotels sprung up to serve tired and thirsty travellers and the Queen’s Arms was among the earliest. Replaced by a brick building designed by architect Thomas Bedford Cameron in 1879 and renamed the Empire Hotel around 1898, the Hotel has been a social centre and gathering place since that time.

In the 1980s the Empire Hotel took on a new role when owner John Simpson provided a venue for local bands playing original music. The upstairs bar became the centre of the developing Dunedin Sound, with exponents such as The Verlaines, The Clean, The Chills, Sneaky Feelings, The Bats and the like performing their lollipop melodies or droning dirges that would become internationally recognised as the Dunedin Sound and which remains a special part of Dunedin and New Zealand identity. While the venue became less important after the Simpson’s sold the Empire at the close of the 1980s, the Empire is still revered as the home of the Dunedin Sound.

The Empire Hotel is one of many Victorian and Edwardian buildings remaining on Princes Street south of the Octagon, creating a cohesive townscape. Like its neighbours, the Empire Hotel fronts directly to the footpath on Princes Street. It is a three-storey brick building (with a basement) with the street front plastered. It has a parapet at roof level which conceals the structure of the corrugated iron roof behind. A steel fire escape is fixed to the front façade, providing egress from the upper storeys, with the stairs reaching diagonally between the first and second floors. The façade is painted to pick out the modelling and detailing of the building.

The ground floor has two round-headed entrance doors, one to the ground floor bar, and the other to the upper floors. Between the doors are two round-headed sash windows set back in the façade. Vermiculated keystones are the main form of detail. There are short cast iron window grills on the window ledges. The first floor has four round-headed sash windows with a vermiculated keystone at the head of the arch. Plain pilasters articulate the space between the window openings. The top floor has smaller window openings (the windows are shorter) with the same keystone detailing as on the other two floors. In addition, the pilasters have Corinthian capitals with foliage and scroll decoration.

The Empire Hotel has a special association with the development of the Dunedin Sound. Graeme Downes writes that the Empire was an incredibly important part in both Dunedin’s history and New Zealand history more widely: ‘It is to this city what the Cavern Club is to Liverpool in terms of what it helped spawn, even if compared to the Beatles neither the bands who played in it, or the venue itself, is a household name…it cannot be underestimated the role the Empire played in nurturing a local music scene that is acknowledged within alternative music circles around the world.’

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Empire Hotel dates from the period of consolidation of Dunedin following the heady ramshackle construction of the gold rushes of the 1860s. The 1870s saw buildings of more permanent materials built representing the more solid wealth on which Dunedin of the nineteenth century was built. The Queen’s Arms later renamed the Empire Hotel is among Dunedin’s pioneering hotels (dating from before the gold rushes) and recalls the importance of accommodation in the young settlement and in the later nineteenth century. The Empire Hotel’s later history illustrates the move away from the provision of accommodation, to a focus on hospitality. This change is epitomised by the Empire Hotel’s central role as the home to the Dunedin Sound in the 1980s, a musical movement recognised as internationally significant.

Architectural Significance or Value

The Empire Hotel is a representative example of a nineteenth century hotel building. Stylistically the Empire Hotel is an example of what art historian Peter Entwisle describes as classical revival commercial architecture, with a bold ornamented street front. Such styles on the streetscape represented self-confidence and prosperity of Dunedin’s nineteenth century economy, built as it was on gold. The form of the building reflects the history of licensing law, with the initial provision of accommodation (with its own entrance) a reflection of legal requirements. The Hotel is one of a number of Victorian and Edwardian buildings on Princes Street the architecture of which reflect the importance of the area in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Cultural Significance or Value

The Empire hosted bands such as The Bats, The Chills and The Verlaines, and they, along with others became key notes in the nationally and internationally recognised. Dunedin Sound. The Empire Hotel as one of the most important performance venues for the internationally-recognised Dunedin Sound in the early 1980s and as such has special cultural importance. As a venue it reflected and helped create the musical character of the Dunedin Sound. Musician and academic Graeme Downes writes that the music reflects the form and character of the venue and is in turn shaped by it, and is a special part of the distinct musical culture that grew out of Dunedin from the late 1970s and through the 1980s.

Social Significance or Value

Since its beginnings as the Queen’s Arms on this site in the 1860s and reconstruction as the Empire Hotel in the later nineteenth century people gathered, socialised and been entertained. The Empire Hotel continues to be a meeting place in 2011, carrying on that long tradition.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The Empire Hotel reflects both important and representative aspects of New Zealand’s history. The Hotel’s history in the nineteenth century reflects the importance of the provision of accommodation with the rapidly establishing and also transient settlement of Dunedin from the gold rush period and throughout the nineteenth century. Hotels provided a community meeting place as well as accommodation during this period. The Empire Hotel was located close to the commercial heart of Dunedin. Its subsequent history of the Princes Street area reflects the changing fortunes of Dunedin and its economic retraction of the twentieth century.

Despite the decline in fortunes the Empire Hotel had a rebirth of significance during the 1980s where it has a special place in the development of the Dunedin Sound, a seminal period in the musical history of New Zealand and one that has been recognised internationally.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

The Empire Hotel has a special association with the development of the Dunedin Sound. One commentator writes that the Empire was an incredibly important part of New Zealand’s history as well as Dunedin’s. It is to this city what the Cavern Club is to Liverpool in terms of what it helped spawn even if compared to the Beatles neither the bands who played in it or the venue itself is a household name…it cannot be underestimated the role the Empire played in nurturing a local music scene that is acknowledged within alternative music circles around the world.’

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

The Empire Hotel remains in the annals of New Zealand popular music history a significant venue, with its role commemorated over the years by anniversary events and concerts. The importance of the Empire has been recognised in a number of publications on the history of the Dunedin Sound.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape

The Empire Hotel is part of the South Princes Street Townscape Precinct identified by the Dunedin City Council. This Precinct recognises the surviving Victorian and Edwardian buildings that contribute to the character of the area south of the Octagon which was the commercial centre of Dunedin during the nineteenth century. The prosperity of the gold rushes was reflected in the architecture. There is cohesiveness to the streetscape, with the groupings of architectural merit.

Conclusion

It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

From gold miners trading hope over an empty glass to another band of hopefuls belting out their new tune to a sea of faces, the Empire Hotel has played a special role in the culture of Dunedin since the mid nineteenth century. The Empire Hotel has provided accommodation, victuals and a gathering place for those passing through the town, until it became a tavern in the 1970s. In the 1980s the Empire became famous as a venue which gave local bands a place to strum and jangle their creative energies, a collective voice which became internationally recognised as the ‘Dunedin Sound.’

The Empire Hotel has a special association with the development of the Dunedin Sound. One commentator writes that the Empire was an incredibly important part of New Zealand’s history as well as Dunedin’s. It is to this city what the Cavern Club is to Liverpool in terms of what it helped spawn even if compared to the Beatles neither the bands who played in it or the venue itself is a household name…it cannot be underestimated the role the Empire played in nurturing a local music scene that is acknowledged within alternative music circles around the world.

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Construction Professionalsopen/close

Salmond, James Louis

James Louis Salmond (1868-1950) was born in North Shields, England. He was educated at Otago Boys' High School and began his career articled to Robert Arthur Lawson (1833-1902). Salmond initially practised on his own account but later rejoined Lawson in partnership. Salmond took over the practice when Lawson died in 1902.

Salmond was the architect of over 20 churches in Otago including the Presbyterian churches at Roslyn, Kaikorai, North Dunedin and the Wesleyan church at Mornington. He designed many private residences including Watson Shennan's house at 367 High Street, as well as those at 114 Cargill Street and 14 Pitt Street, all in Dunedin.

Salmond was president of the Otago Art Society, and also served a term as president of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

His son Arthur joined the firm having studied in London and his grandson John continues to work in the firm today. It is now known as Salmond Anderson Architects.

Cameron, Thomas Bedford

Thomas Bedford Cameron advertised himself as both an architect and engineer. It is possible he worked in Australia before coming to New Zealand; there is a synagogue in Ballarat in Victoria that was designed by a T.B. Cameron. He practiced in Auckland in the 1860s where he designed both residential and commercial buildings, and also may have worked more widely in the North Island – his name appears on a tender for the erection of a Presbyterian Church and manse at Wanganui in 1867, but by the late 1870s had shifted to Dunedin with offices on Moray Place. Cameron struggled and in November 1879 filed for insolvency (debts £606 assets £20) was subject to a bankruptcy hearing. He continued to practice in Dunedin with offices in the Commercial Chambers on Manse Street in 1886. He was responsible for the design of the Queen’s Arms Hotel (1879) and Caversham Presbyterian Church (1883) and his design for the Municipal Chambers (1877) was chosen as the preferred design, but Robert Arthur Lawson, who was appointed supervising architect, insisted that his own design be used. (NZHPT Registration Report, 'Empire Hotel, Dunedin', 29 November 2011).

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Somewhere to Stay

The new settlement of Dunedin which developed at the head of the Otago Harbour in the late 1840s grew up around Princes Street, centred on the wharf. The first landowners on Princes Street were prominent citizens. In the block between Walker (now Carroll) and Stafford Streets, were the premises of Cargill and Co. on the site of Cargill’s first home, and the Otago Daily Times and Witness Co.’s premises. These sections were among the first 50 selected for settlement in Dunedin, and small businesses sprung up along the block, including on Section 11 the Queens Arms, Briscoe and Co and a drapery.

Accommodation was all important given the tendency toward inclement weather that gave the new settlement the nickname of ‘Mudedin.’ The foreshore ran along the front of Princes Street, so this was where merchants and hotel keepers shouldered each other for business, albeit on a small scale. Ngai Tahu’s main settlement was at Otakou, with its milder climate and access to mahinga kai. The land at the head of the harbour had been included in the purchase of the Otago Block in 1844, a purchase leading to much grievance and a long litigation against the actions of the Crown by Ngai Tahu. But the new settlement gave Ngai Tahu a reason to come into the settlement, the colonists being dependent on the iwi for fresh produce, particularly fish.

Though there had been iwi settlements at the head of the harbour, by the nineteenth century Otepoti (the area around Toitu Stream which entered the harbour at modern day Water Street at the head of the harbour) was still used for food gathering and as a waka landing place, but was not permanently settled. Toitu estuary, an area associated with tauraka waka, ara tawhito (linking the harbour with Owhiro on the Taieri Plain) and nohoaka. With the arrival of Europeans it was the centre for Ngai Tahu’s ‘briskest trade.’ Ngai Tahu were keen to have some land granted at Dunedin for a town base. Commissioner of Crown Lands Walter Mantell recommended a site on Princes Street (which was not where Ngai Tahu had wanted the reserve to be) and this was approved by the Governor, but he neglected to tell Ngai Tahu.

Somewhere to stay was important to the colonists too. Hotels were among the earliest structures built in the Dunedin, and many were centred on the Princes Street area. Hotel historian Frank Tod identifies the Queen’s Arms as one of Dunedin’s pioneer hotels, meaning those that opened before 1860. The others were the Commercial Inn (Dunedin’s first Hotel which opened in 1848 close to the High Street/Princes Street corner); the Royal Hotel (opened 1849 on the corner of Princes and Lower Rattray Streets); the Settler’s Hotel (which opened in 1852 probably on McClaggan Street but shifted to Stafford Street in 1856); and the Provincial Hotel (opening on Stafford Street as Sibbald’s Hotel in 1859 and changing to the Provincial Hotel in 1860). Both the Provincial Hotel and Empire Hotel (on the site of the Queen’s Arms) still operate. These businesses were centred around the jetty, the position of which is marked by Jetty Street.

In 1855 Ngai Tahu were still trying to sort out somewhere to stay in Dunedin. The Otago Provincial Council was considering erecting a Maori hostelry on Princes Street ‘for the comfortable lodging of the natives in their visits to Dunedin.’ The Council then decided that a better proposal would be to renovate the survey office near Toitu estuary, ‘the site being the one of all others most acceptable to the Natives’. In 1857 The Otago Colonist reported a number of Maori women ‘huddled together cold and shivering upon the open beach, with the thermometer below freezing point, exposed to the rain and snow’, the paper indicating that this was not an uncommon sight. The Otago Colonist went on to report the European nuisance posed by drunken hotel patrons, Maori wanted a house ‘as much for the purpose of keeping out Europeans. We are almost ashamed to repeat [the chief’s] complaint that they are frequently forcibly roused up at midnight by vagabonds who are a disgrace to the community, and by them plied with intoxicating drink for the most debasing and foul purposes.’

Hotels were not places Maori necessarily frequented, and they were not permitted to buy alcohol to consume off the premises. The Sale of Spirits to Natives Ordinance (1847) was the beginning of special restrictions on drinking by Maori, which lasted over a century. The ordinance forbade sale of liquor to Maori in any specially proclaimed areas and almost immediately declared the whole country to be such an area, though the law was ‘frequently and flagrantly broken.’ Not until the 1940s was the differential treatment of Maori by liquor laws repealed.

The issue of the reserve continued to be debated, the original Native Reserve as drawn by Mantell, located on Princes Street, opposite the site of the Queen’s Arms. After a land swap with the central government, work on a hostelry began, with complications meaning that it was constructed by central government on land vested in the provincial government, and consequently had no security of tenure. Ngai Tahu were forced to litigate the issue.

Visitors needed somewhere to stay in town and hotels and public houses became important meeting places, and were social centres. Geographer and historian Ray Hargreaves writes that hotels were used as meeting places for groups such as lodges, sporting and cultural groups, and also for coroner’s inquests. Diane Kirkby in her history of the work of barmaids in Australian pubs shows the importance of hotels and taverns in the colonial setting. Hotels were usually among the first buildings constructed in a new settlement, often predating public buildings and churches, and had a ‘central place in the process of colonisation.’ They provided accommodation, refreshments and a centre of social contact for travellers and settlers alike. Pubs were usually small family-operated businesses. Kirkby wrote that the Australian pub combined the functions of tavern, alehouse and inn into a single institution.

The Queen’s Arms

The first hotel on the site of what was later to be known as the Empire Hotel was J.W. Feger’s Queen’s Arms Coffee and Dining Rooms which opened in 1858. Feger advertised the Hotel as ‘Two Minutes Walk from the Jetty, the Theatre, and all Public Buildings.’ In this early period of settlement such venues were used for many purposes including religious services, concerts and as a centre for job seekers. Historian Frank Tod writes that the second Catholic Mass was celebrated in a skittle alley at the Queen’s Arms. Feger engaged one Mr Baker to give free entertainment on Monday and Saturday evenings, an early contributor to the cultural life of the developing settlement. Feger himself set up an employment agency, starting a register of those seeking work.

The goldrushes of the early 1860s changed the urban landscape of Dunedin. Ray Hargreaves writes that this was a period of ‘crowded hotels and boarding houses, foul streets, thronged with eager, unwashed multitudes’, and that resident hotels played ‘an important part and licensed premises were a major feature of the Dunedin townscape.’ At the end of 1860 there were some five hotels in Dunedin but by 1864 their number reached a peak of 87 hotels in 1864 (from 1 hotel for 488 people, to 1 hotel for every 174). Many were clustered in the area south of the Octagon, the busiest area of the town in the nineteenth century. A local commentator observed: ‘If anywhere drinking has assumed the characteristics of a national idolatry it is surely here. At nearly every corner shrines are raised to the worship of Bacchus, while almost every week sees new temples reared. The votaries of the jolly god may be numbered by the thousand….’

The quality of hotel buildings varied greatly. The gold rushes saw the rapid construction of small, jerry-built wooden structures, accommodation (if there was any, focus tended to be on selling liquor) was of low standard and cramped. People needed somewhere to stay; an incoming ship could see 200 people land and seek lodgings. Sometimes all that was available was somewhere to lie (a ‘shake-down’), with not even a blanket. By the mid 1860s some facilities had improved, with family suites and single bedrooms. Historian and geographer Ray Hargreaves writes that restrictions were imposed by various licensing ordinances, but it was not until the 1864 Licensing Ordinance that hotels were required to have at least two bedrooms for the accommodation of guests and to provide decent toilet facilities on or near the premises.

A New Building

Part of the consolidation of settlement in Dunedin saw the early timber structures replaced by buildings constructed of permanent materials such as brick or stone. In 1879 the Queen’s Arms was rebuilt in brick. The architect was Thomas Bedford Cameron. Cameron advertised himself as both an architect and engineer. It is possible he worked in Australia before coming to New Zealand; there is a synagogue in Ballarat in Victoria that was designed by a T.B. Cameron. He practiced in Auckland in the 1860s where he designed both residential and commercial buildings, and also may have worked more widely in the North Island – his name appears on a tender for the erection of a Presbyterian Church and manse at Wanganui in 1867, but by the late 1870s had shifted to Dunedin with offices on Moray Place. Cameron struggled and in November 1879 filed for insolvency (debts £606 assets £20) was subject to a bankruptcy hearing. He continued to practice in Dunedin with offices in the Commercial Chambers on Manse Street in 1886. He was responsible for the design of the Caversham Presbyterian Church (1883) and his design for the Municipal Chambers (1877) was chosen as the preferred design, but Robert Arthur Lawson, who was appointed supervising architect, insisted that his own design be used.

The licensees of the Queen’s Arms changed regularly through the nineteenth century. The longest serving licensees at that time were Thomas Hancock (1866-1878) and Alfred Gainsford (1882-1886). All others held the licenses for only a couple of years. The Queen’s Arms was identified by police in the Otago Daily Times in 1889 as a house ‘frequented by prostitutes’ (along with the Provincial, Red Lion, Otago, Wains and the London Hotels) and a risk to respectable people. In 1891 the Queen’s Arms was renamed the Union Hotel. The first two licensees were women, Elizabeth Colville (1891) and Johanna McLean (1892).

The streets south of the Octagon gave bar patrons a wide variety of choice. Prominent social campaigner Reverend Rutherford Waddell wrote that there were many ‘singular things’ about Dunedin ‘but I venture to say that the most singular of all is the extraordinary number of its hotels.’ Princes Street South, he said, had ten hotels between Brown, Ewing and Co.’s corner and the Kerosene Bond, ‘nearly every one of which is of very large dimensions, two or three having been lately rebuilt and extended.’ In addition there were three grocers who held bottle licenses, and two more hotels seeking licenses. Rev. Waddell and his church were located in the heart of this area and he was a campaigner for ameliorating the wretchedness of the ‘Devil’s Quarter Acre’, as the Walker Street (now Carroll Street) area was known. He hoped the Licensing Bench would ‘aid us in our efforts, and will steadfastly refuse to grant any increase to the drinking facilities that already are too fatally numerous in this district and this town.’

‘Citizen’ wrote to the Otago Daily Times in April 1891: ‘Up to the corner of Hope street there are four hotels; one is enough; three licenses could be cancelled. Then from Hope street to Jetty street, keeping along Princes street, there are six hotels; two would be enough. Then from Jetty street to Rattray street there are only two, these could remain. From Rattray street to Octagon there are five, two would be enough.’ Citizen also wanted ten o’clock licenses, no Sunday trading, no gambling and liquors tested at least once a quarter. The area immediately behind Princes Street South was also notorious – six hotels near Rattray Street, Walker Street and Stafford Street also had licensed premises.

A New Name: The Empire Hotel

Proprietor Daniel Galvin renamed the business the Empire Hotel in 1900. Galvin, who took over from John Loughlin, ran the hotel from 1898 until 1918. Galvin advertised ‘Hot, Cold and Shower Baths. The Very Best Brands of Wines, Ales and Spirits kept in Stock.’ Galvin’s application for a publican’s license in 1899 described the Empire Hotel as ‘containing thirteen rooms, exclusive of those required for the use of the family.’ Galvin made additions and alterations: a 1905 blueprint from architect J.L. Salmond shows the interior layout at that time – a bar and bar parlour on the ground floor; kitchen, dining room, sitting room and bedrooms on the first floor; and bedrooms (for manager/family and guests) on the top floor.

Licensing laws affected the form of hotel buildings. Hotels were required, rather obviously, to provide accommodation for travellers, therefore the upper storeys often provided guest rooms and accommodation for the manager and his/her family. Conrad Bollinger writes in his history of liquor laws about the difference between public and ‘private’ bars. By law a licensee could have only one public bar (that is, one that could be accessed by members of the public as opposed to lodgers at the hotel). The public bar had to have a separate entrance to that used by hotel guests, leading to a particular layout in hotels. Private bars did not have access from the street.

Several operators in the twentieth century have been prominent in the Dunedin hotel trade. According to Frank Tod Thomas Cuthbert who ran the Empire from 1939 to 1942 spent over thirty years in the trade, after he left the Empire he ran the Captain Cook and the Victoria.

A New Sound

Outram farmer John Simpson bought the Empire in 1973 and undertook alterations. Tod writes that parts of the Cargill’s Castle building and many of its interior fixtures and fittings were incorporated into the ‘new look’ Empire, as the Simpsons owned Cargill’s Castle as well. The Empire was converted to a tavern. Some of the bedrooms were converted to a band bar. Furnishing from the old State Coal Company and His Majesty’s Theatre (now Sammy’s nightclub) were added to the upper bars.

With the new look came a new sound. In the 1980s Dunedin bands were divided between covers bands and original bands, and, with the odd exception, ‘ne’er the twain shall meet’, as Matthew Bannister of Sneaky Feelings wrote. Dunedin band venues ranged from the campus oriented Captain Cook Tavern (with its free matinee performances on Saturday afternoons) and the Oriental, to community halls such as the Coronation Hall in Mornington. The Empire was to play a central role in the development of what has become known as the ‘Dunedin Sound’. John Dix, in his history of New Zealand rock and roll describes the Empire as the ‘regular ‘alternative’ venue, due to the efforts of promoter Michael Overton.

Roger Shepherd’s independent record label then Christchurch-based, Flying Nun, was an essential in popularising the music being made in Dunedin (Double Happys, The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, The Bats and the like), despite the refusal of commercial radio to play the artists’ music. The bands were supported by exposure in other media – student radio, press coverage in music magazine Rip it Up, and through television shows such as ‘Radio with Pictures’, and most importantly, live gigs at venues such as the Empire.

Dunedin-based self-proclaimed ‘rock and roll culture vulture’ writer and critic David Eggleton writes in his history of New Zealand rock music that the Empire Hotel was ‘a small venue whose regular hosting of bands in the 1980s made it a Flying Nun shrine of sorts.’ The Bats, for example, debuted at the Empire on New Year’s Eve 1982. Not that this was necessarily comfortable thing: cramped, crowded, rowdy.

On the occasion of the Empire’s anniversary weekend, many of the bands who made their start there gathered together to play (the Chills, the Verlaines, the Stones). Though glamorising the venue would be wrong. Matthew Bannister writes a dialogue between two members of Sneaky Feelings:

‘Martin: I hate playing the Empire

David: Why?

Martin: Too many bad memories.

David: Look, it’s a communal thing.

Martin: It’s just a crappy little hole.’

A wave of young bands bred and fed off each other, and became collectively labelled the ‘Dunedin sound.’ Though as Bannister writes, ‘comparisons are odious’, there was a certain commonality that ‘went beyond dressing badly and ignoring the audience’, that was the ‘tendency to sustain or repeat a note or notes, while changing the chords underneath’, a drone, a drone that gave continuity to the sound. Bannister writes that the drone was a way of ‘filling out the sound’, making it appear larger, emphasising individual elements, like the lyrics and the singer. Reverberation was also a notable commonality, creating a sense of distance rather than intimacy, one found more in attending gigs at wooden floored, high ceilinged church halls than small carpeted venues like the Empire.

There is debate about the Dunedin Sound. Chris Knox, Invercargill musician growing out of punk and into Dunedin and the world as a cartoonist and commentator along with his musical life, implies it is a manufactured creation, a ‘brain-dead ‘jangly-guitar-Dunedin-sound’, which belies the much more diverse reality of bands, particularly the Verlaines, with classically-trained Graeme Downes at the helm. Putting aside the stereotype, Knox describes the Dunedin Double EP released in 1982, featuring The Chills, Sneaky Feelings, The Stones and The Verlaines, as a seminal moment in New Zealand music.

Matthew Bannister writes that the ‘Dunedin Sound, or more broadly, the Flying Nun aesthetic, was constructed mainly outside of the musicians who were practising it.’ Bannister identifies record shop owner Roy Colbert, as one of the main propagators, a romantic construction: ‘records transported…by a band’s rattling Bedford, carried processionally through city streets by a procession of untrained hands to be deposited on a record shop counter with apologies for losing the invoice…’, a process that Bannister found ‘endlessly frustrating’ and that elevation to a ‘mythical status’ ludicrous. He also challenges Chris Knox’s view. In Bannister’s view Knox, with his torn honesty, his ambush on the ‘airbrushed perfection’ of pop, his outspoken pockmarked ragged rage, grew his own cult around ‘amateurism’, direct communication through raw performance. And it is the idea of garage bands and amateurism that has grown up around the ‘Dunedin Sound’ stereotype.

Bannister for one, did not agree with the amateur aesthetic. He saw Flying Nun’s scapegoat as ‘delicacy, sentimentality, beauty, love.’ He believed it was a ‘gender thing’ too. ‘Are you tough as nails, sharp as knives, rockingly authentic music for the lads, or soft, sentimental and wimpy pop music for girls?’ He writes that Sneaky Feelings did talk through and think about their music: ‘We were a bunch of wooses, wimps, tossers, MOR bourgeois-buggering, pop-picking schlock-sucking wet-as-wankers. We liked pop music, damn it. We were intellectuals. Nerds.’ The point was that there was a commonality of taste, but also that whatever the ‘musicians of the Dunedin Sound like, it didn’t necessarily agree with the myth of Dunedin Sound as gloomy/minimal/morbid or as a romanticised subculture of resistance against ‘straight society.’’ As Flying Nun became popular ‘there was increasing pressure to conform to the general media model of the Dunedin Sound (manufactured by record companies, critics and audiences rather than the musicians).

David Eggleton writes about the commonality of the bands on the Flying Nun label: ‘[f]rom guitar jangle to keyboard fuzztones, from lollipop melodies to sombre monochrome noise, musicians favoured musical principles that avoided what were considered ‘exotic’ elements, such as rhythm and blues, soul, funk and reggae, in favour of a folkish minimalism espoused by such musical models as the Velvet Underground.’

Whatever the music was or wasn’t, it was different from what had gone before and gave a sense of identity, a musical community. Of The Clean, Verlaines founder Graeme Downes describes both the risk and the sense of belonging ‘To the boguns who stalked the Coronation Hall, this music was probably alienating and insufferable…but as much as they could grievously assault us on the way home, they could not penetrate or do the music any violence. It was as if the music was saying ‘I am above your petty, violent world, I totally ignore you.’ It gave many of us the courage to stand our ground – the artfulness of its musical processes a triumph over the barbarity that lay in wait outside.’

Bands like Sneaky Feelings and the Verlaines shared the bill on Friday and Saturday nights. Matthew Bannister of the band Sneaky Feelings in his personal history of the Dunedin Sound writes that

‘the Empire was the first pub in Dunedin to welcome bands like us and the Verlaines, who played original material. The public bar downstairs was supposedly an underworld haunt, but it was the upstairs lounge bar where we played. This was a tiny dog’s leg-shaped room, with the bierkeller-style tables and benches in knotty pine, and a stage at the short end of the dog’s leg. They had a quite a nice beer called Bavarian on tap, which I never saw anywhere else. The proprietors, John and Maureen Simpson, were friendly and approachable – they even gave out free jugs to bands at the end of the night. Most pub managers were ogres, to whom bands were a necessary evil. If they could make money some other way, you were out the door. We never felt that kind of pressure at the Empire.’

Bannister writes that 1984 was the ‘commercial and artistic peak of Flying Nun’s first wave in New Zealand’ – with a number of notable singles, including ‘Pink Frost (the Chills), ‘Send You’ (Sneaky Feelings), ‘By Night (the Bats) among others. Add anything by the Verlaines to that list.

Dunedin born writer Duncan Sarkies, an underage schoolboy in the early 1980s, wrote of the Dunedin sound (witnessed sneaking into pubs) was ‘not so much a sound, as a do-it-yourself experience.’ He continues ‘[a]nyone could make music. The urban legend was that everyone in Dunedin was in a band, and this was a myth Dunedinites were happy to purport whenever they left the borders of Otago. Well, there were a lot of bands in Dunedin, and a lot of people subsequently came to Dunedin because they saw it as the source of a new musical movement, the geographical heart and soul – the Bethlehem, if we really want to get lofty with our metaphors….Of course it would never last. Once word got out, a town that was a bad place to be ambitious, with all the benefits of cultural isolation, inevitably lost some of its shine.’

Verlaines frontman, musician, composer, cultural commentator and academic Graeme Downes writes that the Empire ‘is an incredibly important part of New Zealand’s history as well as Dunedin’s. It is to this city what the Cavern Club is to Liverpool in terms of what it helped spawn even if compared to the Beatles neither the bands who played in it or the venue itself is a household name…it cannot be underestimated the role the Empire played in nurturing a local music scene that is acknowledged within alternative music circles around the world.’ Playing there in front of a ‘sea of faces…so packed that that was all you were aware of. The air was acrid with the smell of beer and cigarette smoke.’ No stage. In front of a ‘forest of people (most of whom couldn’t see the band either’, but a little bit more user friendly once a stage was put in - the ‘perfect venue for the music that was composed for it’, the place where that music sounds great’, the architecture of the place providing the form for the music, the music evolving with the space. The Empire had an ‘incredible vibe. No real barrier between audience and performers.’ The other venue to support the Dunedin Sound was Sammy’s (the former His Majesty’s Theatre) though Sammy’s was larger and had a different vibe.

The Empire Hotel’s status as a centre of the Dunedin Sound ended with the Simpson’s sale of the hotel. The Verlaines played at the farewell gig. John Simpson sold the building in February 1990. The Simpsons’ seventeen year history with the Empire was a crucial moment in Dunedin’s music history.

Since that time the Hotel has had various incarnations, with guests and licensees often recalling the importance of the hotel for the Dunedin Sound. In 1999 owner Lindsay McKinney, a former manager of the Gluepot in Auckland, was keen on keeping the link with Dunedin’s musical talent.

In 2011 the Empire Hotel is still open for entertainment and a drink. It has three bars plus a three bedroom manager’s flat. The ground floor bar is themed as an Irish bar, a second bar, upstairs, has a blue’s bar theme. The third bar (also upstairs) is the ‘Legendary Dunedin Sound’ bar, which is advertised as being seen in band videos and in the movie Scarfies.

Physical Description

Setting

Charles Kettle’s 1846 survey plan of Dunedin established Princes and George Streets as the city’s main thoroughfare, with the route determined by the narrow strip of low land between the base of City Rise and the mudflats of the head of the Otago Harbour. By the mid-1860s Princes Street was developed and was the nucleus of commercial activity. Princes Street is, therefore, as the Dunedin City Council’s South Princes Street Townscape Precinct Design Guidelines states ‘one of the sites of the oldest developments in Dunedin’s European history.’ The prosperity of the gold rushes was reflected in the architecture. By the mid-1860s the south end of Princes Street had developed with many more modest smaller scaled buildings.

Retailing gradually moved northwards along George Street and, with the ‘through routing’ of public transport, Princes Street with its more exposed and wider carriageway slowly lost its pedestrian traffic. The area has become a focal point for antique dealers, second hand shops and auction rooms, though many buildings are empty and in poor condition.

Many Victorian and Edwardian buildings remain, though some are much altered from their original form and have had their ornamentation removed. The detail that remains includes classical features, more specifically classical revival recalling the Italian Renaissance, such as dentils, cornices and window treatment. The buildings are typically two to three storeys and incorporate narrow shop-frontages built of brick with plastered facades. There is cohesiveness to the streetscape, with the groupings of architectural merit.

Exterior

Stylistically the Empire Hotel is an example of what art historian Peter Entwisle describes as classical revival commercial architecture, with a bold ornamented street front. When it was built it had faux quoining around arched windows and finials at parapet level. Such styles on the streetscape represented self-confidence and prosperity of Dunedin’s nineteenth century economy, built as it was on gold.

Like its neighbours, the Empire Hotel fronts directly to the footpath on Princes Street, with the barrel drop in the footpath in front of the building. It is a three-storey brick building with the street front plastered. It has a parapet at roof level which conceals the structure of the corrugated iron roof behind. A steel fire escape is fixed to the front façade, providing egress from the upper storeys, with the stairs reaching diagonally between the first and second floors. The façade is painted to pick out the modelling and detailing of the building.

Aerial photographs indicate that the building may have been constructed (or altered) in three stages. The roof directly behind the parapet is hipped to the rear. Behind this section is a hipped roof. Behind this again is a roof section with a number of different sections. Various alterations and additions were made in the twentieth century, including altering the manager’s flat, the hotel and bathrooms and to the interior layout.

The ground floor has two round-headed entrance doors, one to the ground floor bar, and the other to the upper floors. Between the doors are two round-headed sash windows set back in the façade. Vermiculated keystones are the main form of detail on this floor. There are short cast iron window grills on the window ledges.

The first floor has four round-headed sash windows with a vermiculated keystone at the head of the arch. Plain pilasters articulate the space between the window openings.

The top floor has smaller window openings (the windows are shorter) with the same keystone detailing on the other two floors. In addition, the pilasters have Corinthian capitals with foliage and scroll decoration.

Interior

The interior was not inspected for this assessment. Historical images and plans of the interior were accessed during the research process, and current interior images were provided with the nomination form. These show the interior and the retention of key features such as the timber bar, and similar ceiling and wall treatments to those shown in images from the 1980s. The general layout is that the interior includes three bars and a three bedroom manager’s flat. There is one bar at ground level, and two on the first floor.

Construction Dates

Other
1858 -
Queen’s Arms (first hotel) opens on site

Original Construction
1879 -
Current building constructed.

Addition
1905 -
Addition to the rear and alterations (J.L. Salmond)

Modification
1957 -
Alterations to hotel and bathrooms

Modification
1973 -
Converted to a tavern. Alterations to the third floor

Construction Details

Port Chalmers breccia, Bluestone, brick, corrugated iron roof, timber joinery.

Public NZAA Number

I44/285

Completion Date

20th March 2012

Report Written By

Heather Bauchop

Information Sources

Hargreaves, 1992

Ray Hargreaves, Barmaids, Billiards, Nobblers and Rat-pits: Pub life in goldrush Dunedin 1861-1865, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1992.

Knight, 1988

Hardwicke Knight and Niel Wales, Buildings of Dunedin: An Illustrated Architectural Guide to New Zealand's Victorian City, John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1988

McDonald, 1965

K C McDonald, City of Dunedin: A Century of Civic Enterprise, Dunedin City Corporation, Dunedin, 1965

Bollinger, 1957

C Bollinger. Grog's Own Country, Auckland, 1957

Bannister, 1999

Matthew Bannister, Positively george street: a personal history of Sneaky Feelings and the Dunedin Sound, Reed Books, Auckland, 1999

Hayward, 1994

P Hayward, T Mitchell, and R Shuker, (eds) North Meets South: Popular Music in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Perfect Beat Publications, Umina, 1994

T Mitchell, 'Flying in the Face of Fashion - Independent Music in New Zealand'

Perfect Beat

Perfect Beat

C McLeay, 'The 'Dunedin Sound': New Zealand rock and cultural geography', v2 n1, July (1994)

Tod, 1984

Frank Tod, Pubs Galore: History of Dunedin Hotels 1848-1984, Historical Publications, Dunedin, 1984

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the Otago/Southland Office 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.