Historical Significance or Value
The Union Steam Ship Company Offices and Stores (Former) have outstanding historical significance because of their association with the USSCo and as its headquarters from the company’s founding until 1921. This internationally significant company grew out of gold rush Dunedin and represents the history and wealth of New Zealand’s most prosperous nineteenth century city. The history of the company is of small beginnings to international significance, played out from these offices overlooking Otago Harbour. As one of the country’s most significant companies, playing a key role in the lives of most New Zealanders, whether as a transport provider, freight company, or employer, the USSCo’s story is a key element in New Zealand’s social, maritime and economic history.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
The Union Steam Ship Company Offices and Stores (Former) have aesthetic significance, being a key visual element in the warehousing precinct. The building occupies a prominent corner position in this historic area of Dunedin. Although the building has been altered, and the stores are currently in poor condition, the building still has a strong presence and its proximity to the harbour is a strong visual reminder of the importance of the company.
Architectural Significance or Value
Designed by David Ross as the headquarters and stores for the pioneering Union Steamship Company, this building has architectural significance as an example of Ross’ work and as a key building in Dunedin’s warehouse precinct. Ross was a significant architect in Otago in the nineteenth century, designing a number of important and architecturally unique buildings, including the original Otago Museum. Modified from its original Italianate style to a more austere façade, but one which still retains decorative detail and signage reflecting its later association with the National Mortgage and Agency Company, the scale and location, purpose and design of the building give it continued significance. The office building in particular still retains a number of original interior features which speak its high status, such as the grand doors, Victorian tiling and panelling in the entrance.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The history of the Union Steam Ship Company represents the flourishing of Dunedin’s economy in the nineteenth century, making it New Zealand’s leading city. The USSCo Offices and Stores (Former) was a leader amongst the economic powerhouse generating wealth and facilitating growth as part of an international trade and passenger network.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The Union Steam Ship Company Offices and Stores are associated with James Mills who is of outstanding significance to New Zealand’s history. James Mill’s key role in developing the company into the southern hemisphere’s biggest shipping line, gives the place special significance. The building was the headquarters of an economic empire with tentacles all the way to London. The story of the company is of outstanding importance. The building is also associated with prominent Dunedin architect David Ross, one of Dunedin’s most important colonial architects, designing locally and nationally.
(g) The technical accomplishment, value, or design of the place
Architect David Ross’ Italianate building spoke of the status and significance of the USSCo and its aspirations – the historic photographs provide an interesting contrast between Ross’ ‘riot of minarets, ironwork and flagpoles, dominated by the observatory dome, from which company managers could watch ships come up the harbour.’ Although now stripped back to a more austere façade, its scale and size are a reminder of the significance of the USSCo. Its reincarnation as a state of the art office space, emphasising the construction details and scale of the building represent the innovative revitalisation of Dunedin’s warehouse precinct.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area
The Union Steam Ship Company Offices and Stores (Former) are a key element in Dunedin’s warehouse precinct. Along with other company head offices, grain, and wool stores, this townscape represents Dunedin’s prosperity in the years following the gold rushes. The ongoing revitalisation of this precinct has seen a resurgence of redevelopment and occupation of this architecturally significant area.
Summary of Significance or Values
The Union Steam Ship Company Offices and Stores (Former) represent the outstandingly significant role that this company played in New Zealand’s history as the southern hemisphere’s largest shipping line, recalling founder James Mill’s vision and drive. The company was a leader amongst the economic powerhouse generating wealth and facilitating growth as part of an international trade and passenger network, and this building served as its headquarters. The substantial building, modified to reflect its significant association with another major New Zealand company, the National Mortgage and Agency Company, occupies a prominent position in Dunedin’s warehousing precinct, giving it aesthetic and architectural and historic significance.
Dunedin’s Early History
Kāi Tahu used the head of the Ōtākou harbour as either the gateway to the route to Kaikarai (Green Island) or when off on other mahinga kai expeditions. The soft slope of the foreshore and the tidal flats in the upper harbour where the Toitū entered the sea was bisected by a prominent hill (called Bell Hill by colonists), the foot of which lay at the very edge of the high water mark. The upper Ōtākou harbour, known in Māori as Ōtepoti, was surrounded by heavy bush. It stretches from Taiaroa Head and Aramoana to the bush clad hills with the low lying shoreline. This is an area that has been occupied by Māori for over six hundred years. Kāti Mamoe-Kāi Tahu had several landing places in the Otago harbour at the time of colonial settlement of the Otago region.
European settlers saw potential in the upper harbour as well. Dunedin was an organised settlement established by the New Zealand Company in conjunction with the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland. The city, first settled in 1848 by the 97 passengers of the "John Wickliffe" was planned by the New Zealand Company surveyor, Charles Kettle. The numbers of settlers soon grew with the development of pastoralism and had reached 890 in 1857, and to 2,262 by 1859. This trickle became a flood with the discovery of gold at Gabriel's Gully in 1861. Ten thousand people lived in Dunedin by 1865. Gold brought wealth and expanded the commerce of the city. Dunedin was the major port of entry for people and supplies heading for the goldfields and flourished beyond all imagining.'
Wealth translated itself into the fabric of the city. The twenty years from the 1860s saw the erection of many significant buildings, such as the Customs House, the Stock Exchange, and the former Provincial Buildings. The Telegraph Office (1874), Wain's Hotel (1878), the University of Otago (1878) were built in the 1870s. The Grand Hotel and Otago Boy's High School followed in the 1880s. The city was home to many large businesses including Hallenstein Brothers, The Union Steam Ship Company, James Speight and Co., D.I.C. Drapers, and Kempthorne, Prosser and Co. Their headquarters graced the city's streets, while the grand residences of the owners lined the hills, overlooking the prosperity.
Most of the ‘boom-time development of the 1860s, 70s and 80s’ occurred in a nucleus around lower Rattray and Jetty Streets, the main point of arrival to the town. A series of reclamations led the development into what had been the harbour, historian Alexander Trapeznik writing that ‘more and more urban turf was poured over the top of harbour sea-bed’, providing valuable land on which to build. First Bond Street (immediately parallel to Princes Street) was reclaimed and became the hub of city businesses. The first sale of ninety-nine-year leases for land on the strip between Bond and Crawford Streets as far south as Jetty Street took place on 9 March 1864. The leases sold for £1 per foot of street frontage, and some fetched almost £6000.
Trapeznik points out that the physical development reflected commercial relationships – around this industrial and commercial development were built close corporate interrelationships. In this small area were companies with directors sitting on more than one board bringing a network of knowledge and relationships reflected in the built environment. The histories of the Union Steam Ship Company (USSCo) and the National Mortgage and Agency Company (NMA) show this relationship particularly clearly – it is concretised in the building that over time housed both companies. Trapeznik calls the closeness ‘startlingly obvious’ in relation to the NMA: ‘manager, John Macfarlane Ritchie, had board connections to the pioneering USSCo, National Insurance and the New Zealand and Australian Land Company. In an age before telecommunications, all he had to do was walk out of his office in Bond Street, and down to the corner of Water and Vogel Streets, a stone’s-throw away, to do business.’ It made good business sense to be close by: ‘there was no other way of discussing ideas and concepts freely except through face to face contact.’ Trapeznik writes that ‘[i]n this way, through this process of ‘nourishing and fostering’ each other, financial empires were built, worth a lot of money in their day.’
The Union Steam Ship Company
The history of the USSCo is interwoven with that of founder James Mills (later Sir James, 1847-1936). Born in Wellington and educated at the first Otago Provincial Government School, he began his employment with one of Dunedin’s founding fathers James Macandrew, but after a year joined famous whaler, ship owner and businessman Johnny Jones. It was through Jones that Mills became involved in steamers through his Harbour Steam Company. In 1868 Mills was responsible for running the steamers, and after Jones’ death the following year, Mills was appointed manager.
Mills had his own ambitions, planning to form the USSCo, issuing a prospectus in the early 1870s, but with insufficient capital he went to London and persuaded a syndicate to put up money to build two steamers. Out of this grew USSCo, with Mills as managing director. The first chair of directors was Sir George McLean. After McLean’s resignation in 1906, Mills held the dual roles of chair and managing director till 1913. He retired as managing director in 1913, but remained chair of the board until his death in 1936. By the end of the 1870s, the USSCo dominated the New Zealand coastal and trans-Tasman trades, and had expanded its operations to Vancouver, San Francisco, Pacific Island steamers and a service to Britain.
Innovative Dumbarton ship builder Peter Denny and his investors provided technology and capital. In Dunedin, members of prominent families such as the Cargills and the Ritchies were directors. McLean writes that this support allowed Mills to outpace his rivals and become the leading shipping company in the country, taking over nearly all rivals by 1900, and charting new courses in the trans-Tasman and Pacific trades.
The Company’s operation was central to the lives of most New Zealanders, as Gavin McLean writes ‘[i]t is no exaggeration to say that the company touched the lives of nearly every New Zealander’ in the period before commercial aviation, and was a major employer, the largest private employer in the country. The USSCo’s ships also ‘carved their names in blood, iron and steel along our coastlines…leaving their bones on the coast.’ Wrecks such as that of the SS Tararua off Waipapa Point in Southland, and of the SS Wairarapa off Great Barrier were tragedies of a national scale engraved in memory, and a sad chapter in the story of the USSCo, with a reputation for safety and certainty (even counting the tragedies mentioned above). Mill’s company was an ‘antipodean empire’, its detractors labelling it the ‘southern octopus’, the biggest shipping line south of the equator.
‘Peculiarly Distinctive’: Union Steam Ship Company Premises
In the mid to late nineteenth century, Dunedin was at the centre of New Zealand’s commercial life – the gold rushes of the 1860s had seen to that. As the port of entry for many of the hopeful seekers with a glint in their eyes, so the city developed a prosperous business class. The business class showed their taste, advancement and wealth through architecture – much of it centred on the newly reclaimed land to the south of what is now Queens Gardens. The USSCo’s aspirations were clear when they chose to build on the corner of Crawford, Water and Vogel Streets – presiding over the port across the road.
Prominent Dunedin architect David Ross designed the company’s ebullient office and stores. Ross advertised for tenders on 11 October 1882 for ‘large BRICK STORES and OFFICES, Water Street.’ Dunedin contractors Bateman and Stait submitted the lowest of the thirteen tenders.
The Otago Daily Times found the structure ‘imposing-looking from a distance’ and eye-catching, attracting people with its ‘peculiarities or distinctive features.’ The frontage to Water Street was 84 feet [25.6 metres], 49 feet [15 metres] on Vogel Street, and 95 feet [30 metres] to Cumberland Street. The building was divided into office and storage space. The store ‘is externally similar in style to the rest of the building, although the design is plainer and more significant of its purpose.’ The store was divided into four floors (compared with three floors for the offices) each measuring 46 feet by 27 feet [14 by 8 metres]. A lift was provided from the cellars to the topmost floor, with ‘every convenience for the reception and despatch of the various materials needed on board the Company’s steamers.’
The building was brick and cement, with the foundations and cellars constructed of concrete and the basement of Port Chalmers bluestone, carried to about 6 feet [1.8 metres] above the ground level.
The most imposing façade was the one to Water Street, a 54 feet [16.5 metres] elevation to the top of the parapet:
‘The peculiarly distinctive appearance noticeable about the building is in a great measure due to the observatory dome and minarets by which it is surmounted, and which form a pleasant relief to the sky-line. The dome is placed in the centre of the main front, directly above the entrance porch. A square iron railing at its summit forms both an ornament and a protection, and from it rises a flagstaff, from which the Company’s colours will of course fly. The minarets, 12 in number, are of much smaller size than the dome, and are distributed round the parapet at regular intervals. Each supports a miniature iron flagstaff and banneret, the latter perforated with the letters U.S.S.C. The whole of the workmanship displayed in the frontage is solid and good, besides being more elaborate of its kind than is often seen in buildings of this style. The bluestone at the base, for instance, is panelled and diamond-picked, and a similar degree of finish is noticeable in every respect. The entrance arch, which is very lofty, will be provided with iron gates – a decided convenience to passers-by who may wish to peer at the notices within after closing hours. The centre of the façade is surmounted by a pediment, with an emblematic design (globe, anchor, cable, &c.) enclosing a clock. The porch, which is paved with Milton tiles, measures 13 ft 6in by 10 ft [4 by 5.8 metres], and leads by four stone steps into the main hall. It will be separated from this be a screen of polished cedar and embossed plate-glass. The lower hall, which will be used as the shipping office, is of very large dimensions – 16 ft [4.9 metres] in height, the open space left for the convenience of the public alone measuring something like 30 ft by 22 ft [9 by 6.7 metres], the flooring of which will be laid down in parquetry work.’
A series of smaller rooms formed waiting rooms, reading rooms, captains’ smoking room, parcels room and private offices. The shipping department was past the offices with a space of 44 feet by 18 feet [13.4 by 5.5 metres]. The counters, desks and internal fittings were to be ‘polished cedar and walnut only’. The far side of the ground floor was occupied by the providore department (40 feet by 12 feet [12.2 by 3.6 metres]) with direct communication with the store. There was a strong room entirely built of concrete. The ceiling of the lower hall was ‘panelled and ornamented with a handsome cornice.’ Broad stairs lead in a single curve to the upper floor, to a landing measuring 32 feet by 17 feet [9.8 by 5.2 metres]. There was another waiting room at the head of the stairs. A large board room (18 feet by 16 feet [5.5 by 4.9 metres]) occupied one corner, with the managing director’s room, anteroom, correspondence department, and private offices all nearby. The other side of that floor was taken up by the bookkeeping department. The third floor was at that time vacant and planned to be used for storing linen and the like. From the third floor there was access to the observatory and through that to the main roof, or upwards to the summit of the dome.
The measurements given for the frontage to Cumberland Street – 95 feet [30 metres] – indicate that the description includes the main block on Water/Vogel/Cumberland street corner and the store immediately to the south (with the current street number of 135 Cumberland Street). Together these two blocks have a 30 metre frontage to Cumberland Street. The other store does not appear to be in this description. Photographs indicate that the store fronting both Vogel and Cumberland streets was built by 1900.
When it was completed in 1883, what was then the Union Steam Ship Company's head office was one of the city's finest buildings, if not its most flamboyant. Decorated richly in an Italian style, it was a testament to the wealth and prestige of a company built from practically nothing into the southern hemisphere's largest shipping line.
By the early twentieth century Mills was losing confidence in New Zealand. World War One unsettled many businesses and changed the economic picture. Mills pushed the sale of the USSCo to British shipping giant P & O, while retaining his chairmanship until his death in 1936. The Company’s headquarters shifted from Dunedin to Wellington in 1922. Clever economic management saw the Company in good condition in the 1930s and 1940s, but the nationalisation of aviation services would change its history forever, with the original company wound up and reformed with the same name, aviation services added to its articles, holding shares in a number of airlines. At the end of the 1960s the USSCo was at a turning point. The ships were obsolescent and the parent company, facing huge costs, decided to sell to a consortium of Australasian investors in 1971. The oil shocks of the 1970s further weakened the business, and it was sold again in the 1980s to Brierley Investments Limited, who sold its stake in the Union Company in 1999, the last ship under the Union banner sailing in 2000, an unglamorous tug and barge carrying coal from Westport to Port Kembla in Australia.
The National Mortgage and Agency Company (NMA)
The building became the National Agency Company head office and stores when Union Steam Ship Company swapped the building for smaller premises on Water Street in 1921. NMA operated from three premises on Water Street at various times. The first was at 24 Water Street (1877-1905), the second at 38 Water Street (1905-1929) and the third being the former USSCo. premises at 49 Water Street.
Founding managing director of the NMA John Macfarlane Ritchie (1842-1912) was, in the words of historian Jim McAloon, ‘one of the most influential commercial figures in Otago’s history’, and the colony. Orkney-born Ritchie, through economic circumstance forced to give up a scholastic career and enter commerce in Glasgow, was offered a position in Dunedin in 1864, joining commercial firm George Gray. Ritchie effectively ran the business from Dunedin. The NMA was established in London in 1877 to take advantage of land investment in New Zealand, with Ritchie as the general manager and managing director. Despite some serious losses in the 1880s the NMA survived due to Ritchie’s business acumen. Ritchie took an active role in the life of Dunedin, serving on the Otago Harbour Board, on the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, and was involved in the establishment of the Otago Employers’ Association. He died in 1912 and was replaced by his son George Ritchie in the role of managing director.
George’s nephew James McLaren Ritchie joined the NMA in 1930 as a junior clerk, becoming a stock agent, before becoming assistant branch manager in Dunedin in 1936. He became branch manager, and on the retirement of his uncle in 1951, general manager. It was during Ritchie’s time as general manager that the company grew at an unprecedented rate, with over 20 branches and more than 100 sub-branches and agencies nationwide. Control of the company shifted from London to New Zealand in 1969, with Ritchie the first New Zealand chairman. He held this post when NMA merged with Wright Stephenson in 1972 to form Wrightson NMA, and he was also the chair of Challenge Corporation, of which Wrightson NMA was a subsidiary. He was a director on other significant companies including the National Insurance Company of New Zealand, the Trustees Executors and Agency Company of New Zealand, Donaghy’s Rope and Twine Company and Mosgiel Woollens, as well as playing a prominent role in the Anglican Church and as a member of the University Grants Committee.
NMA "modernised" the building to its current form probably around the late 1940s – the ornate architectural detailing was removed and replaced with a more streamlined Art Deco/Moderne façade.
The NNM (later Wrightsons NMA) owned the building until the late 1970s. In later years the three blocks were sold separately, and they are currently owned by three parties.
The owners of the offices (49 Water Street) in Dunedin received a $20,000 grant in 2010 from the Dunedin Heritage Fund to contribute towards restoration works during redevelopment, and this building now houses commercial premises. The owner of the former stores with the façade to Cumberland Street also received assistance from the Dunedin Heritage Fund, stabilising and repairing the derelict building. The conversion of the building into apartments with top floor office is nearly complete. The stores with the front to Vogel and Cumberland Street are home to commercial premises.
The buildings are located within the historic commercial/warehousing precinct of Dunedin in the Bond Street/Crawford Street/Vogel Street/Cumberland Street. The surrounding buildings are substantial warehousing or commercial headquarters and premises associated with Dunedin’s burgeoning economy from the 1860s through to the early years of the twentieth century. The land was reclaimed in the early 1880s and this building is the first on the site. Contemporary buildings in the area included bonded warehouses, wool stores, and office buildings. Some remain, but most are put to different uses than those for which they were designed. Many buildings in Vogel Street date from the 1880s.
A number of these buildings are multi-storey and have ornate detailing. In recent years the warehousing precinct – particularly Vogel Street – has been revitalised. Significant buildings (like the USSCo Offices and Stores (with façade to Cumberland Street)) have been restored to their former glory as part of the Dunedin City Council’s Warehousing Area Revitalisation Plan.
The offices and stores are built in three blocks: the three-storey offices (with three street frontages to Water, Vogel and Cumberland Streets, and the highest status as expressed in its original design), the four-storey store at 135 Cumberland Street, and the four-storey store with frontages to Cumberland and Vogel Streets. In the past the buildings have had connecting doors, providing access from the offices to both store buildings. Some of the access doors remain, but there is no access through the buildings at this stage.
The buildings are constructed from Port Chalmers breccia at basement level, and brick and stone rendered with cement on the upper levels. The decorative detail and signage on the building dates from the NMA’s occupation of the premises.
The interior of the office building has been stripped to expose the brick and the roof structure, and new offices constructed. What remains is the building interior finishes – giving insight into the construction of the building. The grand doors and Victorian tiling and panelling in the entrance provide evidence of the high status of this building.
The store at 135 Cumberland Street is a linking building between the offices and the other store. It is four levels – with stone at the basement level and brick above. The building has been in a derelict state but its conversion to apartments with a top floor office space is almost complete. Where possible the owner has reused the original structural steel and timber joinery and windows. The poor condition of the building has prevented reuse of much original interior fabric.
The store (57 Vogel Street) with frontages to Vogel and Cumberland Streets is similar in detail to 135 Cumberland – four storeys with the same architectural detailing. The interior has not been inspected.
The USSCo Offices and Stores (Former) was the original head office for one of New Zealand’s most economically powerful and prominent companies. The building’s scale, decoration and location made a statement of the significance of the company and the prominence of nineteenth century Dunedin as the country’s economic powerhouse. As the later headquarters for the NMA, a cornerstone to New Zealand’s rural sector, the buildings are of outstanding significance.
The USSCo had offices in other centres – notably the head office in Wellington after 1921. Similarly prominent, but more restrained in style, this building also reflected the influence and importance of the company. This building (located on the corner of Johnson Street and Customhouse Quay) has been demolished. The USCCo office building on Queen Street, Auckland has also been demolished.
The USSC continued to expand its freight and passenger services in the early twentieth century and by the outbreak of the First World War was the largest shipping company in the Southern Hemisphere – smaller premises survive, like those in Greymouth, a substantial single storey brick building designed in a stripped classical style. The USSC occupied the building until 1977. It was briefly occupied by Westpac Bank and has been a restaurant since the 1990s. The Union Steam Ship Company Offices (Former) is historically important as a marker of the presence of the company in Greymouth that paid a vital contribution to the operation of the local collieries and port. This building is not entered on the List.
Entered on the List is the former Union Steamship Company building in Gisborne (List No. 3551, Category 2). This is a smaller building, representing the regional presence of the company.
Also surviving is the Dunedin office of the Union Steam Ship Company used after the company shifted its headquarters to Wellington. This building was previously the offices of the NMA. It is diagonally opposite the original head office on Water Street and provides significant historical and architectural context to the original building and the regionalisation of the Dunedin operation. This building is not entered on the List.
Other shipping company offices on the New Zealand Heritage List include Auckland’s Northern Steamship Company Building (List No. 622, Category 1). Erected by the Northern Steamship Company in 1898, this harbourside structure is an important reminder of Auckland's maritime past, and the role of shipping in the economic and social development of the region. Situated in a prime position between the wharves and the 1880s railway station, the building was constructed as offices for the Northern Company after it had become one of the leading inland-shipping businesses in northern New Zealand. The firm had been founded in Auckland in 1881 as an amalgamation of several smaller concerns, and ran freight and passenger services in the upper half of the North Island. Along with the Holm Shipping Company, it was one of only two major independent shipping companies in New Zealand by the early twentieth century, and later extended its services throughout the country before ceasing to trade in 1974. The Northern Steam Ship Company was a significant company, but with none of the international significance of the Union Steam Ship Company. USSCo offices in Dunedin have a greater international significance.
Of the buildings associated with the Union Steam Ship Company, the current building is the most outstandingly significant and represents the company at the height of its economic power and influence. Its long association with another nationally significant company (NMA) adds to its significance, as does its key position in the historically and architecturally significant warehousing precinct in Dunedin.
Façade stripped and redeveloped for the NMA
Cumberland Street Store redevelopment begun
Bluestone (Port Chalmers breccia), brick timber, corrugated iron, steel
20th June 2017
Report Written By
Gavin McLean, 100 Historic Places in New Zealand, Auckland, 2002
Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Gavin McLean. 'Mills, James', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 20-Nov-2013
Gordon Parry, N.M.A.: The story of its 100 Years, National Mortgage and Agency Co. of N.Z. Ltd. 1864-1964, National Mortgage and Agency Co. of New Zealand Ltd., Dunedin, 1964.
Gordon McLauchlan, The Line that Dared: A history of the Union Steam Ship Company 1875–1975, Four Star Books, Auckland, 1987
McLean, 1990 (2)
Gavin McLean, The Southern Octopus, New Zealand Ship and Marine Society & Wellington Maritime Museum, Wellington, 1990
Alexander Trapeznik, On the waterfront: the historic waterfront precinct, Dunedin, New Zealand / Trapeznik, Dunedin: A. Trapeznik, c2009.
A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from Otago/Southland Area Office of Heritage New Zealand.
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.