Historical Significance or Value
Telephone Box dates from a time when private ownership of telephones was not high and decades before mobile phones were in use. Telephone boxes were common sights on streets all over the country and well patronised as the figure of nearly a quarter of a million calls made from the boxes outside the General Post Office in Wellington in the year to 31 March 1926 indicates. With the formation of Telecom New Zealand in the 1980s and its decision to replace the red boxes, there are now only about 50 remaining in functional use and over half of these are described as replicas.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
Telephone Box contributes to the streetscape with the other heritage objects at the north end of Post Office Square, with its solid, well-proportioned and practical appearance. When imported by the Post and Telegraph Department the K2 boxes were considered an aesthetic improvement on the wooden or concrete boxes then in use. Painted red, Telephone Box is much more visible than its modern counterparts (including the France Telecom box in Post Office Square).
Designed by a well-known British architect, Sir Giles Scott, the K2 telephone box was Classical in conception and care was taken over the details. Combining a utilitarian object with elements of traditional architectural design made the K2 a good example of British industrial design. Simplified variations of Classical architecture were popular between the two world wars and in this regard, the K2 Telephone Box is of its time. At 2.74 metres high it has a monumental presence as a street object.
Social Significance or Value
Telephone boxes with their public telephones were once widespread and a well-used form of technology that is now in rapid decline with the spread of mobile phones. The old red telephone boxes have high nostalgia value for many people, as indicated by the actions of Alf’s Imperial Army and the Wizard to repaint them red after Telecom decided to paint them blue in 1988. The fad of how many people can fit inside a telephone box has been popular at various times. Now that the red telephone box is becoming rare they are achieving a kind of ‘iconic’ status.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
Telephone Box is representative of a once widespread object – the ‘Post Office red’ telephone box. Public telephones were popular when private ownership of telephones was low – as their increase in number from 99 in 1914 to 679 in 1930 attests. However, it is an aspect of history that is now on the decline due to the increase in mobile phone usage.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place
The red telephone boxes have high nostalgia value for many people, as indicated by the actions of Alf’s Imperial Army and the Wizard to repaint them red after Telecom decided to paint them blue in 1988. Telecom’s use of replica red boxes in some locations also suggests a community association with them. This particular box was relocated from Karori to Post Office Square, which is an appropriate location, as well as being a busier area.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place
The K2 telephone box is considered an excellent example of industrial design – combining practicality, solidity and aesthetic charm. It was designed by a well-known British architect, Sir Giles Scott, in a 1924 competition sponsored by the Royal Fine Arts Commission. The expense of their production did, however, lead to Scott being asked to design a cheaper version – the K6.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places
The Post Office Square telephone box has rarity value as a functioning booth – it may be the only one of a K2 design currently still functioning; although this cannot be confirmed. It is, however, one of a small number of authentic red telephone boxes still being used for their original purpose.
Before the arrival of Maori from Taranaki in the 1820s, the Wellington area was populated primarily by people of Kurahaupo waka descent, including Ngai Tara, Rangitane, Muaupoko, Ngati Apa and Ngati Ira (who are generally accepted as the most recent). The Waitangi Tribunal referred to these as ‘Whatonga-descent peoples’ since all claimed descent from Whatonga, an early Maori explorer, who named the harbour, Te Whanganui a Tara, for his son Tara. The people from the Taranaki region were often given the common name of ‘Ngati Awa’ (and later Te Atiawa) by outsiders, but they comprised a number of tribes. These ‘incoming tribes’ included Ngati Toa (also known as Ngati Toa Rangatira), Ngati Rangatahi, Te Atiawa, Ngati Tama, Ngati Mutunga, Taranaki, and Ngati Ruanui.
By the 1820s Europeans were arriving at Port Nicholson (as it came to be known, after John Nicholson, the Sydney harbourmaster). In May 1839 the New Zealand Company advertised in London 990 lots of Port Nicholson land for sale. The first immigrants began arriving in January 1840. In 1865 when Wellington became the capital city, the population was just 4,900. But Wellington’s economic base was significantly improved by the relocation of the capital and by 1881 the resident population had reached 20,000. A building boom accompanied the population increase, with the total number of dwellings in the city doubling in the last 20 years of the nineteenth century. Economic depression ended the 1920s boom, but by the end of the 1930s there was renewed growth and confidence.
Telephone Boxes in England
Public call box history begins in the 1880s in the United Kingdom. Most of the early boxes were of the wooden sentry-box type, but there was little uniformity. In 1912 the General Post Office (UK) took over control of almost all of the national telephone network and a year later considered standardising them and using the colour red (‘Post Office Red’). However nothing was done about this until after World War One. In 1921 the K1 (Kiosk 1) was designed. This was essentially an improved version of the sentry box except it was usually of reinforced concrete with metal glazing bars. In 1934, 6,300 were in use but very few now survive, and aesthetically they were not considered a success.
In 1924 a competition was held to design a new one; judged by the Royal Fine Art Commission. Architect Sir Giles Scott won this with what became the ‘K2’ or Kiosk 2 design. The first K2s were produced in 1926, and most were erected in London, which had refused to allow erection of the K1s (and for this reason the K2s are sometimes known as the London-style box). However, some were imported into New Zealand and elsewhere. They were expensive to produce (£35) and by 1934, only 1700 had been produced. In comparison, 12 000 K3s were produced between 1929 and 1934.
Scott’s design was Classical in inspiration, although there are no obvious Classical details like columns, as historian Gavin Stamp describes it: ‘it relies on proportion, on the appropriate use of mouldings, on the careful placing of projections and setbacks’. The saucer dome rises above four segment-headed pediments, which bears a resemblance to, and is often thought to have derived from, the tomb of Sir John Soane in St Pancras Churchyard. However, Stamp believes that a dome above segmental curves is a logical solution to designing a sculptural termination to a square pillar when a flat top is not suitable. Stamp believes the K2 was arguably one of the best examples of British industrial design.
Scott produced variations on the design, including the K3. In 1935, he was asked to design an improved version of the K2 – one that retained its best characteristics but was smaller and cheaper to produce. This was the K6, which went into production in 1936 and was not superseded until 1968. The K6 can be easily distinguished from the K2 by the treatment of the window panes – instead of regular 18-paned walls the K6 has 24-paned walls, with the middle space much larger than the two sides. In the mid-1980s British Telecom began replacing the old red booths with new booths of American design. Many old ones were sold and creative new uses were found for some including as a library, goldfish containers, showers, and garden ornaments. The social history of telephone boxes includes the fad of how many people can fit inside a telephone box. According to a news item in the Guardian, 14 people including two children is the world record. As recently as May 2012 British Telecom announced it would sell 60 red boxes for a starting price of £1,950 each, and it planned to repaint 400 red boxes ahead of the Olympic Games.
Telephone Boxes in New Zealand
In 1907 the Superintendent of Electric Lines visited Great Britain and elsewhere and reported to Parliament on his findings, including: ‘The call-box system in London and elsewhere is very useful… the same system might be used in places in New Zealand with advantage’. A wooden hexagonal call box in Christchurch is shown in a photograph taken in 1912; the price of calls being 2d (this had standardised to 1d by the 1920s). By 30 June 1914, 99 coin-in-the-slot telephones were in use in the country (including 28 in Wellington), but whether all were in boxes on the street or some in buildings, such as Post Offices, is not stated. New Zealand had a comparatively high rate of private telephone ownership in 1922; however it was still only 7.6 telephones per 100, in cities of 100 000 population and over.
In the 1920s the boxes were referred to as Public Call Offices and at 31 March 1926, 409 were in operation in the country. The Post and Telegraph Department’s 1926–27 Annual Report noted that it had been decided to adopt more permanent types of cabinet:
One type will be of concrete construction, while the other will be of steel framework, and will follow what is known as the ‘kiosk’ type, in accordance with the design of a noted English architect. From the point of view of utility as well as from aesthetic considerations both these new types can be considered as desirable improvements upon the present type of wooden cabinet.
The 1927–8 Annual Report further noted:
From an aesthetic point of view, the steel cabinets which were imported from Great Britain are an improvement on both the wooden type and the new concrete type. The steel cabinets are being installed in the larger centres at points at which the footpaths allow sufficient room.
These ‘steel’ cabinets would have been of the K2 design. By 1930, 679 Public Call Offices (types unspecified) were in operation in New Zealand.
The Post Office Square Telephone Box is a K2 design, although the wooden door is not of a K2 design (this door looks to be present in its original location in a photograph taken in 1988). It is of cast iron construction and was shipped to New Zealand in pieces. It was originally located near the corner of Chaytor Street and Karori Road (near Karori Cemetery).
The Telephone Box was relocated to Post Office Square (and renovated) in June 1991; in 1992 it was noted that the glass ‘Public Telephone’ signs came from another box; however these are no longer extant. It was an appropriate location, as well as being in a busier area; Post Office Square is so named because the General Post Office used to be located there on Customhouse Quay (now the site of the Intercontinental Hotel). Post Office Square was a key entrance to the wharves, as well as to Wellington’s main post office. The 1925–26 Post and Telegraph Department Annual Report noted that the number of calls made from boxes located outside the General Post Office in Wellington was nearly a quarter of a million.
When Telecom was formed out of the break-up of the Post Office in the 1980s, it was keen to establish its identity and brand. However, Telecom’s decision to repaint the red boxes a pale blue colour in 1988 caused a protest by Christchurch’s Wizard and Alf’s Imperial Army, who repainted some of them red. Ironically, Sir Giles Scott had in 1924 suggested a ‘duck egg blue’ colour, but the British Post Office insisted on painting the kiosks bright red for maximum visibility in emergencies. One of those repainted, located in Victoria Square, Christchurch was a K2 – which the Wizard’s website describes as ‘the only really beautiful phone box in the South Island’. While Telecom admitted defeat over repainting, most of the old red boxes were soon replaced with new ones. Many of the red ones were sold off and at least one other K2 is known to exist as a garden folly in a Wellington back yard.
With increasing use of mobile phones, public telephones are declining in usage. Telecom advises that usage of Telephone Box, Post Office Square is not very high with 2.5 calls per day on average – with 4 in summer and 1 in winter (average). However, revenue is just sufficient to meet costs, and they have no plans to remove the phone in the meantime.
Post Office Square (which is actually triangular), is located where Customhouse Quay and Jervois Quay meet – both busy Wellington streets near the waterfront. A number of buildings or objects are located there: Clarrie Gibbons newsagents (listed by Wellington City Council as a 1912 building); an old red letter box; two fast food stalls; a sculpture (‘L’Autre Côte’, 2001) in the form of a French Telecom glass telephone box, which on lifting the receiver is meant to play sounds from Corsica; another larger sculpture (SkyBlues, 2006); and trees are planted along some edges of the ‘square’. Telephone Box is towards the north end near Clarrie Gibbons building and the old letter box.
The K2 boxes were 9 feet 3 inches (2.74 metres) in height from the ground and sat on a base 3 feet 6 inches square (0.91 metres).They were made entirely of cast iron sections, with the exception of the door, which was teak. It is not known whether the Post Office Square box originally had a teak door. One side, which contained the telephone, was solid iron; the other three had 18 panes each of glass. The pierced crown in the pediments was for ventilation as much as decoration and symbolism. The panel below the glass panes was also pierced in the form of four ‘diamonds’ for ventilation. The word ‘Telephone’ was painted on frosted glass, which was lit at night by an internal light in the dome.
Telephone Box is currently (2012) painted red with a green dome. It has all the characteristics of the K2 design described above, except that it no longer has glass ‘public telephone’ signs above the walls and its current door is not a K2 design. It is a wooden door with a solid wood panel in the lower third and the upper two-thirds divided into six glass panes.
Currently only one telephone box is on the NZHPT Register – it is part of the Rotorua Government Gardens Historic Area (Register no. 7015), but not separately registered. The Rotorua Government Gardens box is a hexagonal box, having some similarities to the Christchurch one photographed in 1912. According to the registration report, the council engineer saved the kiosk and had it relocated from elsewhere; while Telecom lists it as a replica booth.
In 2004, Ian Robinson of Telecom said there were just two K2s in use – the one in Wellington and one in Christchurch. However, Telecom today is not able to confirm this – they list 21 public phone boxes as ‘red booths’ and approximately another 28 as ‘replica booths’. Only 9 out of the 21 ‘red booths’ were able to be located during the research for this report (none were K2s), however all street locations were not comprehensively visited. The K2 in Victoria Square, Christchurch (near the corner of Armagh and Colombo Streets) is still there, although currently (2012) in the Red Zone and not functional. Telecom lists this as a replica, but there is no reason to believe it is not the original K2.
1926 - 1936
Manufacture of K2 telephone boxes in England
Telephone Box located in Karori
Telephone Box relocated from Karori to Post Office Square and restored
Cast iron, wood and glass
8th October 2012
Report Written By
Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR)
Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives
‘Telegraph and Telephone Methods’ Report of the Superintendent of Electric Lines, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1907, F-09, p. 3;
'Coin-in-the-Slot Telephone Business’ Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1914, F-09;
Post and Telegraph Department ‘Annual Report 1925-26’, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1926, F-01, p. 38;
Post and Telegraph Department ‘Annual Report 1926-27’, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1927, F-01, pp. 4 & 38;
Post and Telegraph Department ‘Annual Report 1927-28’, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives 1928, F-01, p.7
Stamp, Gavin, Telephone Boxes, Chatto & Windus, London, 1989
A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Central Region Office.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.