New Zealand Elevator Company’s Building (Former)
Intersection Of Tyne Street, Itchen Street And Humber Street, Ōamaru
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 1
Private/No Public Access
25th September 1986
Date of Effect
20th July 2022
Date of Last Review
30th June 2022
Extent of List Entry
Extent includes the land described as Lot 9 DP 285 (RT 349401 and 482832), Otago Land District and the building known as the New Zealand Elevator Company’s Building thereon. Chattels include nine augers, the original Meek’s business sign, and an angle cut piece of limestone. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the List entry report for further information).
Lot 9 DP 285 (RT 349401 and 482832), Otago Land District
Once a gigantic and imposing structure, the New Zealand Elevator Company’s Building was designed by Ōamaru architectural partnership Forrester and Lemon in 1881 to house a gargantuan machine used to move, sort and dry grain. It sits at the intersection of Itchen, Tyne and Humber Streets on Harbour Board land. This building stands as a monument to a marvel of engineering and the culmination of the booming grain-based economy that saw Ōamaru flourish in the 1870s and 1880s. This building has outstanding technological value and special archaeological, architectural, and historical significance.
The lagoon and creek were important sources of kāinga nohoanga and kāinga mahinga to local Māori who resided at Makotukutuku / Cape Wanbrow. The development of the harbour, the introduction of rail, the establishment of a high-pressure Borough water supply as a source of hydraulic power and a booming grain industry created the right conditions for this ambitious enterprise. James Aitken, a Scottish grain merchant went into business with John and Thomas Meek (J & T Meek) to erect an American style grain elevator, a complement to the Meek’s flour milling and grain operations with a desire to fill a gap in the market to capitalise on previously unfinished grain.
The building replaced an earlier single storey store building owned by the Meek brothers. Essentially a massive machine sheathed in a skin of Ōamaru stone, the Elevator was a monumental five-storey building of trapezoidal shape surmounted by a mansard roof with dormers and neo-classical treatment on its public-facing west and south-west facades. The remaining walls were plain and interspersed with rectangular double-hung sash windows to the fourth floor and egress and exit for a railway siding to pass laterally though the building from west to east. It was twenty metres wide and sixty metres long, using phenomenal quantities of materials in its construction; 150,000 cubic feet (4,248 m) of stone and 500,000 feet (1500 m3) of timber. The main body of the store was divided into 68 large bins (of two sizes – holding 1200 and 600 bushels respectively) – providing storage for 280,000 bushels (8400 tons) of grain. Five men could work 1666 bushels (50 tons) of grain per hour. The hydro powered elevator ran on water piped from the Borough supply. It was the first elevator in the southern hemisphere and likely the grandest in the world having been built of stone and in a neo-classical style which integrated it into the streetscape. The Elevator Building opened in May 1883 but never realised its full potential as by then the local grain boom was over; frozen meat was the new primary export having been established the previous year.
In January 1920, the store was gutted by a devastating fire. The design of the building encouraged air flow and, the grain and huge wooden bins fuelled the fire. The roof collapsed, the rear portion was gutted, and walls collapsed as a result of the damage caused by the fire. The top two floors were removed. The building was remodelled, and J. and T. Meek continued to use it as a grain store until the 1950s. The Elevator Building was sold to foundry owners G. T. Gillies Limited who had a lease on the land from 1994 for 21 years. Since 2015, the New Zealand Elevator Company’s Building has become home to Steampunk HQ, an iconic movement associated with Ōamaru, identified as the Steampunk capital of the world.
Historical Significance or Value
This building is of special historical significance as it contributes to the story of the Otago grain industry and a late flowering entrepreneurial spirit of the J & T Meek and James Aitken who sought to add value to the New Zealand grain market by conditioning the grain prior to export to improve quality and maximise price. After their business relationship founded the Meeks found their timing to maximise the benefits of their enormous investment was too late.
Archaeological Significance or Value
This building has special archaeological significance as a structure designed to hold the massive grain sorting machinery. The rear of the building was filled in following the fire and a significant amount of material and machinery could be buried here. Archaeological methods could contribute to better understanding this unique building in particular the layout of the rear of the building which is unclear due to the loss of plans. In addition, remains of the machinery could assist with understand how the grain sorting machine functioned. The depth is estimated to be 4 m culminating in a 1.5 m thick concrete floor. Repairs to the building following the fire in 1920 are readable and there are significant pieces of building fabric around the site, some of which are particularly important for understanding the function of the building and the elevator itself.
Architectural Significance or Value
The architectural value of this building is in its role as a skin for a gargantuan machine. Its neo-classical facades on the west and southwest public facing facades connect it within the wider language of the highly decorative Victorian mercantile buildings in the area indicating consideration of streetscape. Where grain elevators overseas were largely built of timber, in Ōamaru the ample access to cheap limestone made this a sensible economic choice of fabric. It is likely to have been the grandest building of its kind in the southern hemisphere if not the world at the time of its building.
Technological Significance or Value
This building represents the outstanding technological significance of the elevator that once inhabited this building. While not a grain elevator in the American sense it utilised the principle of this technology to create a purpose-built machine to receive, grade, and dry New Zealand grain for export. The buildings also represents the innovation of the Aitkens-Meek partnership to understand and adapt the American examples to a New Zealand context.
This place was assessed against the Section 66(3) criteria and found to qualify under the following criteria a, b, c, e, f, g, j, k. The assessment concludes that this place should be listed as a Category 1 historic place.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important of representative aspects of New Zealand history
This place represents a unique example of the intersection of architecture and technology devised to respond to the booming grain market in North Otago. It represents the late blooming of an audacious idea to capitalise on the New Zealand grain market that had potential to be exploited.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
This place is associated particularly with the Meek brothers who were giants in the world of grain in Ōamaru and their ability to seize opportunities and work with emerging technologies to add value to their established stable of grain related businesses.
(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history
This building portrays the boom-and-bust nature of early economic endeavours in New Zealand, poignant as this massive structure was completed after the depletion of the grain industry. This place provided a specialised function and is representative of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Meeks who grabbed an opportunity to work with James Aitken who had seen a way to maximise profits on New Zealand grain through conditioning it prior to export. While made with a cheap local material, the splendour of this industrial building and its public facing facades was designed to express wealth within the area of industrial buildings.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place
The NZ Elevator Building in its guise as Steampunk HQ is a favourite visitor site in the historic area of Ōamaru, the acknowledged Steampunk capital of the world. Steampunk HQ is rated highly by both Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet and as a gallery space holds several of the sculptural works that were exhibited at the Forrester Gallery’s exhibition which ignited Steampunk culture in Ōamaru.
(f) The potential of the place for public education
This place has potential to provide an excellent educational experience with appropriate interpretation and space in which to appreciate the scale of the building and the machinery that it housed.
(g) The technical accomplishment, value, or design of the place
The technical accomplishment of the elevator machinery was extraordinary and unique in the southern hemisphere at the time it was built. It utilised waterpower from the Borough scheme to power the massive machine that was used to grade, sort, and dry grain prior to export. The design of the place was typical of the Victorian sensibility in Ōamaruvian architecture, making use of the local limestone and connecting this industrial building within the streetscape with neo-classical facades to its west and southwest elevations.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places
The grain elevator was unique in the southern hemisphere at the time it was built, it worked on the American principal and was a machine of extraordinary complexity.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area
The New Zealand Elevator Company’s Building (Former) is part of the Ōamaru Historic Area (List No.7064) and was part of the cycle of grain production industries.
Summary of Significance or Values
The New Zealand Elevator Company’s Building (Former) has special archaeological, architectural, historical, and outstanding technological values. Designed by Ōamaru architectural partnership Forrester and Lemon in 1881 it housed a gargantuan machine used to move, sort and dry grain. This building stands as a monument to a marvel of engineering and the culmination of the booming grain-based economy that saw Ōamaru flourish in the 1870s and 1880s. The building embraces the culture of steampunk and is a favourite tourist attraction in Ōamaru and is highly rated as an experience by Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet. It has the potential to provide excellent interpretation about the building and the feat of engineering that made it so unique. The building is a rare and important survivor of Victorian investment, innovation and enterprise and remains a prominent reminder of Ōamaru's industrial heritage.
Forrester & Lemon
The architectural partnership of Forrester and Lemon was established in Oamaru in 1872.
Thomas Forrester (1838-1907) was born in Glasgow and educated at the Glasgow School of Art. Emigrating to New Zealand in 1861 he settled in Dunedin and worked under William Mason (1810-97) and William Henry Clayton (1823-77) and later Robert Arthur Lawson (1833-1902). In 1865 he superintended the Dunedin Exhibition and from 1870 he became involved with the supervision of harbour works. Some time after 1885 he became Engineer to the Oamaru Harbour Board and in this capacity designed the repairs to the breakwater following storm damage in 1886 and later the Holmes Wharf. On his death in 1907 he was still in the employ of the Harbour Board.
John Lemon (1828-1890) was born in Jamaica and travelled to England before emigrating to New Zealand in 1849. He settled in Oamaru in 1860 and with his brother Charles established a timber merchant's business. By 1869 he was in partnership with his father-in-law, George Sumpter calling themselves "Timber and General Merchants, Land and Commission Agents". This partnership was dissolved in 1872 and Lemon entered into partnership with Forrester. Lemon had no architectural experience at all, but had a wide circle of business contacts and was an efficient administrator.
Buildings designed by the partnership of Forrester and Lemon include St Paul's Church (1875-76), the Harbour Board Offices (1876), Queen's (later Brydone) Hotel (1881), Waitaki Boys' High School (1883), The Courthouse (1883) and the Post Office (1883-84), all in Oamaru. Forrester and Lemon contributed greatly to Oamaru's nineteenth century character. On Lemon's death in 1890 the practice was taken over by Forrester's son, John Megget Forrester (1865-1965).
The New Zealand Elevator Building (Former) is situated at the eastern edge of the Ōamaru Historic area and can be seen from a distance looking east along Itchen Street which is itself inhabited by Victorian Ōamaru stone buildings. It is adjacent to the Ōamaru Creek and a public walk through what is now an attractive walkway to a small jetty on its north side. There is a fenced yard on the northside of the building containing many steampunk sculptures and historic machinery and vehicles. The south side of the building provides access, across railway lines, to other heritage grain and wool store buildings. Behind these buildings run the main railway line, and beyond that, Ōamaru harbour.
The building is three storeys high and a trapezoidal shape. The west elevation is the formal front of the building. The first and second floors present three pairs of round-headed windows to the street. Each floor is separated by an entablature. The Steampunk HQ sign (a chattel) hangs from this entablature. The ground floor has a large opening with double doors to accommodate a train. A further door is centrally placed and to the right of this is a rounded headed window. The ground floor is decorated with horizontal bands of stone.
The southwest elevation follows the same design as the west elevation as it is also a street facing elevation. The first and second floors present four pairs of round-headed windows. The entablature above the third storey is decorated with brackets and above this can be seen a pediment which has been created by the remains of the fourth floor where not quite half the height of the windows remains and have been infilled with limestone.
The south elevation is unadorned ashlar Ōamaru stone laid on course. The westernmost third of the elevation has central round headed doors and flanking double hung sash windows on the ground and first floors. The second floor has a three double-hung sash windows. The remaining two thirds of the remaining wall is freestanding, partially collapsed and in a poor state of repair. A large steampunk logo hangs on this wall.
The eastern-most section of the north elevation is unadorned ashlar Ōamaru stone laid on course except for the northwest corner where the entablatures from the west elevation wrap around the building. The second and third storeys have four double-hung sash windows. A large sculpture of a fly hangs at the eastern end of the wall between the second and third storey. There are four blind windows in what was once the fourth storey, and a sculpture of a fisherman sits with his legs dangling between the middle two blind windows. The ground floor has two windows and a door.
At the eastern end of this wall is a set-back with a door for the train to exit through. Above this is a further door. The second and third storeys have a double hung sash window – the remains of a blind window can be seen at fourth storey level. The north elevation continues with what remains of the wall – half its original length. The wall is perforated by a large arched double door at ground level with a double-hung sash window to the right. The second storey has a smaller round headed doorway with a double-hung sash window to the right, and the third storey has two double-hung sash windows. To the left of the windows on the third storey is a sculptural cloud of six flies. At the easternmost end it is apparent where the wall collapsed following the fire in 1920. Foundations are still evident in places.
The east elevation was built in 1920 following the fire and bisects the footprint of the original building. The space where the building collapsed has been backfilled but there are remnants of stonework that suggest supports for the great bins, and the southern tunnel entrance can be seen peeking above the gravel. The northern tunnel can be entered by a recent set of stairs. In the tunnel is evidence of two chutes.
The interior of the building no longer contains any vestiges of the original machinery. Smoke stains can be seen in many places from the great fire, and it has been inhabited by pigeons for some time in the non-public areas. The public areas of the building are low lit and filled with sculptural works and exhibits of machinery.
A spiral staircase leads down to the basement where part of two tunnels travelling in a west-east direction can be seen. The remains of the mains waterpipe is present. Beneath a steel sheet is the sump over which the Pelton wheel turbine that provided the source of power was mounted, and a drain leading towards the Ōamaru creek. There is no remaining evidence of the engine that powered the building.
The ground floor is separated into three rooms. The public entrance is through the central door and opens into a small reception and retail area. On the west and southwest walls are remnants of two original wallpapers of different patterns separated by a thin frieze. Beyond, the main area is supported by large wooden columns and the space is very low lit and full of machinery and steampunk sculpture and exhibits which makes the space difficult to read and record. A set of stairs connects the ground and first floors on the north side of the building. A door in the north wall leads into the yard where the augers (chattels) and a great accumulation of machinery, steampunk sculpture and stacked Ōamaru stone is situated.
First floor and Second Floor
These floors are not accessible to the public. Both floors are split into two expansive spaces with the first floor supported by large wooden columns. The windows in the west, southwest and south elevations are covered in chicken wire and some with wooden louvres or plastic. The rooms are empty except for pieces of steelwork which are unrelated to the historic fabric of the building. The joists from the ceiling above have been reinforced on the first floor. The roof structure is clearly visible on the second floor and has been reinforced with steel in places. Pigeons have taken up residence in the building and there is plenty of evidence of expired pigeons and pigeon excrement particularly in the easternmost part of the first and second floors.
While there is no building comparable in terms of function, there are examples of other grain related buildings, and Forrester and Lemon designs that can be compared with the New Zealand Elevator Company’s Building.
Evans Atlas Flourmill Company Limited Building (Former) (List No. 20156, Category 2)
Evans’ Atlas Flourmill Company Limited Building (Former), a large building constructed in different phases and styles between the 1880s and the twentieth century at 34-36 Turnbull Street in Timaru, is historically significant in telling the story of the area’s prominent role in the grain and milling trade. The brick buildings constructed in 1888 and 1897 have architectural significance, being designed by well-known Dunedin architect, James Hislop. They have technological value in their early utilisation of roller mills rather than traditional mill stones. Like the Elevator building the flourmill is similar in height and has a similar formation of windows.
J and T Meek’s Grain Store (Former)
J and T Meek’s Grain Store designed by prominent Ōamaru partnership Forrester and Lemon, is an ornately detailed building standing alongside the other stone stores on Harbour Street. Built in 1876-77, just ten years after the Meeks established their flour mill, this store, represents the wealth and prosperity that grew from the grain industry in the 1870s, and that is expressed in Ōamaru’s outstanding Victorian architecture and the capacity to stockpile 30,000 sacks of grain. This building is on a considerable different scale and is more heavily ornamented than the Elevator building which was built in 1882-1883 though it does incorporate rounded headed windows and doors and horizonal stonework of Italian style.
Fire destroys rear of the building. Top two floors removed.
Top two floors removed Eastern wall built
floors work, landscape, car park development
Public NZAA Number
23rd May 2022
Report Written By
Conal McCarthy, Forrester and Lemon of Oamaru, architects, Oamaru, 2002
North Otago Times
North Otago Times
North Otago Times, 27 Apr 1883, p. 3.
North Otago Times
North Otago Times
‘The New Zealand Elevator Company’s Grain Store’, North Otago Times, 27 April 1883, p. 3. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NOT18830427.2.16
Geoffrey G. Thornton, New Zealand's Industrial Heritage, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1982
Middleton, Angela., Meeks Grain Store and Elevator Building, Archaeological Assessment. Arch Hill Report. 32, June 2008.
Elevator Building Conservation Plan
Brown, Marcus., Elevator Building Conservation Plan, prepared for de Geest Property, 2009.
This listing is also included in the Harbour/Tyne Street Historic Area (Record no. 7064).
A fully referenced copy of the listing report is available on request from the Otago/Southland Office of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero 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.
Archaeological sites are protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, regardless of whether they are entered on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero or not. Archaeological sites include ‘places associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand’. This List entry report should not be read as a statement on whether or not the archaeological provisions of the Act apply to the property (s) concerned. Please contact your local Heritage New Zealand office for archaeological advice.