Historical Significance or Value
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House reflect the history of the establishment of civic administration in Victorian and Edwardian New Zealand. Victorian town halls are symbols that grew up to meet the needs of developing towns and the administrative needs of growing bureaucracies. Their multi-purpose functions reflect the need to gather community facilities under one roof, and provide a civic identity for the town. The growth of office spaces and committee rooms reflects the growth of municipal legislation – with the associated need for town clerks, surveyors and engineers, gas and water departments, medical officers, road departments and the like. Town halls developed as ‘symbolic centres’ to express the status of the towns.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House has high aesthetic significance for both its architectural design and its place in the townscape. The building is a nationally significant example of an Edwardian Baroque building, a style that expressed the imperial pride and identity of government buildings in the early twentieth century. As a ‘bold and assertive design’, it represents the architectural work of John Megget Forrester, whose work carries on the legacy of his father’s. The building is a landmark, impressive in size, but in keeping with the scale of its neighbours.
Architectural Significance or Value
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House has architectural significance as a fine example of the Edwardian Baroque style which became ‘the accepted architectural expression of British Imperialism’ – with New Zealand architects such as John Campbell turning to that style, reflecting its use in England. The style reflects an exuberant architectural moment, soon to be lost replaced by austere and functional post-war architecture, and the financial constraints of the 1930s. The architectural significance is evident in the interior – particularly the Proscenium arch, circle, council chambers, and the plaster ceilings in the theatre circle.
Technological Significance or Value
Conservation architect Chris Cochran describes the ‘very distinct technical value in the structure of the building as a large-scale load-bearing masonry structure.’ The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House provides evidence of stonemasonry, materials, methods and construction techniques from the early twentieth century. Also of technical value are the steel roof trusses, the concrete foundations and proscenium beam, the timber construction of floors and roofs, as well as the timber joinery and decorative plasterwork. While there has been change, this has been gradual, and has maintained the building’s technological value.
Cultural Significance or Value
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House reflects the culture and history of the town and represents its civic face. The building of a town hall depended on the ‘individual history and quality of the towns’ and the size of the population had to be able to support the building of such an edifice, and there had to be a community consciousness and a sense of civic splendour. Cunningham writes that ‘the full meaning of a town hall is only realised on ceremonial occasions’ and these buildings were ‘erected to serve that function.’ The building reflects the culture and organisation of local government in the early twentieth century and is an expression of triumph and progress.
Social Significance or Value
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House (Former) has been the centre of Oamaru’s civic and artistic life since 1907. It is a building that is familiar to every Oamaru resident and it has been the centre of special occasions and community gatherings. It houses commemorative honours boards to prominent individuals, including mayors and councillors, and also honours Sergeant Donald Forrester Brown who was awarded the Victoria Cross, and was killed in action in France. The building has hosted movie goers, political meetings, theatre and cultural groups, and community celebrations, remains a cultural hub for the Oamaru community, and continues to evolve as a performing arts venue and function centre.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House reflects the history of civic administration, local identity and civic pride and its expression in architecture. In Oamaru, the Town Hall and Opera House takes on additional significance as the town’s chosen way of presenting its civic pride in stone – stone that has given the town itself its identity and in a streetscape that celebrates the town’s architectural identity. In the context of Thames Street, this building is the heart of the town’s identity and the council’s chosen expression of civic pride, and so has special significance. The Town Hall and Opera House stands among grand buildings – but these are temples to commerce and central government services – the Municipal Chambers and Opera House is the community’s expression of its own identity. Its place in Oamaru’s history reflects the prosperity and status of the town.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House (Former) is associated with architect John Megget Forrester who made a significant contribution to Oamaru’s nationally significant townscape, carrying on his father Thomas Forrester’s architectural legacy. The building is also associated with figures significant to Oamaru’s history, including Mayor Robert Milligan, under whose term the Town Hall and Opera House were built.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place
The high community esteem for the Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House (Former) is shown in the community and funding support for the award-winning redevelopment of the building in 2011. The building continues to be well-used by the community.
(g) The technical accomplishment, value, or design of the place
Conservation architect Chris Cochran writes that the architectural design of the Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House has ‘very high value.’ He states that the building ‘is a significant example nationally of the Edwardian Baroque style, a bold and assertive design that proclaims the prosperity and pride of the town of Oamaru.’ Cochran considers the quality of John Megget Forrester’s work and architectural legacy as nationally significant. Cochran writes that the building is a landmark – an ‘imposing termination’ to the views west from Wear Street, ‘impressive in size, yet in scale with its neighbours’ and continuing the Classical theme of nearby buildings. The design significance is particularly evident in the interior – particularly the Proscenium arch, circle, council chambers, and the plaster ceilings in the theatre circle.
(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place
The former Council Chambers in the Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House is home to honours rolls commemorating the important contributions of mayors, councillors and other significant Oamaru individuals. The building, therefore, has commemorative significance, and represents the town’s civic pride.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House has a special place in the outstanding townscape of Oamaru. The building is a key component on Thames Street, standing among the civic, government and commercial buildings on the west side of Thames Street, and opposite the commercial buildings on the east of the street. The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House stands between the former Waitaki County Council Chambers and next to the Oamaru Courthouse. It is the civic face of the town and has special significance. The building is a ‘significant building in an area of very great heritage significance’, and ‘strengthens the character of the area (Thames Street from the Severn Street to Itchen Street intersections) perhaps more than any other single building.’
Summary of Significance or Values
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House reflects the history of civic administration, local identity and civic pride and its expression in architecture. In Oamaru, the Town Hall and Opera House takes on special significance as the Oamaru’s chosen way of presenting its civic pride in stone – stone that has given the town itself its identity - in an outstanding streetscape that celebrates the town’s architectural identity. Its significance is also evident in its ornate interior detailing. In the context of Thames Street, this building is the heart of the town’s identity and the council’s chosen expression of civic pride, and so has special significance. The Town Hall and Opera House stands among grand buildings – but these are temples to commerce and central government services – the Town Hall and Opera House is the community’s expression of its identity, reflecting Oamaru’s historic prosperity and status.
The Waitaki area is traditionally associated with the Kāhui-tipua, Te Rapuwai, Waitaha and Kāti Mamoe peoples. The land around the Waitaki River Mouth shows evidence of extensive settlement, while Moeraki was one of the early cradles of knowledge for Waitaha and Kāti Mamoe histories. Key coastal settlements were at Moeraki, Shag Point, Waikouaiti, and Huriawa (the Karitane Peninsula). Ngāi Tahu’s prehistoric presence is shown through a range of archaeological sites from middens to urupā and rock art. Ngāi Tahu named the area in the lee of the cape, Oamaru or the place of Maru, making use of the resources of the area.
In 1858, the town was surveyed, and the first sections were opened up for sale the following year on Tyne and Tees Streets. Here, some of Oamaru's earliest European buildings were erected. From the 1860s, as the town grew, serving the rich hinterland with its grain and wool, wooden buildings were replaced by stone structures. The scale and elaborate design of the buildings reflect the vigorous economy.
In 1874 the Oamaru Harbour Board was formed and granted the land on the seaward side of Tyne Street as part of their 171-acre endowment. Harbour Street was the first part of the endowment to be developed, with the land subdivided and leased, providing income for the harbour board. The buildings on Harbour Street were grain stores, wool stores and warehouses, ornately designed in a Classical style reflecting the wealth of the hinterland and the buoyant economy. On Tyne Street offices, banks and stores sprung up, servicing the nearby port. The town’s first commercial centre grew around Tyne Street, Wansbeck Street, Tees Street and Itchen Street – the first hotels, grocers, butchers, bootmakers, saddlers, boarding houses, bakers, plumbers, chemists, hairdressers, newspaper proprietors and even photographers had their premises here. From the mid-1860s to the early 1880s, the area was the commercial heart of Oamaru.
Timber soon gave way to stone. Although the streets were still potholed and muddy and reeling with drunkards and larrikins, elaborate limestone buildings lined the streets. Architectural historian Peter Shaw described this as the ‘Architecture of Prosperity’ but it was a façade: the town had the ‘sorry distinction of being the best built and most-mortgaged in the colony.’ During the 1860s-1870s Oamaru was a thriving local port and service centre, its prosperity based on the export of grain and wool to other parts of New Zealand and overseas. From 1882, frozen meat was exported through Oamaru, although Port Chalmers was the main port for the trade.
Thames Street, cratered and rough, separated from the harbour by the meandering Oamaru Creek, soon had the grandest limestone temples of Victorian architecture – the Bank of Otago and the Bank of New South Wales, completed by 1871. Architect William Clayton’s 1864 post office was superseded by Thomas Forrester’s Chief Post Office in 1884. The Athenaeum and Mechanics’ Institute, the Courthouse, the Town Hall and Opera House, and the Waitaki County Council Chambers marked Thames Street as the civic centre of the town.
By the early 1880's New Zealand was entering a depression that affected Oamaru particularly badly. Wool prices fell dramatically and the massive public spending of the Vogel era had come to a close. By 1885, virtually all new construction stopped in Oamaru.
When the national economy finally recovered in the mid-1890's Oamaru's followed only slowly, its role as a local centre having been eroded, mainly by improvements in the transport infrastructure. The new rail links, combined with the more sophisticated port facilities at Dunedin and Timaru, absorbed much of Oamaru's trade and reduced its former self-sufficiency. Oamaru’s growth stagnated.
Oamaru Borough Council Premises
In the early years of settlement, Oamaru was administered by its Town Board. When the Provincial Council passed the Municipal Corporations Ordinance in 1865, the townspeople petitioned for Oamaru to be brought under the ordinance, and the town was proclaimed a borough on 3 April 1866. The town was brought under the control of the mayor and council – with eight councillors representing four wards.
On 6 August 1866 the Oamaru Borough Council met for the first time in George Sumpter’s office – Sumpter was shortly to be appointed town clerk, a position he held from 1866-1870. When the section on the corner of Itchen and Thames Street became vacant, the Council took over the land and built wooden offices for the clerk and engineer, enlarging it later, and this ‘unsightly building’ was the home for the Borough Council for forty years. By the turn of the century, the Borough Chambers were ‘old, unsightly and discreditable to the town.’ The need for new facilities was hastened by the loss to redevelopment of the Theatre Royal, Oamaru’s only public hall and the social centre of the town.
The Council proposed to erect a new building that would house both the municipal offices and a theatre. After some debate, the council decided to adopt a single-storey plan; a group of businessmen grouped together and offered to finance the second storey as a private venture. The Council decided to carry out the complete design themselves. In 1905, Mayor Robert Milligan put the question of acquiring land for a new town hall to visiting premier Right Honourable Richard Seddon. By July, land between the Courthouse and the Waitaki County Council was selected as the site. The Council called for competitive designs. To the delight of the Council, Oamaru architect John Megget Forrester (entered as ‘Scotia’) won the competition, and the tender was let to contractors H Winsley and Sons, at a final cost of £10,600. The design was enlarged to include a concert hall and a second storey.
Sir Joseph Ward laid the foundation stone in October 1906, and the new premises were opened on 8 October 1907, with much celebration and fanfare. The North Otago Times printed a long and effusive article on the new premises, emphasising the importance of the two parts of the building - the Town Hall and the Opera House. The ground floor of the Town Hall included offices let to private tenants, as well as the Council offices. Upstairs were the Council Chambers. The auditorium measured 60 feet [18.2 metres] square, with a raked floor to the orchestra pit. The upstairs gallery continued as far as the proscenium wall. The auditorium seated 1007 people. The stage was 40 feet [12.2 metres] deep, with a proscenium arch measuring 38 feet by 24 feet [11.6 by 7.3 metres] with a reinforced concrete lintel. Six dressing rooms were located over the two floors. The stage, and auditorium, cloak and dressing rooms were lit with electric light, while the Town Hall portion was lit by gas.
Civic Identity: the Importance of Town Halls
Town halls were one of the ‘largest and most significant types of Victorian buildings.’ Town halls developed during the Victorian period and provided a ‘statement in brick and mortar of urban consciousness and of pride and confidence in their towns. They have to mirror the history of their town as well as proclaim its wealth and future, and this is generally most easily done by the use of motifs with an established history. What makes this class of buildings worth studying is their significance in the developing townscape, not only in relation to the growth of their town but also in the field of competition between towns. Each of these buildings was designed to be both a focus and a showpiece for its town as well as a functional creation.’
Town Hall designs called upon English precedents. In England, styles ranged from Italianate classical to Gothic of the 1830s, to Renaissance, and then through to Queen Anne and Jacobean, and then finally to the Edwardian Baroque of the pre-World War One years. Edwardian Baroque, architectural historian Colin Cunningham describes as ‘fully established’ in England in the 1890s, lasting until 1914 ‘when the Great War brought an end to the comfortably bourgeois society that had for nearly a century expressed its communal self-satisfaction in stone and marble.’ The spirit underlying these designs ‘teach us about Victorian attitudes to urbanisation and the attendant problems of the community that were, dimly perhaps, recognised as the century progressed. The question of status seems to me intimately bound up with the problems of community consciousness and urban development, and it is in that light that we should consider these buildings. They answered complex and constantly developing functional and emotional needs, and they provided the expanding towns with a succession of buildings, good, bad and indifferent, that were always showy, often vulgar and domineering but very seldom dull when seen in relation to the town that built them.’
Victorian town halls are symbols that grew up ‘to fulfil the needs of the rapidly developing towns that were for the first time urban centres such as we would understand.’ Paralleling the urbanisation in England was New Zealand’s own urban development, so the symbolic importance is similar. Victorian and Edwardian town halls were often multi-purpose – including meeting spaces, council chambers, office spaces, places for public entertainment and even fire stations. The growth of office spaces and committee rooms reflects the growth of municipal legislation – with the associated need for town clerks, surveyors and engineers, gas and water departments, medical officers, road departments and the like. Town halls developed as ‘symbolic centres’ to express the status of the towns and their administrations.
Architect John Megget Forrester chose to design the Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House in Edwardian Baroque style. Edwardian Baroque became ‘the accepted architectural expression of British Imperialism’ – with New Zealand architects such as John Campbell turning to that style, reflecting its use in England. Campbell’s deliberate play between symmetry and asymmetry was ‘typical of late Victorian and Edwardian buildings.’ Outstanding Edwardian Baroque buildings in New Zealand include Troup’s Dunedin Railway Station, Seagar’s Christchurch Municipal Council Chambers, Trigg and Corlett’s Bath-House in Rotorua, Parliament buildings and the Public Trust Building in Wellington. Conservation architect Chris Cochran considers the Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House an outstanding example of Edwardian Baroque architecture. After the Great War, designs changed – no longer exuberant but more austere and functional, in keeping with the changing mood and financial constraints of the 1920s and 1930s.
The building of a town hall depended on the ‘individual history and quality of the towns’, and the size of the population had to be able to support the building of such an edifice, and there had to be a community consciousness. ‘Obviously, though, in a century of urbanisation, the economic progress of the towns could lead to a fairly precise ranking of towns which their efforts at civic splendour would generally echo.’
Cunningham writes that ‘the full meaning of a town hall is only realised on ceremonial occasions’ and these buildings were ‘erected to serve that function.’ ‘It is fashionable now to concentrate on the faintly ridiculous aspects of local ceremonial and to dismiss the whole thing in a mood of impatience at our too distant local government. In doing so we forget that in the nineteenth century the actual achievement of properly local government was something to celebrate...The constant refrain of town hall builders was that they were not only housing the municipal bureaucracy but building dignified figureheads, and the buildings demand to be seen as such.…Taken in this sense the buildings make a triumphant statement of successful progress achieved with a confidence that we may well envy even while we sneer at its naïveté.’
In Oamaru, the Town Hall and Opera House (Former) takes on additional significance as the town’s chosen way of presenting its civic pride in stone – stone that has given the town its identity and in a streetscape that celebrates the town’s architecture. In the context of Thames Street, this building is the heart of the town’s identity and the council’s chosen expression of civic pride, and so has special significance. The Town Hall and Opera House (Former) stands among grand buildings – but these are temples to commerce and central government services – the Town Hall and Opera House (Former) is the community’s expression of its own identity.
The Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House was the focal point for the administrative and social life of the town from 1907 until 1994. Businesses important to the growth of the town have had offices in the building. ‘The building retains significant integrity for it to serve as an important example nationally of what a modest-sized provincial town could aspire to in civic amenities in the first decade of the 20th century. It stands as a potent symbol of the prosperity of Oamaru at this time.’ It is a building that is familiar to every Oamaru resident. It has been the centre of special occasions and community gatherings. It houses commemorative honours boards to prominent individuals, including mayors and councillors, as well as to honours Sergeant Donald Forrester Brown who was awarded the Victoria Cross, and was killed in action in France. The Town Hall has been the centre of celebrations with the VJ celebrations at the end of World War 2, as well as the site of political meetings. This was a ‘truly civic building, one that has been central to the social, artistic life of the town.’
The interior layout and status of rooms reflected the functions of the building – with the council chamber, the mayoral reception spaces and offices important elements in the administrative part of the building. The status of these spaces is shown in the architectural detailing. In Oamaru, the town hall also reflects the status as the main meeting place for the town. The Opera House hosted countless theatrical, musical, cultural groups and community associations – both local and international. As a movie theatre it showed moving pictures from around 1907. Janet Frame writes of the opera house theatre (renaming it the Miami, and comparing it with the flasher Majestic [Regent Theatre] across the road), describing it as ‘austere and cold with an icy wind blowing through the heavy velvet curtains at the back. The unenlightened people go there, to whistle and sing out and rustle chocolate papers and blow through their teeth. Whee-e-e-e whenever the hero and heroine kiss, or when she throws her clothes from behind a curtain and you know she is either going to bed or about to have a censored bath…The Miami, because of its lower caste, does not cost as much as the Regent. If you want to look at the stars there, you go outside to see them fretting their light with frost and cold cloud. They cannot be extinguished with a turn of a switch and you do not pay for them.’
Redevelopment of the Oamaru Opera House
In 2009, the Oamaru Opera House was redeveloped. The project was funded by the Waitaki District Council, a substantial grant from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, as well as $260,000 through local fund raising efforts. This shows the special esteem in which the building was held.
The refurbishment by Melbourne architectural practice William Ross Architects won the Public Architecture category of the 2010 Southern Architecture Awards and the 2011 New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) Heritage award for Heritage Conservation. The back stage was modernised and a new back stage facilities wing was built to the south. The jury hailed the project for ‘reclaiming a previously almost unusable building and creating "a magnificent community asset for performance"’. The new ‘backstage facilities wing with its two-storeyed glazed atrium’ was described as making ‘a tour de force of the old Oamaru stone wall it abuts; the conserved original building sits comfortably alongside the confidently detailed modern elements. The interior fit-out skilfully complements the iconic architecture.’
The 2011 NZIA Heritage Award citation reads: ‘In this perfectly pitched project, a fine but neglected provincial opera house has been successfully redeveloped as a magnificent resource for its town. Making skilful and judicious use of available resources, including funding raised by the community, the Architects pursued a laudable approach to heritage architecture: unfussy and direct. The existing building has been treated with respect, while contemporary additional elements have been designed for utility and expressed with clarity. New and old sit well together in this building, and a broad and flexible range of amenity has resulted. Thanks to the courage and vision of the project's supporters, the Oamaru Opera House can, once more, really sing.’ In 2016, the Oamaru Opera House, as it is known now, is open to the public (restricted hours apply).
Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House sits on the west side of Thames Street, the main thoroughfare of Oamaru. The west side of Thames Street between Severn Street and Oamaru Creek is the site of the grand civic and government buildings in Oamaru, as well as striking commercial buildings. With the Fallen Trooper’s Memorial and the World War One Memorial marking either end, this is an outstanding townscape, within which the Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House make a special contribution – confirming the town’s identity with its heart of stone – the civic representation of Oamaru’s identity.
Conservation architect Chris Cochran writes that ‘the aesthetic value of the Oamaru Opera House is very high, both for its architectural design and for its townscape value.’ He states that the building ‘is a significant example nationally of the Edwardian Baroque style, a bold and assertive design that proclaims the prosperity and pride of the town of Oamaru.’ Cochran considers the quality of John Megget Forrester’s work and architectural legacy as nationally significant.
Cochran writes that the building is a landmark – an ‘imposing termination’ to the views west from Wear Street, ‘impressive in size, yet in scale with its neighbours’ and continuing the Classical theme of nearby buildings. The building is a ‘significant building in an area of very great heritage significance’, and ‘strengthens the character of the area (Thames Street from the Severn Street to Itchen Street intersections) perhaps more than any other single building.’
The main elevation on Thames Street faces east. It is symmetrical about the central arched doorway, which stands forward from the main line of the façade, and is flanked by a pavilion at each end. The central section and the two end pavilions have rusticated pilasters, giving them a prominence against the plain pilasters that separate the windows; the pavilions are dominated by high pediments with segmental arches, at the central one with a circular oriel window and with volutes on either side. The circular window now features the coat of arms of the town; the original window (still intact in the roof space) was a simple geometric pattern of squares.
Horizontally the face is divided by a strong base, a first-floor cornice, and a roof cornice with dog-tooth moulding; an open balustrade finishes the building at roof level, linking the three pediments. Within this framework, there is rich Classical decoration, especially in the capitals of the pilasters, and the pediments over the windows. The ground floor pediments are triangular, while those of the first floor are segmental arches with keystones and ornamented shields; all the windows are set within reveals of stepped pilasters, giving a strongly modulated, three-dimensional character to the façade.
The side and rear facades are severely plain, with only the simplest of moulding used to finish the stonework at eaves level. The Edwardian Baroque styling is characterised by Classical elements used in a free and original manner; bold details, shapes and forms; a strong roof silhouette, but with the order, logic and symmetry of the Classical style.
The building is load-bearing stone masonry with walls up to 450mm thick and to a height of 17.5 metres around the flytower. The stone is Oamaru limestone, specified as ‘Gays XL’ locally quarried. The stone face shows outside, while inside, the stonework is plastered and painted. Significant structural elements of the building are built in in-situ concrete.
The roof trusses that span the full width of the auditorium, approximately 18 metres, are steel with riveted connections, the western-most truss has the words ‘J Jack Engineer’ painted on one of the chords. The trusses over the fly tower are built of timber components. The roof to the front is timber-framed and supported by the wall partitions below.
Floors are laid in tongue and groove timber. The circle floor is framed in timber and supported on ten cast iron columns.
Cochran describes the ‘very distinct technical value in the structure of the building – as a large-scale load-bearing masonry structure. The building provides evidence of stonemasonry, materials, methods and construction techniques from the early twentieth century. Also of technical value are the steel roof trusses, the concrete foundations and proscenium beam, the timber construction of floors and roofs, as well as the timber joinery and decorative plasterwork. While there has been change, the change has been gradual and has maintained the building’s technical value.’
Inside, the ground floor foyer space is largely modern and fills most of the space to the left of the entrance, where it has been used as a café space. A small foyer to the right gives access to a space created for a theatre. From the foyer, stairs go down to the stalls in the auditorium, and up to the circle. The stairwell is an impressive space – with the stairs dividing into two flights and coming together again at the circle foyer. Another flight leads on up to the Council Chamber and the mayor’s office to the right, and the Municipal offices to the left.
The stairs link the offices and the auditorium. The stalls were divided into orchestral stalls, stalls and pit (under the circle). The circle is supported on 10 cast iron columns and wraps around the auditorium in a horse-shoe shape, to finish against the proscenium wall on either side of the stage. The circle balustrade is richly embellished in plasterwork.
The proscenium arch frames a deep stage. There is an orchestra pit which has been floored over. The fly tower rises above the stage floor. The back stage and flys were modernised in 2009 as part of the redevelopment.
The building is heated with piped hot water to cast iron radiators – some of the original radiators are still in place. When the building opened the front office part was lit by gas, while the auditorium and the back stage were lit electrically.
Town Halls as a Building Type
Like their British antecedents, New Zealand towns and cities had places for public meetings and where public affairs could be administered. In England, the history of town halls in the nineteenth century is linked to the Municipal Reform Act of 1835. With the creation of municipal boroughs and their associated administering authority, came the need for a place for officials to meet and work. Some towns adapted existing buildings while others commissioned new buildings, buildings that city fathers saw as representing and promoting the ‘wealth, culture and independent standing of their cities and improve the morals and taste of their inhabitants’, while also outdoing rival towns – civic pride as a competitive sport.
Democracy and architecture have been linked – town halls have provided the spaces for citizens or their representatives to make decisions and the buildings are representations of the value of democracy, a ‘reminder of the aspirations of nations and their values.’ The form of town halls was not dictated by their function, but the representation of the importance of democracy. Many such buildings use classical styles – harking back to the prestige of classical architecture and its association ‘with the democratic republican character of Athens and Ancient Rome.’ The form of the debating chambers also varied, with many British or colonial town halls adopting adversarial chambers with facing sets of benches. Local town halls ‘embody the ideal of local, more or less democratic self-rule.’
Colonial towns, like the fast developing British industrial towns, created ‘identifiable civic buildings signifying the very city itself.’ In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, town halls had certain key elements ‘a grand entrance hall and stair, mayor reception room, council chamber, committee rooms, offices as a minimum, with other civic and culture amenities added, such as public halls, auditoriums for lectures, festivities, sometimes also libraries, museums, galleries or fire stations.’ Town halls were prominently located and imposing, often with a clock tower. Such buildings were also to be architecturally up to date – Britain saw ‘the emergence of a more eclectic style bringing together different elements – Gothic, French Renaissance, Tudor, Jacobean and Queen Anne – in increasingly ornate facades.’ The eclectic style gave way to ‘Edwardian baroque’ and after the First World War was replaced by stripped-down classicism.
Architectural historian Colin Cunningham writes that ‘[l]ooking back, it is tempting to dismiss 19th and early 20th century town halls as essentially patrician institutions, more about pomp and display than democracy. But these buildings were always highly ambiguous. Certainly, the municipal government of this period was a relatively patrician affair – Victorian councils were dominated either by wealthy local businessmen or the established professional classes – and this was reflected in their architecture. The buildings were commissioned and often financed by the urban elite who had first claim over them. Public galleries…were set apart from the council chamber proper and usually accessed through a concealed spiral stair or attic passage. Council meetings were extremely formal, intimidating affairs, with not only the mayor but aldermen and councillor attending ‘in state’, committee meetings were hardly more welcoming. The division between patricians and plebeians, moreover, was often extended to other parts of the building [for example separate offices of relief of the poor].’
The nature of democracy changed and by the end of the nineteenth century, the councils were ‘elected by an increasingly broad franchise and councillors themselves were by no means all upper class. Moreover charges for the buildings’ main amenities…were subsidised, bringing ‘the buildings into the daily ambience of many, indeed most, of the townspeople.’ ‘The main meeting hall, in particularly, was used by almost all sectors of the town.’ Even those built as concert halls hosted political gatherings, or civil events.
‘World War One brought to an end of the great era of town hall building. The classes who dominated local government had lost a little of both their money and confidence and demands on the public purse had grown.’ Town halls continued to be built but they tended to make more provision for offices and less provision for public facilities, and the exuberant architecture gave way to more austere styles. ‘Revealingly, some of these new constructions called themselves not town halls but ‘municipal offices.’ The twentieth century has seen councils less ‘states within a state’ and associated buildings have added little to the ‘civic realm.’ ‘The arrival of the car led to council headquarters often being placed away from the city centre….Civic halls found it hard to compete with the attractions of cinema, TV and the spacious centrally-heated home. Added to which, the sheer size of the bureaucracy they had to house changed their nature, overshading political and civic activities and squeezing out cultural ones. Originally conceived as grand council chambers with offices attached, town halls now become offices adjoined by a modest council chamber.’
In New Zealand, Category 1 town halls are recognised for their special architectural, townscape, social and historical values. The most prominent and well known are in cities – Auckland’s Town Hall (1909-11); Dunedin Municipal Chambers (List Entry No. 2197); Christchurch’s Municipal Chambers (Former) (List Entry No. 1844); and Wellington Town Hall (List Entry No. 3275).
Like their grander city relations, the Category 1 provincial town halls/municipal chambers represent the social and community history, civic administration, and status of the smaller towns. They are recognised for their architectural style and contribution to local affairs. Some, like the Port Chalmers Municipal Buildings, represent the multi-purpose facilities typical of nineteenth century civic buildings – with its fire station, customs department, court facility and council chambers. Others are special examples of architectural styles – such as Westport’s superb Moderne Municipal Chambers.
The closest comparison to Oamaru’s Town Hall and Opera House is the Category 1 Invercargill Town Hall and Civic Theatre, opened in 1906, a year earlier than Oamaru’s new building, which resembles it. Architecture and arts writer Peter Shaw writes that Forrester’s design is most closely related to E.R. Wilson’s design. Like Forrester’s design, Wilson’s building provides for a town hall and theatre. Like Wilson’s design, Forrester’s makes a strong statement in the townscape – promoting the civic identity of Oamaru. Shaw describes Forrester’s composition – ‘[a] towering central pediment which dominates the façade has rusticated pilasters repeated on the two end bays; elsewhere decoration is more restrained though hardly deserving the faint praise sometimes given this building.’ Shaw believes that perhaps people were misled by the ‘Opera House’ in the title.
Compared to the Category 2 places on the Heritage New Zealand List, the Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House is grander, larger scale, and has a stronger street presence. It is a key building in this already outstanding townscape, and as such entry on the List as a Category 1 historic place is appropriate.
Examples of Category 1 Town Halls/Municipal Chambers – Main Cities
Auckland Town Hall (List Entry No. 549)
The Town Hall (built 1910-11) is a prominent civic landmark in the heart of commercial Auckland. Its grand architectural style is Imperial Baroque, the exterior combining stone and early reinforced concrete.
Wellington Town Hall (List Entry No. 3275)
This is Wellington's second town hall (built 1902-04). The main auditorium (and the concert chamber, until its demolition) has been used for a remarkably diverse range of activities.
Municipal Chambers (List Entry No. 2197, Category 1)/ Dunedin Town Hall and Concert Chamber (List Entry No. 2150, Category 2)
The Municipal Chambers upon its completion in 1880 was the most impressive town hall in New Zealand reflecting Dunedin's economic prosperity at the time, and is a major work by an architect of national importance.
Municipal Chambers (Former), Christchurch (List Entry No. 1844, Category 1)
The former Municipal Chambers building was erected in 1886-1887 as chambers and offices for the Christchurch City Council, and is a rare example of a town hall built in the Queen Anne style.
Category 1 Town Halls and Municipal Chambers – Provincial Centres
Invercargill Town Hall and Civic Theatre (List Entry No. 2521, Category 1)
The Invercargill Town Hall and Civic Theatre is a prominent landmark on one of Invercargill's main streets. It officially opened in November 1906 and was built for the local council, which had previously been housed in the former Southland Provincial Council Chambers. The combination of city hall and the up-to-date theatre was seen as unusual at the time of the building's opening. The Town Hall and Civic Theatre play an important part in Invercargill's social and cultural life and the building is historically significant as the centre of city governance for most of the twentieth century. It is architecturally significant as a fine Edwardian Baroque building and an impressive part of the Tay Street townscape.
Hastings Municipal Buildings (List Entry No. 177, Category 1)
The buildings, constructed in 1916, are of very considerable historical significance as the civic and administrative centre of Hastings for a period of sixty years.
Municipal Chambers, Westport (List No. 5000, Category 1)
Built for the Westport Borough Council in 1938-1941, the Municipal Chambers are the most distinctive architectural feature in Westport today.
Port Chalmers Municipal Chambers (List Entry No. 4373, Category 1)
The building (constructed 1888-89) was designed as a combined government and local body office. It originally housed Customs, the Police, Fire Brigade offices, the Court House, Town Hall and Borough Council Chamber and offices.
Buller County Council Chambers, Westport (List Entry No. 5001, Category 1)
The former Buller County Council (built 1940) is a modestly proportioned building which enhances the low-rise character of Westport's main thoroughfare, Palmerston Street, and introduces an element of variety to the local streetscape.
Category 2 Town Halls/Municipal Chambers
Category 2 town halls tend to be smaller with modest facilities and less architectural presence than their Category 1 counterparts. Compared with these halls, the Oamaru Town Hall and Opera House is grand, has a special role in the streetscape of Oamaru and is the town’s chosen expression of its civic value in stone. This is particularly important given Oamaru’s outstanding historic townscape. The examples shown below illustrate the typical scale and design of these buildings. Oamaru’s Town Hall and Opera House has more in common with the Category 1 buildings illustrated above.
Cambridge Town Hall (List Entry No. 4187, Category 2)
Designed by Arthur Bibra Herrold, who by 1908 was practising architecture in Auckland, winning a competition for the design of Cambridge Town Hall (erected 1909).
Clyde Town Hall and Public Library (List No. 2367, Category 2)
The former Clyde Town Hall built in 1869, and the former Clyde Public Library built in 1874 have historical, architectural and social significance.
Eltham Town Hall (List Entry No. 7127, Category 2)
An important building within the community of Eltham, the town hall (built 1910) is distinguished by its size and function, and by what was originally an impressive façade.
Lakes County Council Chambers (Former), Queenstown (List Entry No. 2337, Category 2)
The former Lake County Council Chambers (built 1881) is a prominent and striking building with aesthetic, architectural, historical, and social significance.
Rangiora Town Hall (List Entry No. 3788, Category 2)
The Town Hall is a prominent civic landmark constructed in 1925-6 in the commercial heart of the rural North Canterbury town of Rangiora. The building has historic significance, demonstrating the profile of civic government in the inter-war years in provincial New Zealand.
Waverley Town Hall (List Entry No. 944, Category 2)
The Waverley Town Hall (built 1908) is a local landmark, reflecting people's confidence and pride in their town and district, and the hall has contributed enormously to the identity of the area.
Council Chambers and Fire Station (Former), Grey Lynn (List Entry No. 572, Category 2)
The former Council Offices and Fire Station (built 1889) in Grey Lynn, Auckland is an unusual example of a dual-purpose municipal building whose striking design represents an expression of civic pride.
Town hall opened
Restoration, refurbishment, addition
Oamaru stone, timber, corrugated iron
21st September 2016
Report Written By
Conal McCarthy, Forrester and Lemon of Oamaru, architects, Oamaru, 2002
Gavin McLean, Oamaru History & Heritage, University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 2002
Chris Cochran, ‘Oamaru Opera House, Thames Street Oamaru: Conservation Plan For the Waitaki District Council’, 13 September 2005.
Colin Cunningham, Victorian and Edwardian Town Halls, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981.
K.C. McDonald, Oamaru 1878: A Colonial Town, 1878 Publication Group of the Waitaki District Council, Oamaru, 2006
Ben Rogers, Reinventing the Town Hall: A Handbook, ippr, London, 2004
Peter Shaw, Whitestone Oamaru: A Victorian Architectural Heritage, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 1995
A copy of the original report is available from the NZHPT Southern region office.
The 2009 refurbishment of the Opera House by Williams Ross Architects won the Public Architecture category of the 2010 Southern Architecture Awards on 19 November 2010.
NZIA National Award Winner 2011, Category: Heritage Conservation
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.
A fully referenced upgrade report is available on request from the Otago/Southland Office of Heritage New Zealand