Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute

22-24 The Octagon, Dunedin

  • Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics’ Institute. Image courtesy of www.cityofliterature.co.nz.
    Copyright: Dunedin City of Literature. Taken By: Uknown.
  • Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute. February 2008.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Jonathan Howard.
  • Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute. 2006. Left - Detail of the capital of the columns in the library. Right - Detail of ceiling vent in library.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Heather Bauchop.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7781 Date Entered 26th September 2008 Date of Effect 26th September 2008


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Sec 33 Blk XV Town of Dunedin (RT OT253/67) Otago Land District and the building known as The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute thereon, and its fittings and fixtures (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Sec 33 Blk XV Town of Dunedin (RT OT253/67), Otago Land District


The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute, which opened in 1870 on a prominent site in The Octagon, Dunedin, is one of the oldest surviving main-centre athenaeums still used for its original purpose in New Zealand.

The Mechanics' Institute was originally formed in Dunedin in 1851 and became known as the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute from 1859. The private organisation took a wider responsibility for the education of the Dunedin community at a time when there was no other adult education available by providing a library and classes for its members.

Membership increased after the Dunedin gold rushes of 1860-1862 and, by the late 1860s, the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute required new and larger premises. Well-known Dunedin architect David Ross (1827-1908) was commissioned to design the new building for a site in The Octagon, the heart of Dunedin's central business district. The building was formally opened by the Premier the Hon. William Fox (1812? - 1893) on the 9 May 1870. The bluestone and brick building presented a classical two-storey façade to the Octagon and its facilities included a library, a reading room, a ladies room and three classrooms. The building was subsequently altered several times to meet the changing needs of its members.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the popularity of athenaeums and mechanics institutes declined as local government began to offer the services that such organisations had traditionally provided. As a result, while a number of their buildings still survive, the organisations which constructed the buildings have not. The continued survival of the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute is relatively unusual and, like others that continued to operate in the twentieth century, was largely a result of the private subscription library it offered its members. The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute continue to operate the Athenaeum Library from its 1870s premises in 2008.

The evolution from an organisation focused on education, into a place of social gathering, and its current function as a private subscription library, provide an illustration of the changing culture over the last 150 years. As one of the only main centre Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institutes still used for its original purpose, the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute is of special significance.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute has special historic significance. The organisation forms an early part of the history of adult education in New Zealand, and also links to the wider history of the origin of libraries in New Zealand. The history the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute in Dunedin provides insight into the workings of the community, and of individuals of outstanding importance to the history of Dunedin. Its changing nature and continued survival in its building constructed in 1869-1870 is a largely unrecognised, but nonetheless significant tale.

Architectural Significance or Value:

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute has architectural significance. The building was designed by prominent Dunedin architect David Ross, and while it was completed in a stripped back form of the original design, is still an important component of the surviving nineteenth century streetscape of The Octagon. The surviving interior detail of the Athenaeum Library gives an indication of the grand intentions of the Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute, although the alterations and condition of the building make it difficult to read the original design.

Cultural Significance or Value:

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute has its origins in the cultural milieu of the mid-nineteenth century and provides an illustration of the society in which it was founded. Mechanics' Institutes and Athenaeums were private organisations which took a wider responsibility for the education of the Dunedin community at a time when there was no provision for adult education, and shows the importance of education to the founders of the city. Its evolution from an organisation focused on education, into a place of social gathering, and its current function as a private subscription library provides an illustration of the changing culture over the last 150 years. As one of the only cultural institutions of its type to survive on its nineteenth century site it is of special significance.

Social Significance or Value:

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute is of special social significance. The building provided a community centre and meeting place for over 150 years, with the story of the changing community use, providing an insight into the changing society over that long period of use. The Athenaeum Society continues to operate from the building.

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

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute reflects the important history of the origins, and change in, community-based education in New Zealand. The Institute was valued by its members as a venue providing cultural and literary developments in the mid nineteenth century. It demonstrates the kind of facilities provided by early reading rooms and libraries. Its continued survival provides rare insight into this special institution.

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

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute has an association with a number of individuals of outstanding importance in the history of Dunedin. The Rev. Thomas Burns, the founder of Dunedin, was a prime mover in the formation of the Mechanics' Institute. He along with similarly important individuals such as superintendent of the Otago Province James Macandrew, who stands alongside Burns as a pivotal figure in the Mechanics' Institute movement show the community significance of the move for adult education in this form in nineteenth century Dunedin. The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute is also associated with prominent architect David Ross.

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

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute has special community significance. It has survived as a private subscription library for 150 years, with its continued operation a sign of the significance to those in the Athenaeum Society.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:

Elements within the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute have significance. Surviving elements such as the stairs and the architectural details give an indication of the social status of the building as reflected in David Ross' design.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute represents the culture and way of life of the mid to late nineteenth century that were once common throughout the country. The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute is of special significance as a rare urban survivor of these pioneering organisations.

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

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute forms a significant component in the remaining nineteenth century streetscape within the Octagon. It sits in the same quadrant as the Regent Theatre (Category I Record Number 4363) and the handsome, ornate ANZ Building (Category II Record Number 2137). The Octagon includes three other Category I historic places: Robert Burns Statue (Record Number 2208); St Paul's Cathedral and Belfry (Record Number 376) and the Municipal Chambers (Record Number 2197). The Octagon is the heart of Dunedin and as such has a special significance, of which the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute is an integral part.

Summary of Significance or Values:

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e, g, j, and k.


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

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute, designed by prominent Dunedin architect David Ross, has its origins in the cultural milieu of the mid-nineteenth century and provides a special illustration of the society in which it was founded. Mechanics' Institutes and Athenaeums were private organisations which took a wider responsibility for the education of the Dunedin community at a time when there was no provision for adult education, and shows the importance of education to the founders of the city. Its evolution from an organisation focused on education, into a place of social gathering, and its current function as a private subscription library provides an illustration of the changing culture over the last 150 years. As one of the only institutions of its type in New Zealand to survive on its nineteenth century site it is of special significance.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Ross, David

David Ross (1827-1908) was one of a significant number of architects who came to New Zealand from Australia in the early 1860s prompted by the news of the Otago gold rushes. Born in Scotland, Ross worked in Victoria in the late 1850s before settling in Dunedin in c.1862, whereupon he entered into a brief partnership with William Mason (1810-97). After establishing his own practice, Ross designed the Congregational Church (1863-64), Dunedin's oldest ecclesiastical building, Fernhill house (1867) which is now home to the Dunedin Club, and the central wing of the Otago Museum (1876-77).

In the mid-1860s Ross worked briefly in Hokitika (1866) before returning to Dunedin and in 1870 he applied for a patent for the frames and apparatus required for the construction of works in concrete. This application lapsed but it is nevertheless significant as it places Ross at the forefront of the development of mass concrete construction in this country. In addition to his professional responsibilities David Ross was also a member of the first Dunedin City Council (1865-66) and in 1876 he became the first president of the joint Institute of Engineers and Architects in Otago. Ross may have returned to Australia in the early 1890s and it would appear that he spent the rest of his life living in the United States and Japan.

Salmond, James Louis

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

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

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

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

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Mechanic Institutes and Athenaeums:

Mechanics' Institutes were established in Europe and America in the early nineteenth century as voluntary organisations for craftsmen and skilled workers. Institutes aimed to disseminate knowledge from trade to trade, breaking down traditional guild exclusiveness. They provided for the education of craftsmen and other skilled workers through lectures on science and a variety of self improvement topics.

Athenaeums were essentially subscription libraries, something between a public and a private organisation. They were popular from the late seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, often set up by scholarly professional groups for the benefit of other institutions, such as institutes and academies, but with their membership open to the general public.

Mechanic Institutes and Athenaeums in New Zealand in the Nineteenth Century:

In New Zealand, such organisations were formed for craftsmen and skilled workers following the first wave of large-scale European settlement in the 1840s. In Otago, the Provincial Council reserved land for mechanics' institutes and the like throughout the area in the 1860s and 1870s: Oamaru (1865), Lawrence (1870), Hampden and Invercargill (1871), Cromwell and Riverton (1873), Roslyn (1874) and Arrowtown (1875). After the abolition of the Otago Provincial Council there continued to be new reserves set aside at Port Chalmers and Waikouaiti in 1877. One study, which identified at least 96 such institutes in New Zealand, concluded that the majority were originally formed to run a library, although many provided adult education services.

Librarian and historian David Verran notes that:

'by the time of their export to New Zealand in the middle of the nineteenth century, the norm was more to provide a modest library of fiction and some non-fiction, a reading room for newspapers and magazines, and a venue for popular lectures and classes, book readings, selections from plays and light drama and music.'

James Belich describing them as:

'agents of the mid-nineteenth century forebears of moral evangelism, intended to fill the spare hours of self-improving workmen with useful leisure, or at least harmless pleasures, such as listening to or reading moralizing sermons, or playing Draughts and reading newspapers'.

Verran considered the impact of these organisations to be significant, if varied, at least until the 1880s.

Origins of the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute:

The Dunedin Mechanics' Institute was formed in 1851 by Reverend Thomas Burns (1796? - 1871), who was the most important religious leader in the early settlement of Otago and a strong supporter of public education. The Institute began with high educational and cultural ideals, 'a courageous and commendable experiment in view of the primitive facilities that existed for the dissemination of knowledge of the sciences and arts.' It was supported by many of the prominent men involved in early governing of the town. The inaugural meeting was attended by several prominent Otago figures including Burns, William Cargill, James Macandrew and John McGlashan. The objects of the institute included:

‘Lectures and classes for public instruction upon such subjects as natural philosophy, history, astronomy, geology, chemistry, political economy, music, languages, etc., and also to have regular fortnightly meetings of the members for mutual improvement by essays, reading and conversational inquiry.'

These were ambitious goals for a community of only 1500.

The Mechanic Institute's first building was on the site of what is now the Cargill Monument in the Exchange and opened on the 8 January 1853. The building was a small two-roomed affair designed by Daniel Macandrew, brother to James Macandrew, but provided an important meeting place for the budding settlement: the Provincial Council met there for many years, as did the Town Board.

According to David Verran, the Dunedin Mechanics Institute had few members or books, and held no classes. Later assessment judged the institute as ‘the most ambitious attempt to promote the cultural life of the village, but was perhaps a little too aspiring', flitting ‘sadly in and out of the story of Dunedin.' An 1858 report in The Colonist showed to the disgrace of Dunedin that six years after establishment its ‘membership was almost non-existent [20 members], and that under the headings number of books, number of classes, lectures during the year, subjects taught, objects of the institution and progress since first established, the answer in each case would have been ‘None'.'

The sharp words on the inefficacy of the organisation led to rebirth of the Mechanics Institute. It was renamed the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute and 44 new members joined. The organisation was given one thousand pounds for a building by the Provincial Council and the new building was completed in June 1862. The old Princes Street section was sold for a profit, and although the gold rushes of 1861-1862 had a negative effect on membership numbers, membership did increase. By the mid-1860s, the organisation had grown to include around 563 members and the new building was not large enough to accommodate them.

Construction of the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute Building:

By mid-1869 there were firm plans to erect a new building in Dunedin, although the process tried the patience of the Committee of Management, and was not without opposition. The Committee resolved to issue a notice requesting architects to furnish designs for the new building by early June. The Committee proposed that the building be brick and stone, or brick only, and that there be two shops facing The Octagon, and that there be a conversation room, class and storerooms, library, reading room, magazine and ladies room. Eight tenders were received for the construction of the new building. On 7 August 1869 the Committee of Management accepted the tender of W.T. Winchester at a price of £2,500. Winchester apparently declined to take up his tender and the next lowest of Messrs Watt and Co. was put to the Committee.

On 26 July 1869, architect David Ross presented plans for a new building in the Octagon. The committee had described the drawings marked ‘Economy' as exhibiting the most attention to detail, with the accompanying elevation ‘tasteful, striking and distinctive.' The Otago Witness published a description of the new building based on Ross' plans. The building had a ‘shop frontage, and a large hall and other premises at the back.' The site had a steep fall away from the Octagon and this was to be used for kitchens, cellars or other such uses. The article gave a detailed description of the new building:

‘The front will consist of two shops with an 8ft corridor between them. One of these will be 18ft by 30ft, and the other 15ft by 30ft, and will have cellars and kitchens, and large living rooms above them.'

The rents from the premises were to form revenue for the Athenaeum, or it was hoped, up to £225-250 per annum.

‘At the end of the corridor there will be an entrance hall, 12ft by 23ft 6in, leading to the reading room, which will have an area of 36ft by 35ft, and to the library of 35ft by 18ft, also to a magazine room of 14ft 6in by 23ft 6in on the right, and to ladies' room of 14ft by 15ft on the left, the latter having a lavatory and other conveniences attached. These rooms will be so arranged, by the librarian's desk being placed in a position that will command the whole of the entrances, so that no person can enter or retire without being seen.'

The two large rooms were to be divided by a moveable partition so that one large room could be formed with an area of 54ft by 35ft. The height of the shops and the magazine room was 15 ft, while the library was 17ft 6in. The library was lighted from the ceiling, and the reading room from windows in the side of the hall. The library had fireplaces and the reading room a large stove in the centre.

An 8ft staircase lead from the central hall to the basement floor, where a lobby, 12ft by 24ft, led to a conversation room, 14ft by 18ft, and to three class rooms, respectively 30ft by 17ft, 17ft 6in square, and 18ft by 13ft, all to be divided by moveable partitions, so as to form one large lecture room.

The basement floor also included ‘rooms suitable for the residence for the librarian', a storeroom, provision for a lavatory, and a passage to the yard at the back. The whole of this floor was to be built of bluestone with brick partitions, except where moveable. The roof was slate, and the interior plastered.

The front was of classic design, with Corinthian pillars on each side of the corridor supporting a pedestal, ‘on which is to be place a group of figures in relievo, the centre part will stand prominently out from the sides, and niches will be left in each wing for figures, windows intervening. The front will be cemented, and panels will be left on the upper part for the necessary inscriptions.' The article concluded that ‘[t]he entire building will no doubt form a prominent and highly ornamental feature in this part of the city and prove a boon to the residents of the whole of Dunedin.'

The foundation stone was laid on 9 November, with a public ceremony on the 12 November 1869 in Masonic style, with a large audience in attendance, presided over by local dignitaries and masons. Inserted in the foundation stone was a scroll describing the institution and dating the laying of the stone, and those involved. Another scroll was inserted with copies of the Otago Daily Times, the Otago Witness and Evening Star and the Masonic magazine. In addition there was a vial with coins of the period. Life member of the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute, Mason, and Otago Superintendent James Macandrew addressed the gathering hoping that the ‘building would not only be an ornament to the city in an architectural point of view, but that it would also be, in every sense of the word, a temple devoted to science, literature, and art, and would tend to elevate the tone of public feeling to something beyond thoughts of the mere acquisition of wealth.'

The building was opened by the Premier the Hon. William Fox on the 9 May 1870. It cost about £2,500. The Chair of the Committee hoped that the institution

‘taken in connection with our public system of education, with our High School for boys and girls, our School of Arts, or hoped-for School of Mines and Chemistry, or Classical and Philosophical Chair, and especially our bracing and invigorating climate - to the City of Dunedin becoming, one day, the modern Athens of the Southern Hemisphere.'

The Hon. William Fox continued the elevated theme, arguing that without education ‘we shall ultimately sink to the lowest depth in the scale of nations, and that as a nation we must have ‘means of enlightenment, and travel at a speed commensurate with our enlarged ideas' and those means can only be devised by ‘men of science, men of cultivated intellect.' Fox was most pleased that the male citizens of the town were not appropriating all the advances ‘but that they wisely intend to throw open their doors to that more civilising portion of the community, by whose absence they would have materially deteriorated, and by whose presence the enjoyments and advantages to be derived from such an Institution will be enormously enhanced - the humanising influence of a highly educated woman.'

In 1870 the Provincial Council passed an ordinance governing the operation of the institution, allowing for distribution of its property should it be dissolved.

Operation of the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute:

Following the construction of the new building, efforts were made to establish weekly evening classes, which were to meet in the lower rooms. The classes were intended for adults, and were not considered a substitute for day schools. It was hoped that the classes could be expanded ‘so as to place the means of mental culture within the reach of all who are willing to take advantage of them.' The classes were to be managed by a Committee, to consist of the Class Committee of the Athenaeum, the teachers, and three members of the classes to be elected by the pupils.

The building was modified in 1874. The lower rooms were cleaned and were to be furnished as chess, card, and smoking rooms, with only one room carpeted, the rest bare. One of the windows was enlarged to throw more light on the ‘darksome staircase.' There was also an idea to erect a Gymnasium.

In 1876 further alterations were discussed to increase the accommodation in the building, with two proposals aimed at increasing or rearranging the space. There was considerable debate about the wisdom of spending additional money so soon after the construction of the new building. The first proposal added 25 ft to the rear of the building; the second converted the downstairs to a library, and was the cheaper of the two options. There was general opposition to moving the library to the lower floor, and the Committee thought a larger meeting was needed to make the decision, and that there should be a membership drive to fund the proposed addition. The alterations were part-funded by the purchase of life memberships by 52 people.

In 1879 the building was damaged in a serious fire. The fire was centred on the library, and reports from the time indicated that the fire began in the fireplace near the librarian's desk. The reference library and the reading room were saved by the brigade. Only one third of the library was burnt. After the fire it became clear to the Committee that ‘various sums of money collected by the acting librarian had been appropriated and also various sums given to pay monthly accounts had been used for his own purposes.' The man was charged with arson, larceny and embezzlement.

Athenaeum and Mechanics Institutes in New Zealand in the Twentieth Century:

The popularity of mechanics' institutes and athenaeums declined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. James Belich suggested that:

Generally speaking these institutions experienced one of three fates: they collapsed, were taken over by the respectable and kept their refined curriculum, but lost their decent pupils, or they became camouflaged beer houses and lost their curriculum, but kept their pupils.'

The decline was largely prompted by the adoption by local government of the services that such organisations had traditionally provided: adult education and access to a library. Consequently, Mechanics' Institutes and other similar organisations have often been regarded as ‘mere stepping stones' to the formation of public libraries, or as early but limited examples of adult education programmes.

Where such organisations did continue into the twentieth century, it was largely due to the library services they provided. In rural communities, where they often remained the only library service available, such organisations did continue to thrive after those in larger towns and cities had closed. Tuapeka, Arrowtown, Port Chalmers, Naseby, Clyde, Milton and Riverton were still providing a library service in 1938, and the Invercargill Athenaeum also continued to operate.

The continued survival of the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute, based as it was in a main-centre is unusual, as the fate of other, similar organisations in New Zealand's main centres indicate.

The Auckland Mechanics' Institute, for example, opened in September 1842, and by 1856 had its own premises (which boasted circulating library, reading room, reference library, hall and classes and lectures on a wide range of topics), and which for many years was the only public meeting place in Auckland. By the 1870s it was trying to broaden its appeal by providing light entertainment, but was seen as fading into obscurity and lacking relevance by that date, and by 1880 had been absorbed into the Auckland public library.

In Wellington a revived Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute existed for more than thirty years from 1849 but closed because of financial difficulties before any public library was established. In Wanganui there was a Mechanics Institute in a single-storey weather-board building in 1853 and a reading room known as the ‘Institute' by 1857. The Borough took this over in 1876 and on the 6 January 1877 the Wanganui Public Library was incorporated.

In New Plymouth a Mechanics Institute existed by 1853 and the Taranaki Institute by 1858. The Institute was dissolved in March 1879 and the old Provincial Council Building was demolished in April 1937. In Nelson the Literary and Scientific Institution was founded on board the first emigrant ship, the Will Watch, on the voyage out, on the 17 May 1841. The foundation of a Mechanics' Institution to be run on the same principles was announced in a workers' newspaper on the 8th of July that year. These efforts culminated in the founding of the Nelson Literary and Scientific Institution, sometimes called ‘The Nelson Institute', on the 30 April 1842. A library and reading room were built and opened by 27 September. Membership waxed and waned as the institution's character alternated between a gentleman's club and an organisation providing elementary education for adults. The Nelson Institute still exists and operates a reference library and the provincial museum now housed in a twentieth century building.

In Canterbury the Christchurch Mechanics' Institute was formed in 1859 and ‘other institutes and athenaeums flourished more or less briefly in [Christchurch and Lyttelton] and other Canterbury towns. For example, mechanics' institutes were formed at Timaru in 1862 and at Waimate in 1868'. The Christchurch Mechanics' Institute became the Christchurch Literary Institute which, encountering increasing financial difficulties, was jointly administered by the Provincial Government and Canterbury College from 1873. The latter body took over entirely in 1878. The Canterbury Public Library was transferred to the Christchurch City Council in 1948. By then the Mechanics' Institute and the Literary Institute had long since disappeared.

In Timaru the Mechanics Institute had its own building by 1868. On the 24 March 1876 it was suggested the Institute be brought under the borough's control. On the 3 June 1909 a new Public Library was opened, owned and operated by the Borough Council which had provided the site, the building being paid for by a grant from Mr. Carnegie and by two thousand five hundred pounds, the proceeds of the sale of the Mechanics' Institute's land and buildings. Here too, by this time, the Mechanics' Institute had ceased to exist.

In Oamaru the Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute was established by 1865. It had a modest building by 1867 which was demolished and replaced by Thomas Forrester's neo-classical building in 1882. It was taken over by the Borough Council and turned into the Municipal Library in 1948. When that transferred to a new building on an adjacent site in 1975 the old Athenaeum building became the North Otago Museum.

In Invercargill a Mechanics Institute was founded in May 1862 and an Athenaeum Society in 1875. The latter's building on the corner of Dee and Esk Streets was opened early in 1876. The municipality took steps to take it over as a public library but the Athenaeum rebuffed its offered subsidy on the 15 June 1915. Nevertheless, by way of a private member's bill, the Borough Council took it over in 1916. The old building was not big enough so the Council built a new one and used the old for ‘business purposes'.

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute in the Twentieth Century:

In the late 1880s there was a move by the Dunedin City Council to establish a public library. An association was formed for that purpose which negotiated with the Athenaeum for the public library to be conducted on the Athenaeum's site and under its management. However, ratepayers defeated this.

The idea of a joint enterprise was floated again in 1907 while Andrew Carnegie's money was paying for the building of a public library, but the Athenaeum members were now reluctant to be involved, fearing the loss of privileges and autonomy. The new public library thus came into being entirely independent of the Athenaeum. The latter has continued to function as a subscription library on its Octagon site ever since.

In 1902 the Committee attempted, unsuccessfully, to sell the building. Instead, the Committee proposed alterations that would make their centrally-located premises more suitable for the organisation's needs. A smoking room with appropriate ventilation was to be added. Other problems were identified which were to be fixed with the new alterations: the newspaper room was very dark, the magazine room too small, and the library insufficient for the number of books. The Committee proposed adding a bay 31ft by 23ft to the circulating library, 9ft to the newspaper room, the magazine room was to be enlarged to 52ft by 30ft, and there would be a reading and chess room 31ft by 20ft for smokers, and chess and draughts room for non-smokers 25ft by 20ft. The ladies room was also to be improved. The reference library was to be enlarged, all the rooms were to be well lighted from the roof, and the ventilation would be overhauled, all at a cost of £2500 including furniture and purchase of books.

The Committee hoped an increase of members would contribute some money, as well as additional funding from leasing cellarage at the rear of the building. There was also a call for the City Council to take over responsibility for providing facilities for ladies. While no architect had been appointed, Messrs Lawson and John Louis Salmond (a long time member of the Athenaeum), had been preparing the plan for submission to members. Despite concerns about a potential fall in revenue as a result of the new public library, the meeting agreed to authorise the committee to proceed with raising money for the alterations.

A new double current ventilation system patented by Mr H.I.M. Ross was installed in the smoking room. The system consisted of a ‘strip of perforated zinc, with half-inch holes, running round the skirting board and fronting what is called the ‘distributing box'; into this box four pipes, one at each corner of the room are led, and these run out at the top alongside the exhaust tube to the cowl. The air current leads down these pipes into the distributing box, and is then naturally drawn up to the exhaust tube above and out at the cowl.' The room was kept entirely free of smoke with an absence of draught. The new rooms were opened in March 1903.

In the 1950s the building was again redesigned, celebrating a centenary since the founding of the original Mechanics Institute in 1851. President W. Lang noted the redesign was completed and that ‘our members now enjoy completely modern facilities, making the past year one of great significance.'

A plaque outside the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute commemorates the foundation of the Fortune Theatre in 1974, when it was based at the rear of the building in the purpose-built theatre which still exists in the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute.

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institutes in the Twenty-First Century:

In mid 2005 the Dunedin Athenaeum Society and the Dunedin City Council entered into negotiations for the Council to purchase the Athenaeum building from the Society. The Society had made it clear it wished to continue to operate its subscription library from the Octagon site. In 2007 Dunedin City Council purchased the Athenaeum Building. Dunedin City Council has announced that it is considering ‘using the building for a medium-sized theatre space, possibly seating 800 people.' The Council plans to conduct a feasibility study on the viability of transforming the building into a theatre, and have given Council staff four years to look into the idea before making any decision. As part of the sale agreement the Athenaeum Library will continue to operate from the building.

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute is the only institution of its sort in New Zealand still fulfilling its original purpose in the building designed for it in the nineteenth century. Although the interior is now very shabby its reading room is little altered, and it still has its lecture rooms and other facilities. The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute building has a singular place in New Zealand's heritage, because of its original purpose and continued use, which lends it a special significance.

Physical Description

The Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute is located in The Octagon, the centre of Dunedin City and is one of the significant nineteenth century buildings remaining in The Octagon. It sits in the same quadrant as the Regent Theatre (Category I Record Number 4363) and the handsome, ornate ANZ Building (Category II Record Number 2137). The Octagon includes three other Category I historic places: Robert Burns Statue (Record Number 2208); St Paul's Cathedral and Belfry (Record Number 376) and the Municipal Chambers (Record Number 2197).

The Athenaeum presents a two-storey façade to the street: two shops flank the main entrance to the library; on the first floor are arched windows with a plain pediment concealing the roofline.

The building is actually on three levels at the front, two above street level and one below: at the front, first floor, ground floor (entrance level from The Octagon) and basement, at the rear (past the depth of the shops) ground floor and basement.

Ground Floor (Entrance Level from The Octagon):

In 2008 the ground floor shops are occupied by a jeweller and a bar. The jeweller has a traditional-looking shop front with plate glass windows, and a panel of lead light above. The bar has been recently renovated with a more modern façade.

Entrance to the Athenaeum Library is through a central corridor, running between the two retail premises. This is high-ceilinged and painted white. There is linoleum on the floor. Several doors lead off the corridor, the first arched double-door with glazed fanlight on the left leads to the first floor rooms above the jeweller, used as an artist's studio.

The next door on the left leads to the former lecture rooms at the basement level.

The first door on the right accesses the kitchen servicing the bar. The next door towards the end of the corridor is the access door to the Athenaeum Library. There are double doors leading to a large room with two large double hung sash windows on the west elevation. There are skylights over. The room has been partitioned, with an office in one corner, and another at the south end of the room, a balcony and stairs have been added providing additional space for books and shelving. The library has shelving around the walls, and in bays. The circulation desk is located close to the entrance door.

The Athenaeum Library has the most notable early architectural features remaining in the building: load bearing pillars, with decorative capitals and with shallow arches between running both north-south, and east-west; gabled skylights with matchlining and decorative rectangular and circular vent covers. The vents for the original gas lighting are still evident. Decorative elements include the vent covers, with metal fretwork borders on the circular vents, evidence of a frieze at dado level that once was part of a wider interior scheme. On the gallery level there is evidence of linoleum with a classical border.

At the end of the entrance corridor is a glazed panel, with double doors leading to what is now an open space, which in the past housed the circulating library. A ladies' rest room and mothers' room were located off this space, but are now used for storage. The area was refurbished in the 1940s, evidenced by the curved moderne style detailing and the glazing panels.

At the southern end of this first floor is a theatre and associated spaces. A door off the Athenaeum Library provides access to a room, with a small kitchen partitioned off in the corner. This room has a gabled skylight over. This room leads to the foyer for the theatre, and provides access to the raked seating. The stage is still in place.

The majority of these rooms show evidence of damp, with some timber on interior walls rotting away because of it. There is some cracking in the walls. The rooms are generally in rundown condition, and look to be largely unused.

The First Floor (above the jeweller):

Access to the first floor is up a winding timber stair. A large door, formerly glazed on the top half, but now covered with hardboard, leads to the rooms. There is access to two rooms and a toilet. One room has what looks to be an original fireplace. Another set of larger (but similar) rooms is located on the same floor, but access has been closed off, and these are only visible from the roof. A set of stairs was removed during the recent refit as a bar. The view from the roof shows these rooms to be in poor condition, unused and with parts of the floor removed.

The Basement:

Access to the basement is through a door from the main entrance hall. Descent is down what was a grand staircase, with evidence of a previously arched entrance way indicated by the now built-in decorative corbels and flat arch. The stairway descends across the building to the north. The remains of the balustrade and the design of the stair itself indicate an elegantly detailed piece of joinery.

At the bottom of the stairs the basement opens up. The whole of the basement, which according to the earlier descriptions used to house the lecture rooms (which accounts for the formal entrance) is now unused and unlined. This is a large space, with a room housing the boiler partitioned off. There are two large main spaces: one with windows on the west elevation and access to the other space to the east; the other large space to the rear has a large external access door. Inspection of this room reveals what was previously an outside wall (evidenced by the bricked up windows), showing the later addition of this large space. This room was previously used as a wool store according the librarian, but is now disused, as is the rest of this floor.

Construction Dates

1869 -
Designed by David Ross

1869 -
9 Nov - Foundation Stone laid

1870 -
9 May - Building opened

1874 -
Alterations to lower rooms

1876 -
Additions to the rear of the building

1879 -
Fire damaged library

1902 -
Alterations, largely seems to have changed the configuration of the rooms. Ventilation system installed

Interior alterations to commemorate centenary of the building

2007 -
Building purchased by Dunedin City Council

Construction Details

Builder: 1870 - Watt and Co.

Construction Materials: Bluestone and Brick

Completion Date

27th May 2008

Report Written By

Heather Bauchop

Information Sources

Knight, H. & N. Wales, 1988

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

McDonald, 1965

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


Catalogue of the Library of the Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute, Matthews, Baxter & Co., Dunedin, 1873.

Hocken, 1898

T.M. Hocken, Contributions to the Early History of New Zealand (Settlement of Otago), Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London, 1898.

Reed, 1973

A.H. Reed, Annals of Early Dunedin, Chronicles of the Eighteen-sixties, A.H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington etc., 1973.

Verran, 2004

David Verran, 'Mechanics' Institutes in New Zealand, and their effect on the development of library services.' Paper to LIANZA conference, September 2004

Other Information

A fully referenced Registration Report is available from the NZHPT Otago/Southland Area Office.

Associated NZHPT Registrations:

The NZHPT has four Athenaeum buildings registered: Athenaeum Building (constructed 1882, Record Number 2272, Category II, Oamaru), Dunstan Lodge and Athenaeum (constructed 1869, Record Number 2367, Category II, Clyde), Naseby Athenaeum (constructed 1865, Record Number 4369, Category I, Naseby), and the Athenaeum in Lawrence (constructed circa 1890) Record Number 5210, Category II). These are all located in small towns in Otago. The Naseby and Lawrence Athenaeums operate as a libraries; the Oamaru building houses the North Otago Museum. The Dunstan building still operates as a lodge. There are no Mechanics' Institutes on the NZHPT Register.

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.