Otago Pioneer Women's Memorial Association Building

362 Moray Place, Dunedin

  • Otago Pioneer Women's Memorial Association Building, Dunedin.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Sarah Gallagher. Date: 27/11/2019.
  • Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association Building, Dunedin. Terrazo finish and joinery detail in the foyer (left), and the stained glass window and inscription panel (right).
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Heather Bauchop. Date: 14/08/2018.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 9725 Date Entered 20th February 2020 Date of Effect 11th March 2020


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Pt Sec 7 Blk XVI Town of Dunedin (RT OT271/35), Otago Land District and the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association Building thereon. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the List entry report for further information).

City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Pt Sec 7 Blk XVI Town of Dunedin (RT OT271/35), Otago Land District


Sitting demurely in a central Dunedin street, is the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association Building - the history of which is anything but demure. Although of some aesthetic and architectural significance, the building’s outstanding value comes from its social and historical significance as a memorial to both nineteenth-century women immigrants and more importantly to mid-twentieth century feminists – each possessed by the pioneering spirit. This represents feminism/the women’s movement in New Zealand between the two ‘waves’, the 1890s and the 1970s; it the continuance of the foundations built by Sheppard in the 1890s and the vote for women.

The year 1940 was a cause for celebration as it marked New Zealand’s centennial. In preparation, the Government asked for each province to select and fund proposals from the community for centennial memorials. The Otago Woman’s Centennial Council, representing around 40 women’s groups, was formed with Dr Emily Siedeberg-McKinnon as its Chair. Siedeberg-McKinnon was New Zealand’s first woman medical graduate. As a vocal advocate for women, she suggested the erection of a women’s building to memorialise pioneer women and provide amenities for contemporaries. The proposal was at first selected by the Provincial Centennial Council as a centennial project worthy of funding but, after a change of membership, the proposal was rejected.

Down but not out, Siedeberg-McKinnon rallied the troops and helped form the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association. Fundraising followed and in 1941 they purchased the former S. R. Burns and Co. building in Moray Place. Noted architect Cecil Gardner Dunning (1898-1962) had designed extensive additions and a new façade in 1934. Alterations were made to create the necessary spaces including a hall, office space, and large kitchen. The official opening took place on 24 February 1942.

In 1946 the Shrine of Remembrance was added. Designed by architect Frank Sturmer, the key feature was a Robert Fraser (1869-1940) designed memorial stained-glass window. When the shrine was decommissioned in later years, the striking window was moved to the foyer. The building was used by numerous organisations over the years including the Dunedin Kindergarten Association, Dunedin Burns Club, the Dunedin Spiritualist Church, Federation of University Women, Practical Psychology Club, Otago Women’s Hockey Association, and the Sutcliffe School of Radiant Living.

Today, the Building stands poised for renewed prominence under the auspices of a reinvigorated Association. The spirit of those vocal, determined advocates who fought for its presence stand proudly alongside their modern day counterparts, who continue to fulfil their express wish that ‘in this building, and through it, the pioneer women of Otago, being dead, will yet speak to their children in a free land...’.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The historical significance of the OPWMA is one of its most outstanding values. The initial concept was to celebrate the role and social significance of pioneering women - a campaign by women, for women. It was also designed to provide a gathering space for women’s organisations, and a rest space for women when female public restrooms were few and far between. The later rejection of the proposal was seen as a rejection of women, sufficiently so that it turned the campaign for the building into a social cause resulting in the creation of the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association. Associated with the educational achievement of the first New Zealand woman to graduate with a medical degree, Emily Siedeberg-McKinnon, it also sheds light on the country’s 1940 centennial celebrations. More particularly, it speaks to the next struggles of the women’s equity movement during the early and mid-twentieth century – no longer fighting for the vote but still fighting against prejudice and for women’s voice to be heard.

Aesthetic Significance or Value

The OPWMA Building lends aesthetic value to the surrounding streetscape. Perhaps it would be best described as a building exhibiting character, rather than one of great aesthetic significance. While the building sits quietly in its lower Moray Place context, it adds a distinctive quality to the area. Dunedin is not known for its art deco buildings and the building’s ornamentation provides an uncommon 1930s ambience to the CBD.

Architectural Significance or Value

The OPWMA Building has architectural significance. Designed by noted architect Cecil H. Dunning, the façade is somewhat unsymmetrical. Certainly the windows and the inset decorative panes are not cohesive. Yet, the building has an air of solidity and strength. Its lines are firmly horizontal and geometric. Right angles are emphasised even in the ornamentation. The effect is softened by a slightly angled arch at the top of the building, which is arguably unique - certainly within Dunedin and its surrounds and adds to the heritage precinct of which it is part.

Social Significance or Value

The OPWMA Building has outstanding social significance. So significant was the spirit of the cause, that today the Association remains strong and the Building continues to be used for women and by women by a variety of community groups for the purposes education and social cohesion; most recently for art classes, exhibitions, artist residences and a popular Learning Lunch Series of talk

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

The OPWMA Building represents efforts to celebrate New Zealand’s centennial and the importance that the country placed on celebrating the event, specifically with a focus on the women of Otago. Although the Building was not purchased with Centennial funds, it still retains the aspect of memorialisation in its name and purpose; a purpose that was not static but a useable resource to support the present and future women of Otago.

Most importantly, the building represents mid-twentieth century feminism. No longer fighting for the vote, women still had to fight to have their voice heard in the public sphere and their contribution recognised. Women faced barriers in spaces outside the home where they could become involved in roles beyond that of wife and mother. The OPWMA Building provided a place that represented over 40 active women’s organisations all working towards aspects of the wellbeing of women and girls in the community through education, welfare, politics, religion, health and recreation. It continues to provide this place today.

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

The OPWMA Building is particularly associated with Dr Emily Siedeberg-McKinnon, New Zealand’s first woman medical graduate. She first proposed a building dedicated to women and in memoriam of pioneering women. She then led the charge, even in the face of discouragement, and saw the project through to completion. Although much of her life was spent in community service, a traditional female role, she was also a vocal advocate for the rights of women in society as evidenced through her role as foundation member of Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, New Zealand Federation of University Women and Townswomen's Guild. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Dunedin branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and founded the New Zealand Medical Women's Association.

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

Community association for the OPWMA Building has been retained from its inception, and only shows signs of increasing its momentum with the advent of a new organising Committee. While the OPWMA have held their own events in the hall, including midwinter lunches, speakers, and exhibitions, it has also been used by any number of organisations over the years. It has also provided office space for welfare-promotion organisations and businesses.

(f) the potential of the place for public education

The OPWMA Building is available for hire and use by the public and contains objects relating to its formation that are on display and help visitors to understand the significance of the place. The building is in the heart of the Dunedin CBD on Moray Place and has recently become more visible with the restoration of its entrance way, now painted a vibrant suffrage purple. Today it continues its original purpose as a place for people to meet, learn and develop their communities. It has the unique ability to share the story of Otago women’s contribution to the New Zealand centennial celebrations and particularly the tenacity of women to have their voices heard and to create a space for themselves where they could participate as citizens. The place retains a high level of authenticity which adds to the educational value and sense of history.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place

The proposal for a pioneer women’s memorial building came about as part of the planned celebrations to commemorate New Zealand’s Centennial in 1940. Despite being ultimately rejected as a formal memorial project, the OPWMA maintained a commemorative purpose in honouring the strength and resourcefulness of the women who helped build our nation. The Shrine of Remembrance and the memorial window are particular examples of the importance the OPWMA placed on the commemoration of Otago’s pioneering women.

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

Memorials to women in the form of buildings specifically for their own use are uncommon. The OPWMA building is a rare example of a place representing feminism between the two waves of the 1890s and the 1970s. Most akin to Otago’s efforts is Auckland’s memorial building commemorating the contribution of pioneering women and advocate Ellen Melville. Built twenty years later, however, it was also partially funded by Auckland City Council and business, so not solely organised and funded by women as with the OPWMA Building.

Summary of Significance or Values

The OPWMA Building is a rare New Zealand example of its time, of a central city space provided by women and set aside for the particular use of women and women’s organisations. In an outstanding example of a strong, mid-century feminist voice, the building was only achieved by a persistent and often fraught campaign. Frustrated by male-dominated officialdom, over 40 women’s organisations found a common cause and banded together into a cohesive campaign, under the outstanding leadership of Dr Siedeberg-McKinnon, to whom the breaking of societal barriers was nothing new. Although the withdrawal of Centennial funding led to a revision of the dream venue, the Association eventually found a central site and transformed the existing building to meet the social and commemorative purposes at the heart of their organisation. As a place it continues to fulfil its intended role as a venue for the continuing education and social connectedness of Otago women. The Otago Pioneer Women’s Association is the Building. They exist because of the Building and for the Building. And in turn, the Building exists because of women and for women.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Love Brothers

Also known as Love Construction. The firm did building work all round Dundin and the wider Otago area, ans well as elsewhere in New Zealand.

Love Brothers operated from 1910 to 1969 when it was reformed as Naylor Love.

Major works include the 1930 Dunedin Town Hall, 1928 Regent Theatre in Dunedin, pre-fabricated houseing for the government in the 1930s, and Chery Farm Hospital in Karitane in 1950s. They also partnerd with Fletchers to works on construction for the 1940 Centennial Celebrations in Wellington.

See https://www.buildingtoday.co.nz/2010/07/01/naylor-love-celebrates-100-years/ and https://www.odt.co.nz/lifestyle/magazine/builders-city

C. Gardner Dunning

C. Gardner Dunning (unknown-1962) moved to Dunedin in 1908 with his father, William Henry Dunning, to supervise the building of the New Zealand Express Company building. He worked in the same office as Fleming McDonald. After his father died in 1933, Dunning cooperated with Owen Ernest MacFie during the 1950s, before the MacFie’s death in 1960.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Early history

Both iwi history and archaeological evidence show Māori occupation in the Ōtākou Otago region over an extended period, with the inhabitants utilising a wide variety of natural resources from the diverse environment. Archaeological evidence supports the date of earliest settlement around the 12th century.

Today, Kāi Tahu mana whenua is recognised over a large part of Te Wai Pounamu. Kāti Māmoe and Waitaha whakapapa and shared occupation are always acknowledged. Tūpuna such as Waitai, Tukiauau, Whaka-taka-newha, Rakiiamoa, Tarewai, Maru, Te Aparangi, Taoka, Moki II, Kapo, Te Wera, Tu Wiri Roa, Taikawa, and Te Hautapanuiotu are among Kāti Māmoe and Kāi Tahu tūpuna whose feats and memories are embedded in the landscape, bays, tides and whakapapa of Ōtākou Otago. The hapū Kai Te Pahi, Kāti Moki, and Kāti Taoka still maintain their presence and responsibility as kaitiaki in this region.

Historically, Kāi Tahu used the tauraka waka at Ōtepoti (Dunedin city) when they visited the head of the Ōtākou harbour as either the gateway to the route to Kaikarae (Green Island) or when off on other mahinga kai expeditions. The soft slope of the foreshore and the tidal flats in the upper harbour where the small stream, Toitū, entered the sea was bisected by a prominent hill Ngā-moana-e-rua (called Bell Hill by colonists), the foot of which lay at the very edge of the high water mark. No permanent kaik or villages were situated at the mouth of the Toitū, simply because there was no need for it.

While not as densely populated as the North Island, numerous kaik in the Ōtākou region still hosted a good number of Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe and later Kāi Tahu peoples. Various bays and beaches around the Tairaoa Heads supported several hundred people with kaik in Karitāne, Waikouaiti and at the mouth of the Mata-au or Clutha hosting a similar number. Pā kāinga on the Ōtākou coast included Māpoutahi (Pūrākaunui), Pukekura (Taiaroa Head), Kōpūtai, Huriawa and Moturata (Taieri Island). Whareakeake, one of several pounamu manufacturing sites, attested to another facet of lifestyle for the artisans of the iwi.

While the population numbers are still debated by academics and historians, there is no argument that through epidemics and intertribal warfare, the numbers of Kāi Tahu living in the region had dwindled considerably by the time the Treaty of Waitangi was signed at Kōpūtai (Port Chalmers) on 30th June 1840.

Built history

In the nineteenth century the Moray Place site of the building had been part of a large coal and firewood yard. In 1909 a single-storey structure was built for the engineer William James, as an office and shop. In 1913 more offices were added to the premises. In the mid-1930s the property was taken over by share broking firm S. R. Burns and Co. Ltd. Stanley Burns was a decorated returned soldier, who served in France in the First World War. He ran a tailoring business in Dunedin before setting up a company dealing in shares and the promotion of subsidiary companies with diverse interests in property, printing, caravans and camping equipment, cosmetics, and other areas.

After taking over the 1913 office building, Burns employed Dunedin architect Cecil Gardner Dunning to redesign the building. A second storey was added and the façade redesigned. Dunning, was the son of Tasmanian-born architect William Henry Dunning who took over his father’s practice after his death. The younger Dunning’s other Dunedin designs include the former customhouse and numerous private residences. The design of the façade is striking example of Egyptian Revival. Bold and contrasting colours originally emphasised the angular design of the façade. The interior continued the theme, with its modern fittings. In 1934 the additions and new façade were completed by Love Construction Co.

The cosmetic side of Stanley Burns’ business was run by Sandford Sinclaire, a graduate of the Wilfred Academy of New York. From a six by four foot cubicle in Burns’ building came Roxana Beauty Preparations, with their ‘special exotic properties anticipated to appeal to women of fashion throughout New Zealand’.

An advertising feature in the Otago Daily Times gave an evocative description:

The Roxana Salon, recently opened in Burns’ Buildings, Moray place [sic], has an air of up-to-date efficiency about it. Its lounge, approached by marble stairs and furnished with a brown patterned carpet, tawny hangings, and comfortable couches, has modern lights and modern furniture …". Unfortunately, by 1941 Burns’ small empire was crumbling amid financial losses and fraud (he was imprisoned in 1943); and his building was sold to the newly-formed Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association.

A Nationalist Narrative: The Dominion Centennial Celebrations

In 1940 New Zealand celebrated ‘a century of European effort and progress in New Zealand.’ The main event was the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. The provinces fed into a series of national events – unveiling of memorials, historical re-enactments, and festivals. The celebration was very much a narrative of nationalism and progress, celebrating European settlement. It is interesting to note however that the narrative promoted by the Centennial was of pioneer women standing alongside pioneer men. Māori history and the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi were put on the ‘back seat.’ It was not the Māori narrative of ‘struggle, resistance and survival in the face of dispossession of land, population decimation, and systematic erosion of the base on which to support a distinct culture’ that was being told. As poet Denis Glover wrote in the stanza of a poem looking back at the celebrations:

The politicians like bubbles from a marsh

Rose to the platform, hanging in every place

Their comfortable platitudes

— Without one word of our failures.

Similarly, women’s roles were tightly proscribed. Given New Zealand was the first nation of the British Commonwealth to grant women the vote, the centennial memorial had the potential to give women’s role a special feature – but only within certain bounds. Women’s role in society, as portrayed in the Exhibition, reflected the lived experience of the majority of New Zealand women at the time, that of wives, mothers and homemakers.

Otago’s Provincial Celebrations

In July 1936, the Otago Provincial Centennial Council (consisting of Dunedin’s town clerk, the Mayor, and several other members) was established to bring forward suggestions as to the form of provincial centennial memorials. The Provincial Centennial Council governed expenditure and subsidies on projects approved by the National Council.

In August 1936 a meeting of women’s interest groups and organisations was invited to form the Otago Women’s Centennial Committee to ‘take in hand certain arrangements in connection with the centennial celebrations in 1940.’ Dunedin’s Mayor, the Reverend Edwin Cox, chaired the meeting and noted that ‘[p]artly as a result of the granting of the franchise to women’ there were some very important women’s organisations. He added ‘the contribution of women to the social and national life of the Dominion has been very great and important, and should be worthily recognised in our commemoration.’

Dr Emily Siedeberg-McKinnon, New Zealand’s first woman graduate in medicine, with over forty years of ‘professional success and civic leadership’, was given the chair of the meeting. Emily Siedeberg was born in Clyde in 1873, her family had emigrated to New Zealand in 1861. She moved to Dunedin at the age of three. She was later educated at the Normal School and Otago Girls’ High School. Siedeberg went on to study medicine at the University of Otago from 1891-1896, at times in the face of pronounced gender prejudice, and became the first woman in New Zealand to graduate with a medical degree. After a short period working as a locum at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, Emily went abroad for postgraduate study in obstetrics, gynaecology and children's diseases in Dublin and Berlin. On returning to Dunedin, she set up her own medical practice and it became the ‘core of a life dedicated to welfare and community work’. Involved in various organisations which promoted the rights and health of women, she fought ‘the wrongs of womankind as she would fight for the life of a patient’.

Accepting the chair, Dr Siedeberg-McKinnon told the meeting that it was the ‘spirit of endeavour, and the willingness to endure’ which should be recognised and paid homage to. She also asked the ‘men who have made material fortunes out of this favoured land… was it not the daily service of their helpmeets, the encouragement when circumstances were adverse, which helped them to win through and attain material success? I would now ask that they publicly acknowledge that indebtedness to their mothers, wives and daughters and give of their wealth to help in erecting a memorial which will do credit to women and enable them to continue their valuable service to their city and to humanity, under more favourable circumstances.’

Recognising Otago’s Pioneer Women

The newly-formed Otago Women's Centennial Council, representing around 40 women’s groups, took on the project of setting up a centennial memorial to pioneer women. At the second meeting of the Council, Dr Siedeberg-McKinnon was elected president of the committee. Proposals for the centennial included a memorial arch, an improvement to the existing rest rooms, the cleaning up of slum areas, an addition to the Art Gallery, and a quaintly-described ‘home for gentlewomen of slender means’. Siedeberg-McKinnon suggested the erection of a ‘Women’s Centenary Building.’

Siedeberg-McKinnon was a vocal advocate for women. In 1928 on a visit to Vancouver, she had visited a purpose-built women’s building and saw New Zealand’s centennial as an opportunity to raise support for such a centre in Dunedin. In doing so, historian Charlotte Macdonald argues, ‘Emily was creating, in the language of her proposal, another figure to add to the popular pantheon of national remembrance: the ‘pioneer citizen’, specifically, the worthy woman forebear.’ Significantly, women’s ‘model of citizenship’ was at the basis for the pioneer women’s claims on ‘civic space and recognition of women as rightful subjects of public remembrance.’

Separating themselves from the common discourse of the 1920s and 1930s, they made almost no reference to women as mothers instead arguing that it was through the history of their citizenship, and sense of responsibility that women’s roles should be commemorated.

In August 1937 Dr Siedeberg-McKinnon and Mrs F.J. Drake, the Dominion President of the Women’s Division of the Farmer’s Union first sought support from the City Council for ‘a memorial building as a women’s commemoration’. They foresaw it would be available to both women and men’s organisations to make ‘quite sure that the structure would be suitable and useful to all sections of the community….’.

In February 1938 a deputation headed by Dr Siedeberg-McKinnon and Mrs Drake attended a meeting of the Otago Provincial Centennial Council. They again proposed the erection of a woman’s building in Dunedin, ‘the need for which was keenly felt by women visitors to the city, [and] would provide a much-needed centre for social and other activities.’ Building plans had already been drawn up and would cost approximately £10,000 with another £2,000 required for furnishings The Provincial Council gave their formal approval for the memorial venture.

In April 1938 Siedeberg-McKinnon outlined the proposal in more detail to the City Council. The two-storey building was intended to have five committee rooms, a conference and concert room, a public lounge, two smaller lounges, a kitchen, and caretaker’s quarters. The site had not been decided on and because of the public rest-room it had to be very central.

Crisis and Opportunity

Mayor Cox was defeated at the local body elections in May, and existing Committees were dissolved and new ones formed. The new Executive of the Centennial Council consisted solely of men. Opposition to the women’s scheme now found traction, arguing women had no business wanting to go to meetings, and that their place was in the home. In October 1938, the Provincial Centennial Council rescinded its earlier support for the memorial hall, to allow it to consider other suggested memorials.

To say Siedeberg-McKinnon and her colleagues, ‘were stunned is to underestimate the sense of complete shock and surprise’, writes Macdonald. Without official status as a provincial centennial project the women’s building was not eligible for the government funding subsidy or other forms of public assistance. To further deepen the insult, the women received a letter from the Provincial Committee’s secretary advising them that they were in breach of the law in using the name Centennial Council – as the Women’s Centennial Committee was not an officially dedicated body.

The defeat was a telling illustration of the ‘powerlessness of women’s groups.’ Despite the early achievement of female franchise, women had struggled to make progress and build on those gains. Siedeberg-McKinnon and her fellows ‘encountered the limits to women’s citizenship in an era well beyond the initial phase of women’s enfranchisement and first exercise of political power.’ At an ‘indignation meeting’ Siedeberg-McKinnon told the meeting of her disappointment that ‘[f]or all the thousands of women who had expressed their desire for the building to have their wishes suddenly vetoed by 12 men was more than the Women’s Council could tolerate.’ She blamed political and class bias, and noted the Women’s Centennial Council had been formed as a result of a meeting called by the then mayor – not by any ‘private choice of a few people, as the present provincial executive seemed to have been set up.’

Meanwhile the Provincial Centennial Committee ‘flailed around in an unseemly and embarrassing manner… seizing one idea only to drop it in favour of another.’ Indeed an Otago Daily Times correspondent mused:

‘I had always supposed that the privilege of changing one’s mind belonged to the so-called weaker sex, but the oscillations and vacillations of the men make me blush for my own sex. My head is becoming dizzy revolving the different suggestions of swimming baths, a scenic drive, a coloured fountain, and improvements to the Town Belt…With regard to that form of memorial the men have changed from one idea to another, but throughout the whole controversy the women have remained firm to their original scheme of a building to commemorate the pioneer women. Now there is something rather fine about this idea, and I cannot understand how it has come to be turned down, or, rather, ignored completely.’

Finally, in November 1938, the Committee decided to support a ‘Centennial Park’ on Signal Hill – consisting of a monument with walks and plantings, and a scenic drive. Dispirited, Siedeberg-McKinnon had a vivid dream in which she climbed from a walled enclosure, found her way through marshy ground, and looked up to see a large unfinished building with scaffolding around it. Encouraged, she found support to renew her efforts. In March 1939 the group reformed as the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association (OPWMA). The objective of the Association was to erect a community building as a memorial to the pioneer women of Otago.

In April they launched an appeal for a memorial: ‘to be dedicated to the Pioneer Women of Otago. The pioneer women helped their men, now we look to the sons and daughters of these pioneers for financial help in this Women’s effort to erect


To serve the interest of all women in this and future generations, a centre for Social, Educational, Recreational, and other activities.


Circulars were delivered throughout Dunedin and the country districts comprised in Dunedin’s postal area. Women went house to house to collect the attached coupons.

362 Moray Place: A memorial at last

While dreams are free, central building sites were not. With no official support, the OPWMA fell back on fundraising and a mortgage. Finding ‘nothing satisfactory’, it was not until October 1941 that the opportunity arose to buy the S.R. Burns and Co. Building at 362 Moray Place for a ‘moderate’ sum. The building was comparatively new and after some alteration would serve the Association’s purposes.

It was the same ‘spirit of self-sacrifice and endurance’ that enabled the OPWMA to commemorate their foremothers – volunteer work, perseverance in the face of adversity and opposition that saw the fulfilment of their long held dream. It was a make-do-with-what-you- can-get result; appropriate to the sacrifices typical of many women – a refurbished property rather than the purpose-built facility of their dreams. Siedeberg-McKinnon noted ‘[n]ow, we can have something concrete to show posterity…even if, through want of official support, it never becomes as worthy a memorial as our dreams have depicted.’ The refurbished building opened in early 1942 - a monument to both the pioneers and the city's tradition of strong, innovative women. Those women who ‘…helped and are still helping Otago’.

Gender Equity /Women’s movement

The mid-twentieth century saw some significant changes in roles women held in society, changes that began to address some of the gaps in equality between men and women as citizens. While women were eligible to stand for parliament from 1919, it wasn’t until 1933 that we gained our first woman MP in Elizabeth McCombs. Other firsts followed with Edna Pearce the first woman police officer in 1941, Iriaka Rātana was the first Māori woman MP, and Mary Anderson became New Zealand’s first woman judge in 1945.

The Otago Woman’s Centennial Council purchase of S. R. Burns and Co. building in 1941 and the establishment of it as place for women’s groups to meet, sits firmly in the period where women’s roles were taking their pioneering strides into new realms of citizenry and leadership in New Zealand. While a purpose of this Memorial Building was to memorialise the pioneer mothers, it’s future purpose was set on supporting the educative and social aspects of women’s lives, those beyond being wife and mother, by providing a physical place for women’s groups to meet. The Otago Women’s Centennial Council represented 40 women’s groups.

Women have a long history of organised groups to lobby and support communities in New Zealand; the nineteenth-century saw the establishment of such groups, many of which focused on health and welfare or political issues. The mid-twentieth century saw the development of new groups and chapters that addressed these and broader issues for such as education, business, ethnicity and immigration, and religion. Dr Emily Seideburg was a true pioneer amongst modern New Zealand women in Dunedin. She was New Zealand’s first female medical graduate and she made good use of her position and authority to represent causes focusing on women’s and children’s health and the place of women in society through her initiation of a number of organisations, or Otago branches of established organisations.

Otago Pioneer Women’s Association Memorial Building (OPWAM Building)

The kerfuffle caused by the Otago Provincial Committee’s withdrawal of support was mentioned in papers around New Zealand, and the Pioneer Women’s Memorial group garnered support from women’s groups outside of Dunedin. The Evening Star congratulated the women’s committee on their perseverance after the ‘prospects for the scheme seemed distinctly lowering when it was not chosen for the main provincial commemoration, but, with a persistence and a resolution worthy of the pioneers themselves, its sponsors refused to abandon it, and pressed steadily ahead with their collection of funds.’ The building was ‘not set among grassy lawns, but central; not queenly, but modern and substantial.’

The Association refurbished the building to suit its requirements. The official opening of the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Building took place on 24 February 1942 with a dedication service at nearby First Church and a procession to the new premises. Vice President Mrs Park, on handing over the key, told the crowd ‘[i]t is the devout wish of the association that in this building, and through it, the pioneer women of Otago, being dead, will yet speak to their children in a free land; a land hallowed no less by their pious endeavours than by the gallantry and self-sacrifice of their descendants to the third and fourth generations.’ The two-storey building included a committee room, kitchen, hall with raised stage and seating for 200. The entrance hall and stairway were finished in terrazzo, with bevelled plate glass doors leading into the hall or conference room. Upstairs were a series of small rooms ‘beautifully appointed with walnut and ash panelling, decorative glass and vitrolite’. The Association also planned a small upstairs chapel or ‘shrine which is to consist, when completed of a memorial window, and a book of records, containing the names of all the pioneer women of Otago, who arrived before 1869.’

Although plans got underway in 1943, it was not until 1946 that the Shrine of Remembrance was completed. Designed by architect Frank Sturmer, it was furnished with an oak chair made by Dunedin’s first cabinetmaker, John Hill, and a new oak refectory table by local Swedish-born cabinetmaker Alfred Gustafson. Robert Fraser designed a memorial stained-glass window set within three gothic arches, but due to his failing health the work was taken on and executed by John Brock. The hall and rooms were made available to a wide range of community groups, and not exclusively women’s organisations.

Those using the building in the 1940s and 1950s included the Dunedin Kindergarten Association, Lancashire and Yorkshire Society, Rialto Bridge Club, Dunedin Burns Club, Federation of University Women, Practical Psychology Club, Sutcliffe School of Radiant Living, Musicians’ Union, Radio DX League, Otago Women’s Hockey Association, Registered Nurses’ Association, the Dunedin Utility Poultry Club and many more. In 1960 over fifty organisations were using the hall and rooms. The Dunedin Spiritualist Church met in the building for nearly 50 years, from 1945 to 1994. Members of the committee were often delegates from women’s associations such as Rural Women New Zealand and the East Otago Institute.

In 1958, the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association purchased a new property in York Place with a view to designing a new building, and again entered a period of active fundraising. It appeared to be close to realising Siedeberg-McKinnon’s vision for a purpose-built building, but again fell short of its ambitious target. Nevertheless, the Moray Place venue continued to be actively used. As of 2017, the Building was being used by groups such as the Red Cross Choir, the East Otago Federation Women's Institute, children's art classes, a monthly creative market, the business Careerwise, and community artist Janet de Wagt’s Pioneering Plastics exhibition was hosted there for several years. During 2017-2017, historian Rachael Francis collected oral histories and created a Maintenance Alphabet booklet, “which details the A to Z of maintaining the historic Moray Pl[sic] hall as a community asset.” A play, Indignation – Determination – Celebration devised and directed by Karen Elliot in 2018, narrated the struggle for the building. That same year, Janet de Wagt chose the building as Dunedin’s venue for her national Suffrage Banner Project. In 2020, the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association Building continues to provide a valuable meeting place for a variety of community groups.

Physical Description

Current Description - Setting and Exterior

The OPWMA Building is within the Stuart Street Commercial Heritage Precinct in the Dunedin City Council’s 2GP District Plan. It is scheduled as a Character Contributing Building within the Heritage Precinct. The plan records that this area retains a very strong heritage character, anchored by the large number of heritage buildings and important vistas down Stuart Street to the Railway Station and beyond to the Peninsula, and up Stuart Street to the Octagon with St Paul's Cathedral and the tower of the Municipal Chambers visible above the trees. The area is an important pedestrian link between the Octagon and Railway Station, and the Octagon and Bus Hub, and is heavily frequented by visitors to Dunedin.

The area is notable for the very small number of modern buildings. The architectural styles of the area's older buildings are varied, with buildings from the Victorian, Edwardian, and inter-war periods all represented. Notwithstanding this diversity, there is a great sense of cohesion in the streetscape, reinforced by consistency in terms of bulk and location, materials, the quality of architecture, and the lack of gaps resulting from demolition. There is a common attention to detail in many of the façades through the use of mouldings, fenestration, and materials, creating substantial architectural interest above veranda height.

At street level, although there has been a change over time to modern shop fronts, a high proportion retain early leadlight glazing, entranceway tiling, and historical architectural details in this precinct than elsewhere, something which adds further character to the street. In the lower part of the precinct the buildings become more monumental, with a number of significant municipal and governmental buildings in the form of the Railway Station, Law Courts, former prison and police station, in addition to the large Otago Daily Times/Evening Star complex. Overall, the area presents a strong commercial heritage architectural character.

The exterior of the OPWMA Building is white plaster. While perhaps unprepossessing at first glance, a more detailed examination reveals a very solid and strongly geometric frontage, softened by the playful art deco adornment. The window design expands upon the geometric theme and adds to the playfulness. Two large square windows upstairs are separated by a narrow rectangular window. One large window has a fire escape set below. The ground floor replicates the narrow window and one large square window. Below the window and fire escape is a set of double entrance doors and a small rectangular window. The embellishment at parapet level in particular gives it quite a unique and striking appearance.

Current Description - Interior

Much of the 1930s fit-out remains, including bevelled glass doors and fashionable terrazzo flooring. Entry is into a small foyer which includes the memorial window. On the left are stairs to the upstairs rooms. To the right in a conference room and kitchen; straight in front is the hall. The hall includes doors in the rear which lead to toilets and the narrow remains of the old coal yard behind the building. The hall also includes internal windows, a large built in safe and a servery hatch.

Upstairs is a corridor, from which offices open up to the left and right. The remains of the small chapel are now part of a larger office, but much of the original panelling and internal windows remain. Certainly remnants of the Roxana Ltd aesthetic, which was done ‘in accordance with modern trend and tastefully furnished to provide the maximum comfort to clients’, can still be seen. Pacific maple wood and Australian walnut ply panelling remain, as do the carnival glass window and black Vitrolite.

The memorial window

The memorial window sits in the foyer of the building. The window was originally part of the Shrine of Remembrance but when this was decommissioned, the memorial was moved to the foyer. The central panel shows Christ walking on water and his disciples in a rowing boat. The left-hand panel illustrates a migrant family departing Britain, and the right-hand panel depicts arrival in Otago. The arrival panel includes mother and daughter figures, the ship Philip Laing, a whare, and native flora including ferns and cabbage trees. The inscription beneath the window reads:

This window commemorates the safe arrival in Otago of all those Pioneer Women who braved the dangers of the long sea voyage to assist in the settlement of the Province of Otago and is a tribute to their sterling qualities of character, their foresight, their self-sacrifice and their powers of endurance through many hardships. A recognition by those who have reaped the benefit, spiritual or material.

Comparative Analysis

Many settlements and districts undertook centennial projects – Archives New Zealand holds over 200 files on memorial projects, although it is not possible to tell whether all these projects were completed, and what form the memorials took. Only two, however, mention memorials to women – the Canterbury Women’s Memorial (1940), and the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association Building. Further searches revealed two other memorials of note: New Plymouth’s Memorial to Pioneer Taranaki Women (1941) and Auckland’s Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall. Phillips notes there were 35 ladies rooms or Plunket rooms built as centennial memorials, the second most popular type of memorial, this form was believed to demonstrate support ‘in the progressive movement for the welfare of women and children”.

New Zealand women are poorly represented in memorials and didn’t improve until the anniversary of Suffrage. “Suffrage year offered an opportunity to redress the imbalance of female to male reminders of heroic sustained efforts, visible in our landscape”. Pierce’s Suffrage Trail: A Guide to Places, Memorials and the Arts Commemorating New Zealand Women, notes a number of structures and media used to commemorate women including: streets, hospital buildings, kindergartens, libraries, plaques, paintings and prints, quilts and wall hangings, trees, parks and reserves. Of the buildings, none have the specific focus on women as the OPWMA Building does.

The OPWMA Building was built under a very different ethos to contemporaneous utilitarian and commemorative Centennial memorials in public spaces which focused on women’s role as wife and mother. The focus of the OPWMA Building was on the continuance of the work of improving women’s rights; of women as participatory citizens in their own right. It remains a representation of mid-century women’s movements, activities, and work. As such it can be compared with memorials to women in commemoration of their working roles and sacrifice. There are few of these from the period however two in particular stand out.

Memorial to Dr Margaret Cruickshank

Dr Margaret Cruickshank (1873-1918) was a New Zealand’s first registered woman doctor. Margaret studied with Emily Seideberg at Otago Medical School and graduated the year after her in 1897. Margaret had her practice in Waimate from 1896-1918 where she cared for her community during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 which ultimately took her life. Her statue, commissioned by the community, is situated in Seddon Square in Waimate and was unveiled in 1923; it reads, ‘The Beloved Physician/Faithful unto Death'.

The statue was carved in Carrara marble by William Tretheway, of Tretheway and Berry in Christchurch, a noted sculptor of war memorials. This is the first memorial to a woman in New Zealand with the exception of Queen Victoria, and the first memorial to a doctor. For many years a fresh bowl of flowers was kept at the monument. The statue, like the OPWMA Building was funded by the community, was certainly a place of reflection and remembrance, and while specifically memorialising Margaret Cruickshank it has a connection to Emily Seideberg-McKinnon. Both memorials keep the story of New Zealand medical women’s role in our history alive, the statue, unlike the memorial building, does not reflect the ongoing struggle for women’s rights or provide a place for the continuing advancement of women in society.

Nurses Memorial Chapel (List no.1851)

The only war memorial solely dedicated to women in New Zealand, the Nurses Memorial Chapel in Christchurch commemorates the deaths of nurses on military services. A memorial was first proposed when three nurses from Christchurch hospital died when a German torpedo sunk the ship the Marquette on which they were sailing in the Aegean in 1915. In total 31 New Zealanders died on the Marquette, of several the nurses were from Otago and Southland. Overtime the chapel also came to memorialise medical staff who died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. The chapel was opened with a service on Christmas Day in 1927.

Like the OPWMA Building, this building provides a place of contemplation and a connection with the role of women in the workforce and on duty. As an interdenominational place of worship, it is available to all-comers, and in this spirit of acceptance it can be compared with the OPWMA Building. Likewise, as the first chapel of its kind in New Zealand, it can be compared with the OPWMA Building which is also the first building of its kind to memorialise women. Both buildings have memorial windows. The Nurses chapel has the Nurse’s Memorial Window designed and constructed by Stephen Bélanger-Taylor (1940-2009) depicting a World War One nurse with the Marquette, alongside a World War Two nurse in Egypt. While there is a connection through Emily Seideberg to women in the medical profession, this building does not reflect the special connection with an ongoing struggle to recognise women’s rights, or to provide a place for present and future women to meet and enhance their lives.

Canterbury Pioneer Women’s Memorial (within the Bridle Path Historic Area, List No. 7483)

The first immigrants to Canterbury used a route known as the Bridle Path to traverse the Port Hills from Lyttelton to the settlement of Christchurch. It was quickly formed in 1850; due to the main road being incomplete.

Among other memorials along the present day Bridle Path, is the Canterbury Pioneer Women’s Memorial. The memorial site was chosen for its twin aspect – on one side a view of the boats that had brought these pioneering women from their old homes, and on the other a view of the Canterbury Plains, their new home. The foundation stone was laid by Lilian Priscilla Wakefield, the granddaughter of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, on 16 December 1939. The shelter, designed by Heathcote Helmore, was unveiled on 14 December 1940.

The stone shelter, with conical slate roof, was hexagonal in shape. Built of local stone, it was designed to ‘fit in and harmonise with the rather rugged surroundings’. The Memorial included a mural depicting a family walking over the hill carrying their possessions. The inscription read ‘On this spot the pioneer women of Canterbury and their families rested after their climb from the port [sic] of Lyttelton, and gazed with awe, but with courage, upon the hills and plains of Canterbury, where they were to make their home’.

Both Canterbury’s and Otago’s Memorials were places of rest and contemplation – the OPWMA building with its lounge, rest rooms, and Shrine of Remembrance; and Canterbury for its shelter and outlook. Both also included pictorial elements – one in mural form, the other in stained glass – which celebrated pioneer women’s journeys. Both included inscriptions praising their courage, strength and vision. Yet perhaps the site of Canterbury’s Memorial was more meaningful with its symbolic views of pioneering women’s past and future. Otago’s Memorial, however, was vastly more functional and more likely to be commonly used by women in the city. It was also a building – more sheltering, more imposing and more flexible in its use.

Memorial to Pioneer Taranaki Women (1941)

Although not included on the List, the Memorial to Pioneer Taranaki Women is another example of the outdoor seat and contemplative space favoured by Canterbury. Situated in Paritutu Centennial Park, New Plymouth, it was unveiled as part of the city’s 100th anniversary of the landing of the first settlers. Attended by the Prime Minister and Governor General, Lady Newall unveiled the special memorial seat and Mrs Fraser addressed the gathering. The large stone seat included a plaque inscribed: ‘This Memorial is Erected to Commemorate the Courage Devotion and Sacrifices of The Pioneer Women of Taranaki And the Gallant Part They Played in the Founding and Development of This Province (Erected by North Taranaki Members of the Women's Institutes and the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmer's Union.’

The seat had more in common with the Canterbury Women’s Pioneer Memorial in its style and setting, but the same contemplative purpose was found in Otago’s memorial. Another common thread was the very existence of the memorials depended on the initiative and campaigning of local women's institutes and the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmer's Union.

Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall

Perhaps one of the closest comparisons to the OPWMA Building is Auckland’s Pioneer Women’s and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall in Freyberg Square. As Chairperson of the Women’s sub-committee of the Auckland Provincial Centennial Council Ellen Melville (1882-1946), proposed a community centre for women in recognition of the pioneer mothers of the Auckland Province. Melville was a trained lawyer, City Councillor for 33 consecutive years and an ‘ardent feminist’. Like Seideberg, Melville was a pioneer – New Zealand second woman lawyer, and first female councillor. Like the OPWMA, she envisaged a building containing amenities for city and country women, including committee rooms and a hall but with the additions of a restaurant and children’s day nursery. She also expected the City Council to provide the site at a ‘peppercorn rental’. Perhaps as a Councillor she could rely on Council support; where the OPWMA experienced only betrayal from the City Council and its Centennial Committees. Otago’s Pioneer Memorial Building is distinctive in that while it was an unofficial monument to the Centennial, its value can be perceived as greater because it was fought for and achieved by women, to commemorate the Otago women of the past, and to be an asset for the Otago women of the future.

The Auckland women’s centennial sub-committee pushed for the building to be erected in time for the 1940 centennial celebrations, but it was postponed by wartime demands. Perhaps the lack of outright opposition to Auckland’s scheme did not create the same battling spirit roused in the Otago campaign. It was the Otago Provincial Centennial Committee’s rejection of the women’s proposal that led to such strong sentiment - and a determination to create the space, come what may.

Ellen died in 1946. The Pioneer Women's Memorial Hall Committee was finally established around 1957, to fulfil her wish. Designed by architect Tibor Donner the Memorial modernist building was completed in 1962 and named in her honour. Unlike the OPWMA it was largely paid for by the City Council and the Queen Street Business Association. A roll of honour was also prepared and placed inside the Memorial Hall. This was based on a card index of names of women who had been pioneers in social, academic and civil life.

International Women’s Buildings

Canada and America led the way in providing spaces provided for women, by women. The Vancouver Women’s Building, which so inspired Siedeberg-McKinnon, began life as a house purchased in 1911 through the combined efforts of twelve women’s organisations. In 1926 A.A. Cox designed the purpose-built Vancouver Women’s Building which provided office space and meeting rooms for women’s groups. Unfortunately financial difficulties saw the building sold on in 1941. It was demolished in 1988.

San Francisco also has a Women’s Building but the Centre did not open until 1973. Los Angeles Women’s Building was also established in 1973. In 2019 there are organisations in London and New York who recognise the importance of women’s buildings in their cities. They are gathering support to realise the vision of a dedicated space in their cities – eighty years after Dunedin women first recognised the need.

Arguably, of all New Zealand’s 1940 Centennial memorials, the OPWMA building best represents the pioneering female spirit which these memorials sought to commemorate; a spirit that changed focus from womens role as mothers and wives in a new country, to one of active citizens involved in creating a better future. In the face of opposition and disloyalty from the officiating bodies, the women of Otago fought a hard won battle. Perhaps it wasn’t the building of their dreams, but it was central, it provided the necessary spaces and amenties, and it was paid for by their own hard work and fundraising. Since its inception it has been administered by the hardworking descendants of these OPWMA forerunners. They have nurtured the vision. Still unaided by official bodies and male counterparts, the Association and the OPWMA Building remain an outstanding testament to the female pioneering spirit.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1909 -
First office building and shop constructed

1913 -

1934 -
Alterations and re-facing for S R Burns and Company

1942 -
Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association Building opens

Completion Date

3rd February 2020

Report Written By

Sarah Gallagher, Susan Irvine, Heather Bauchop and David Murray

Information Sources

Otago Daily Times

Otago Daily Times

Emily H. McKinnon and Irene L. Starr, ‘Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial: Being a brief history of the foundation of a memorial building dedicated to the pioneer women of Otago to serve the interests of present and future generations of women and organised societies in civic welfare’, Otago Daily Times, Dunedin, 1959, https://dunedin.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/201245 accessed 18 December 2019.

Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand


Patricia A. Sargison, Siedeberg-McKinnon, Emily Hancock, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3s16/Siedeberg-McKinnon-emily-hancock accessed 14 August 2018.

Grimshaw, P., K. Holmes and M. Lake (eds)

Women’s Rights and Human Rights, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2001.

C. Macdonald, ‘Emily’s Dream: A Women’s Memorial Building and a History Without Walls: Citizenship and the Politics of Public Remembrance in 1930s–40s New Zealand.’ in Grimshaw P., Holmes K., Lake M. (eds), 2001.

Built in Dunedin


David Murray, ‘Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Building’, 2017, https://builtindunedin.com/2017/08/14/otago-pioneer-womens-memorial-association-building/ accessed 12 June 2018.

Other Information

A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List Report is available on request from the Otago/Southland Area Office of Heritage New Zealand.