Lost Dunedin #3: Oriental Hotel

Built: 1863
Address: 152 Princes Street
Architect: [?] William Henry Clayton (1823-1877)
Builder: Not identified
Demolished 1887

Photo: D.L. Mundy, [1864]. Toitū / Otago Settlers Museum.

The Oriental Hotel was the most exuberant building of gold rush Dunedin. Dominating its neighbours, it magnificently thumbed its nose at any stodginess or dourness that might, fairly or unfairly, have been associated with the established settler society. The eccentric four-storeyed timber structure was built for John Sibbald in 1863, with construction reported as nearly complete by December that year. The following month Harriet Cooper was given a license to run the hotel.

The design of the Oriental was so eclectic that it has been variously described as Gothic, Continental, Renaissance, Old English, American and, yes, Oriental. It even had ironwork with shamrock motifs. The Otago Daily Times struggled to describe the building in 1864, but referred to it is as ‘very pretty’ and an example of what might be termed  ‘Continental Gothic’, a departure from the ordinary Gothic style.  The great variety of detail included barley twist columns, grotesque heads, a representation of Bacchus, balcony stick work, Tudoresque chimneys, oriel windows, gablets, an elaborate and unusual cornice, and a platform with iron railings on the top of the building. No Asian influence was mentioned in the report and I haven’t found any evidence explaining whether or not the hotel name was chosen before or after the building was designed. Stacpoole and Beaven (1972) noted that the oriel windows with connecting balconies, along with the cornice, were ‘as far East as Gothic could go’.

A contextual view. Note the Dowling Street steps where the land was excavated in the 1880s allowing the extension of the street. Photo: 1865. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: PAColl-3824-04.

A contextual view. Note the Dowling Street steps where the land was excavated in the 1880s allowing the extension of the street. Photo: 1865. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: PAColl-3824-04.

The question of who designed the building has long been one of the puzzles of Dunedin’s architectural history. Some sources name Edward Rumsey as the architect, an attribution that seems to have originated with Stacpoole and Beaven (1972), based on stylistic grounds. Rumsey probably arrived in Dunedin aboard the Aldinga in June 1862, although he did not start advertising in local newspapers until August 1864. It is possible that he was the designer.

I have a new theory, which is that W.H. Clayton designed the building. Clayton worked in Dunedin from May 1863, and of all the architects working in Dunedin at the time he is the only one I know of whose style appears at all consistent with the Oriental. Clayton later became Colonial Architect and he designed many public buildings throughout the country, including the Old Government Buildings in Wellington. There are particularly striking similarities between the Oriental and his unrealised concept drawing for Government House in Wellington (c.1869). After searching newspapers online, on microfilm, and in print, I found only one piece of documentary evidence to support this: in August 1863 Clayton called for tenders for ‘Lowering an Hotel to the permanent level’. It was at this time that the section of Princes Street known as the Cutting, in which the Oriental was built, was lowered to the line of the rest of the street. Was the Oriental the hotel referred to in the tender notice?

W.H. Clayton’s unrealised design for Government House, Wellington. Image: c.1869, Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: PA1-q-158-42.

The Oriental was one of Dunedin’s larger hotels. It had a bar and a restaurant, and was the venue of lodge meetings, coroner’s inquests, the organisation of walking races, and its fair share of disorderly behaviour. It was a mostly respectable establishment, however, and its accommodation included ‘private rooms for families’. In 1883, an English artist who had toured New Zealand described the hotel as ‘rather of an American type, and, I must say, the most elegant building of the kind I have seen since leaving San Francisco’.

The first licensee, Harriet Cooper, went broke within a few months. While she was there she lost a cockatoo that must have lent even more colour to the establishment. Below is a full list of the licensees checked and revised from the lists of Willett (1937) and Tod (1984):

1864. Harriet Cooper
1864-1865. Horace Bastings
1866-1868. Edgar Bastings
1868-1871. John McCubbin
1871-1872. James Mackay
1872-1876. John Scott
1876. Henry Nankervis
1876. Joseph Braithwaite
1876-1878. William Gawne
1878. Angelo Davis
1878-1880. Reuben Isaacs
1880-1881. Francis O’Kane
1881. Maurice Tondut
1881-1883. Donald Macrae
1883. Henry Newey
1883-1886. George Stanbrook
1886-1887. Joseph Wilson
1887-1888. John Donaldson

Advertisement from the New Zealand Tablet, 4 August 1876 p.17. National Library of New Zealand.

Advertisement from the Otago Witness, 18 September 1880 p.4. National Library of New Zealand.

In its early years Princes Street was plagued by fires, which sometimes swept through entire city blocks. Deaths and great loss of property were experienced, and it’s unsurprising that wooden buildings came to be seen as a liability, and that more fireproof brick construction was promoted on safety grounds. Earthquakes were not experienced, and so they were not factored in. The Oriental nearly burned down on no fewer than four occasions (1865, 1880, 1883, and 1885) and at the time of its demolition in 1887 it was described as a ‘standing menace’. The land was very valuable, and in 1874 the freehold had been purchased by Joseph Braithwaite (the well-known bookseller and later mayor) for the princely sum of £1,850.

After much blasting and excavation, Dowling Street was extended and the Excelsior Hotel was built on the site of the old hotel (taking its license). That building still stands today, but its story will have to wait for another post.

Newspaper references:

Otago Daily Times, 20 August 1863 p.3 (Clayton tender notice – reducing hotel to permanent level); 18 December 1863 p.3 (description), 10 February 1864 p.7 (lost cockatoo), 30 May 1864 p.3 (Cooper insolvent ), 1 June 1864 p.3 (Sibbald), 12 May 1874 p.2 (sale of freehold), 15 May 1880 p.2 (fire), 23 March 1883 p.4 (impression of architecture on visitor), 28 November 1883 p.2 (fire), 2 June 1884 p.1 (Stanbrook advertisement), 10 June 1885 p.2 (fire), 9 March 1887 p.2 (demolition), also various Licensing Committee reports; The Mercury (Hobart), 11 February 1865 p.3 (fire – walls blistered); Otago Witness, 18 September 1880 p.4 (O’Kane advertisement).

Other references:

Knight, Hardwicke and Niel Wales. Buildings of Victorian Dunedin: An Illustrated Guide to New Zealand’s Victorian City  (Dunedin: McIndoe, 1988).
Stacpoole, John and Peter Beaven. New Zealand Art; Architecture 1820-1970 (Wellington: Reed, [1972]).
Tod, Frank: Pub’s Galore (Dunedin: Historical Publications, 1984).
Willett, R.W. Hotels of Dunedin; Historical Record  (Dunedin, 1937).

Photo (detail): D.L. Mundy, [1864]. Toitū / Otago Settlers Museum.

18 thoughts on “Lost Dunedin #3: Oriental Hotel

  1. Lemuel

    Fantastic post and what a stunning building! Such a shame that it was demolished. I especially love that last photograph of the shady goldrush-era characters hanging around outside.

    1. David Murray Post author

      Thanks very much Lemuel. It was a very fun building – I think it had a glint in its eye! I wonder what those characters got up to that day…

  2. Robin Skinner

    This is a great post on a terrific website. However, it’s probably a wee bit early to dismiss Rumsey as designer. Although his name does not appear in Dunedin newspapers until 1864, he was certainly living there in 1863. The Melbourne Argus lists him as ‘surveyor’ in Dunedin (19 December 1863, p.6). His (possibly former) Melbourne property at Halifax Rd, Brighton was sold in September 1863, although he could have left earlier. As far as I can tell, the last tenders he called in Melbourne were in 1862. Does anyone know when he arrived in Dunedin?

    BTW: Readers of the blog may like to compare the images of the hotel with other designs by Rumsey – I think Stacpoole’s assertion remains credible.

    1. David Murray Post author

      Thanks for your comment Robin. You’re right to pull me up on the Rumsey point – I was a little bold there but hoped it might encourage a bit of conversation. I think I have been put off that theory by a few others (after Stacpoole) taking it and running with it. I still find the stylistic comparisons a bit unconvincing. Your message has encouraged me to squirrel around a little more after Rumsey and I found that Mrs Rumsey and all the little Rumseys arrived in Dunedin on the ‘Southern Ocean’ in November 1863. Edward wasn’t with them. I now think he was the ‘H. Rumsey’ (perhaps transcribed incorrectly) who arrived aboard the ‘Aldinga’ in June 1862. The age given (27) fits. I’m not sure why his advertisements don’t turn up till later but this does place him in the picture as a possible designer of the Oriental and I’ve re-edited the post to reflect that.

  3. Robin Skinner

    Stacpoole has a very good eye and his stylistic argument is far from ‘slight’ in my view. It’s interesting that Rumsey arrived as early as June 1862. Could it be that upon arrival he headed to the goldfields? Was he on sufficiently good terms with David Ross (also ex Melbourne) to help him with projects? Incidentally, Rumsey and Jackson’s 1864 office was across the road from the Oriental Hotel.

    1. David Murray Post author

      Yes, on re-reading the post it also seemed to me that I was too casually dismissive so I removed ‘slight’ from ‘slight stylistic grounds’ in the re-edit I referred to earlier. Although Stacpoole didn’t convince me on this occasion, I agree with you that he is credible and don’t doubt his good eye, which is very apparent in his writing. It’s also good to put forward and explore a variety of plausible theories when the documentary evidence is inconclusive. I agree that some time spent on the goldfields is a likely explanation for Rumsey’s lack of profile in Dunedin 1862-1863. I haven’t come across any Ross-Rumsey links so far, such as notices of the type that cropped up when Ross did similar work for Mason. It remains a possibility.

  4. David Kinraid

    I have a Burton Bros. triptych of the southern city, taken in 1863 from the Bell Hill demolition work face. The three prints constitute a landscape of the city at the time, and I look at it often when I’m feeling a bit homesick! The first print looks out over the harbour mudflats towards what is now South Dunedin/St Kilda and including Caversham Rise/the Southern Cemetery. The second shows the southern end of Princes Street, with Stafford Street and the High Street corner. The third looks up Maclaggan Street and, if it weren’t for the houses built on the hill, you would be able to see the corner of Dowling Street that the Oriental Hotel stood on. After seeing the post, I went back to that third photo and tried to see if part of the Oriental Hotel was visible between those pesky houses.but unfortunately nothing was visible. Of course, the photo may well have been taken early in the year before the hotel was completed.

    A great post and a thoroughly interesting website!

  5. John Dodd

    Thanks for the interesting information on what I consider the best piece of architecture ever. I have fond memories of seeing a photo of this building at the Early Setters Museum in the 1970s. It always stuck in my mind, so set out to construct a 1:50 scale model of it in 2007. Not being in Dunedin at this time, I had a friend of mine based in Dunedin obtain as much photographic information as he could. I reproduced the building from these photos using known dimensions in AutoCAD which formed the basis for the model. 8 months later it was completed and extremely pleased with the result. I am currently in the process of modeling it in 3D Studio Max along with some of the near surrounding buildings. This will enable me to create new views where no photos exist. Some license was taken modeling areas of the building the photos I have do not show. The results should give a great impression of how the building and its surroundings look in a 3D environment.

    Thanks again.

  6. John Dodd

    I am happy to post some progress renders or email. There are many fantastic old buildings in Dunedin, one that springs to mind is the Public Trust Building in Moray Place opposite the First Church. Another which has been gone for quite a while now is the Stock Exchange which I remember as a child.
    A very good web site with a wealth of information.

  7. Julian Coogan

    You can see that this building the Orient Hotel was a masterpeice of construction which defies the history and descriptive details given here. There is no way that this was built in less than a year and it would appear a lot older than the 1863 date shown! It is clear that this building was taller than shown as there are windows buried beneath the line of the building. Why was such a work of art demolished just 24 years after it was built, makes absolutely no sense at all! The people who were responsible for destroying this building should be hung!

    1. David Murray Post author

      Thanks for your comment. It is straightforwardly provable the building was not built before 1863 as it is absent in slightly earlier photographs, and Bell Hill had not been reduced/removed then, and so the site did not exist in the form it was built on. There are also multiple sources of documentary evidence that speak to its dates of construction. It is a great shame it didn’t survive longer. By the time it was pulled down there were almost no timber buildings left at the north end of Princes Street, and such was the rapid rate of development that many of them did not even survive ten years. I very much wish it was still with us! You might be interested to see it in the process of construction here (on the right): https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/195743

  8. Nathan Jaquiery

    Hi, Sibbald is my Great great grand father, through my grandfathers maternal line. Thanks so much for this.


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