The Rio Grande

Built: 1927-1928
Address: 73 Princes Street
Architects: David Gourlay Mowat
Builders: G. Lawrence & Sons

This wee gem often catches my eye. The Rio Grande was the restaurant of Dimitrios Pagonis (1893-1976), a Greek immigrant from the island of Evvia. Pagonis had arrived in Dunedin in 1915, when he went into business as a confectioner and opened the Anglo American Candy Kitchen. He sold the business in 1927, when he commissioned architect D.G. Mowat to replace the 1860s building at 73 Princes Street (part of a larger block of shops) with a new structure. Plans dated 24 August 1927 show a building with three levels (two above the street and one below) on a concrete foundation that would allow the height to be increased to a total of five levels if required. The restaurant occupied the ground floor and basement, and the first floor was used as office space. The builders were Lawrence & Sons.

The building was completed by April 1928, when an Evening Star report described it:

‘Only last week the proprietor of the Rio Grande restaurant served the first meal to the public, and if internal decoration has anything to do with a cafe’s popularity then the Rio Grande should find a warm spot in the heart of patrons. The fibrous plastering has been very well done by Messrs Forman and Nicol, and Messrs Arnold, Brock, and Raffils have put their best work into the lead-lighting arrangements. The kitchen is fitted out with the usual culinary equipment of modern times. From the street the building has a remarkably fine appearance, the marble floor running in from the pavement being quite a feature.’

David Gourlay Mowat (1880-1952) was most active in Dunedin in the 1920s and 1930s. His designs included the St Andrew Street Church of Christ, the Maori Hill Presbyterian Church, Mann’s Buildings at the corner of Manse and High streets, and the building at 232 George Street which is now a McDonald’s restaurant. The last of these was built in 1929 and shares with the Rio Grande a distinctive first-floor window design with arched lintels and leadlight windows described as ‘sashed in the antique style’.  Both buildings have similar decorative mouldings that frame their facades. In the Rio Grande, the international vogue for Egyptian decoration comes through in an understated way through the pilasters and curved entablature. Mowat’s front elevation drawing shows the faint lettering ‘The Rio Grand’ [sic] in the recessed panel that runs across the upper part of the facade. The spelling in later sources varies.

Restaurants operated from the building under various managers for ten years. During the Great Depression street riot of 1932, Pagonis opened the restaurant to rioters for the whole day, feeding them without charge. Not long after this he sold the building and left Dunedin, but he later returned and established the Beau Monde Milk Bar, further south and on the opposite side of Princes Street.

A wartime advertisement. Otago Daily Times, 27 April 1943 p.5.

A wartime advertisement. Otago Daily Times, 27 April 1943 p.5.

View showing the building as it appeared in the mid 1970s with the clock in place. Detail from photograph by Hardwicke Knight.

The jewellers G. & T. Young took the premises in 1938, when new shop fronts and other alterations were designed by architects Salmond & Salmond. The large Birmingham clock that had been a feature outside their previous two premises since 1871 was moved and attached to the facade. G. & T. Young moved to George Street premises in 1988 and the clock was removed in 1990. When the firm went into liquidation in 2009 it was believed to be the oldest jewellery business in New Zealand. It had been established by George Young in 1862, with his brother Thomas admitted as a partner in 1876.

Most recently the Rio Grande building housed Rocda Gallery, and its plaster ceilings are still largely intact. For a small, domestically-scaled commercial building it attracts a lot of admiring comments, perhaps because its modest take on 1920s architectural fashion has more than a little sparkle to it, like a ring in a little jeweller’s box.

Do any readers have historical photographs of this building? I’d love to see a good view of it with the clock still in place.

Newspaper references: Evening Star, 10 January 1928 p.2 (construction progress), 2 April 1928 p.2 (description); 18 December 1928 p.2 (building at 232 George Street); Otago Witness, 18 May 1867 p.11 (earlier buildings), 15 April 1871 p.14 (G. & T. Young clock); Otago Daily Times, 17 April 1867 p.1 (earlier buildings), 14 May 1990 p.3 (clock removed), 27 January 2009 p.4 (liquidation of G. & T. Young).

Other references: Directories (Stone’s, Wise’s, telephone); Jane Thomson,‘Papers relating to Southern People’ (Hocken Archives MS-1926/1347); Dunedin City Council permit records and deposited plans.

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