Address: 99-101 Stuart Street
Architects: John Arthur Burnside (1857-1920)
Builders: McKinnon & Hamilton
Some buildings offer instant clues to their origins and the identities of the people who once occupied them. The Roberts Building prominently displays its name and the year 1903 above some wonderfully florid entranceway decoration. Although most people don’t look up, a few must find their eyes drawn to this feature and wonder: ‘Who was Roberts?’
Edward Roberts said he was ‘in a sense the Pioneer of the Street’. An earlier post here described the rapid development of Lower Stuart Street in the Edwardian era. In the goldrush years a young married couple had lived in a tent on the site of the Roberts Buildings, and as late as 1900 there were still many vacant sections and simple wooden structures in the street. Only five of the buildings now standing in the street date from the nineteenth century, but there are twelve from the period 1900-1914. The Law Courts were built between 1900 and 1902, and the Railway Station between 1904 and 1906. The station spurred new construction as it caused a new flow of foot traffic, which had previously gone up Dowling Street from the old station at Queens Gardens. Not long after the site for the new station was decided, enterprising businesses and developers were putting up substantial buildings. Roberts later claimed to be the first in this wave.
A consulting engineer, Roberts had been paying high rent for offices and decided it would make more sense to build his own premises with shops and rooms he could lease out. The architect, John Arthur Burnside, called for tenders from contractors in September 1903 and the building was completed by June 1904, the same month that the foundation stone for the Railway Station was laid. Roberts’ first floor office faced Stuart Street, in the easternmost room. His first tenant was a dentist, Miss Marion Donald, and within three or four years he found he had a good paying proposition.
Edward Roberts was born in Cornwall in 1851 and grew up in Bendigo where his father established an ironworks. A qualified mechanical engineer, he arrived in Dunedin with his wife Elizabeth in 1881, to take up a job at Robert Sparrow’s Dunedin Iron Works. His projects included bridges, viaducts, ship boilers, harbour works, and road construction. He gained an international reputation for dredge construction, and one of his innovations was a dredge with a stacker, able to work the ground away from the river. This was built for the Otago Gold Dredging Company. Roberts was one of the original promoters, and the designing engineer, for the Dunedin and Kaikorai Cable Tramway Company, which operated the Stuart Street cable car from 1900.
The Roberts Building was given a facade of unpainted brickwork with contrasting cement plaster facings. The parapet was originally plain above a strong cornice. The first-floor windows were surmounted by bold pediments and flanked by volutes, a feature Burnside repeated in a later building he designed at the nearby corner of Stuart and Bath streets. A panel facing Stuart Street featured the name of the building and the date of construction in relief. Above the ground floor office entrance was placed a relief sculpture (‘pargetting’) of an organic fleur-de-lis design beneath an arch surmounted by a ball finial.
There were originally no verandahs, but by 1906 one of the bullnose type had been added, and this was extended in 1909. A hanging verandah was added in 1930 and the original projecting cornice removed around the 1940s, somewhat spoiling the original design. In 1910 a second, smaller building was erected in Moray Place. The existing facade was extended in the same style, connecting the buildings over a lane used to access a yard at the rear of the property. Another name panel was added but this is now illegible.
The seed and plant merchants Skene & Fleming (later Skene’s Ltd) were early ground floor tenants who later moved a few doors towards the railway station before closing in 1943. The longest tenancy in the building was that of the tailors W.S. Reddell & Co. (later Reddell’s Ltd), who had the corner shop from 1909 to 1972. Reddell’s had a reputation for ‘reliable tailoring’ using tweeds produced by the Rosyln mills and other New Zealand manufacturers, although shortages in 1919 led them to buy expensive Russian material that had been intended for the Russian aristocracy.
Edward Roberts occupied his offices until his death in 1925, and his son, Edward Fletcher Roberts, kept them on. The area was something of a hub for engineering firms, with A. & T. Burt, John Chambers & Son, Niven & Co., and James Mann, all being close neighbours. The younger Roberts was a civil engineer and surveyor. He trained in England and served in France, Mesopotamia, and India during the First World War. He eventually took over his father’s firm, and his work included water supply projects, mechanical engineering, road construction, and the design of bridges (notably the one at Luggate). Ian Pairman described him as a legendary figure in the engineering and surveying world of Otago. He wrote:
‘His reputation survives as a formidable but fair disciplinarian, a true professional with a keen sense of responsibility. An 8am start meant just that. Staff were lined up – not a very big line – shoes and clothing inspected, hair neat, faces scrubbed. Anything amiss, and you were sent out to rectify the matter. Pay started when all was well. He, of course, was ‘Mr Roberts’; you were plain Smith or Jones. Christian names might as well have not been invented. He was tall, lean, and very deaf, which made him a trifle suspicious of what young cadets might be doing or saying behind his back, but he trusted them as he himself would be trusted.’
A brief partnership with Walter Duffill and Eddie King didn’t work out well. It ended in 1949 after Duffill was locked out and had to break into his own office through the first floor window using an electrician’s ladder! Fletcher Roberts retained offices in the building until his death in 1951, and these days Webb Farry Lawyers occupy his old rooms.
Gallery De Novo, art and framing, opened in the corner shop on 8 July 2005. Owned by Richelle Byers and Liz Fraser, this is one of Dunedin’s leading galleries representing an eclectic mix of New Zealand contemporary artists. The space gets good natural light and a mezzanine level has been incorporated to good effect. Original floorboards and plaster ceilings are attractive interior features, in a building which has seen many changes, but still retains much of its charm and appeal.
Otago Daily Times, 29 September 1903 p.6 (call for tenders), 14 May 1904 p.2 (description), 15 November 1915 p.7 (tent on site in the 1860s), 4 June 1919 p.12 (Reddell & Co.), 4 August 2005 p.9 (Gallery De Novo).
Garden, Eoin R., ‘Roberts, Edward (1851-1925)’ in Southern People: A Dictionary of Otago Southland Biography (Dunedin: Longacre Press, 1998), p.424.
Pairman, Ian R. An Engineer Told Me: The Story of the First 50 Years pf Duffill Watts & King Ltd, Consulting Engneers (Dunedin: Duffill Watts King, 1997), pp.15-32.
Edward Roberts papers, Hocken Collections MS-0484/002.
Edward Fletcher Roberts papers, Hocken Collections ARC-0006.
Stone’s Otago and Southland Directory
Wise’s New Zealand Post Office Directory
Council of Fire and Accident Underwriters’ Associations of New Zealand, block plans, 1927
Dunedin City Council permit records and deposited plans