Address: 33 Jetty Street
Architect: John Somerville (1834-1905)
Builders: Day labour and contracts overseen by Adam Nichol (clerk of works)
Two years ago this Victorian office building was close to demolition, but Lawrie Forbes took it on and now the building has cheerier prospects thanks to the essential structural and maintenance work he has carried out. It’s for sale again, awaiting the next chapter in a colourful story that has already seen it used as the administrative headquarters for school education in Otago, the head office of a major publishing firm, and the premises of seed merchants, artists, an experimental dentist, and many more besides.
In the mid 1870s a few sheds on stilts occupied the site, which was then on the foreshore where the old jetty (after which Jetty Street is named) met Crawford Street. The city block we know today was reclaimed a few years later, but by the early 1890s there were still no permanent structures on it apart from the Harbour Board’s building. Between 1896 and 1897 the large Agricultural Hall complex was erected, and soon afterwards followed the corner building that is the subject of this post. It was built as office accommodation for the Otago Education Board and was designed by the board’s architect, John Somerville. I haven’t found the original specification, but Somerville detailed his recommendations in a letter dated 16 June 1897. The foundations were to be concrete, the timbers mostly rimu and kauri, and the walls brick. The estimated cost was £2,000. A clerk of works, Adam Nichol, was employed to oversee the construction carried out by day labourers (employed directly by the board) and contractors.
Work began in July 1897 when the Otago Witness described the proposed structure as a plain but handsome one, on one of the best sites in the city, that would ‘complete a block of fine buildings, and add very materially to the architectural beauty of the locality’. The report described the interior arrangements, which at this point were planned around a main entrance on Crawford Street: ‘Entering from this street, there will be a large vestibule (10ft by 16ft), to be used by the public, the business being transacted, as is now the practice at the board’s office, through a sliding window, communicating with the clerks’ room. On the right will be the board room (26ft by 19ft), and on the left the clerks’ office (33ft by 17ft), and off this the strong room will be situated. At the rear will be the secretary’s office (18ft by 17ft), which will communicate with the clerks’ room, and behind this again will be the inspector’s room (23ft by 14ft). A store room for school appliances is provided for in the plans, as also are lavatories, which are to be fitted up on the most modern and approved principles. Ascending the staircase, which is to be 10ft wide, the upper floor will be reached by two flights of stairs. This floor will practically be a duplicate of the ground floor. Two of the rooms are intended for the architect, another is to be used as a store room for the board’s records, stationery, &c, and the remaining rooms are already leased to one of our public bodies. The rooms on the ground floor will be 16ft high, and those on the upper floor 15ft. Ventilation and lighting will also be satisfactorily attended to. The building is to be built of brick with cement facings, and the brickwork is to be tuck-pointed, in keeping with the Agricultural Buildings.’
The architectural style is essentially Renaissance Revival, perhaps transitioning to Queen Anne. Tall, round-headed windows at ground level are a distinctive feature. Pediments (made from Oamaru stone), pilasters, quoins, and other mouldings have been used in a conventional and effective way, though the parapet may be a little heavy-looking for the relatively understated composition and shallow profiles below. The overall effect is dignified and the generous proportions are highlighted by contrast with the neighbouring Harbour Board building.
Controversy plagued the development of the building. The first and most serious row was when Somerville changed the position of the entrance from Crawford Street to Jetty Street (to allow for a better ground floor layout) without getting committee approval. Somerville claimed he acted on the instructions of the secretary, Patrick Pryde, who in turn denied it. Pryde was a divisive and allegedly autocratic figure with strong supporters and detractors among both teachers and elected officials. The committee was already characterised by its squabbling, and the incident set off yet another round of arguing and point scoring. An inquiry was held into the unauthorised alteration, the strained relations between architect and secretary, and the truthfulness of the claims that had been made. This was reported at length in newspapers, with articles including little moments such as: ‘Mr Ramsay made some inaudible remark, to which Mr J.F.M. Fraser replied: I’m not addressing you, Mr Ramsay; you are somewhat too insignificant for me’. The eventual resolution was to reprimand both Pryde and Somerville.
More trouble came about over the bricks used in the building and the way in which they were procured by the architect, with further suggestion of lack of due process. Pressed machine-cut bricks were only produced locally by C. & W. Gore at Wingatui, however, the architect found difficulty in obtaining a sufficient supply at a good price. The cost of brick was about to rise and this led to some urgent decision making. Handmade wire-cut bricks were obtained from three different suppliers (including Shiel’s at Caversham) to begin the building work. The structure was carried up to a ‘considerable height’ with the common bricks, and pressed bricks from Gore Bros were obtained for the later part of the construction. This meant the facades were cemented rather than the outer course of bricks being tuck-pointed and left exposed, which would have matched the neighbouring Agricultural Hall (later His Majesty’s Theatre). A Te Papa image gives a partial view of the building in November 1897, before the brickwork was rendered.
By the end of 1897 building had progressed to the point where plumbing and plastering work was being carried out. Yet more controversy occurred when the clerk of works, Adam Nichol, was dismissed from the board’s service as the project drew to an end. The committee argued about whether or not he should have been retained for further building projects. They had opted to minimise the amount of contract work used on the project and Nichol’s role was consequently more significant than his title might suggest. According to one board member (J.J. Ramsay, a supporter of Nichol’s): ‘If a job of the magnitude of the board’s offices were being carried out by contract a clerk of works would be employed for that job alone at a larger salary than Mr Nichol receives; and yet Mr Nichol has been doing the work of the contractor in addition to that of clerk of works — setting-off the building, making the moulds, selecting the material, and conducting the whole work.’ Nichol died suddenly a few months later, while on inspection work at the goldfields.
On 26 April 1898 the Otago Daily Times reported that ‘Eduction Board officials were busily engaged yesterday and on Saturday last in removing to the new offices between the Agricultural Buildings and the Harbour Board’. The final cost was reported as £3189, which was over a third more than the original estimate. Contractors included William Bragg for the staircase, Key & Ashton for plastering, and Scott & Hodges for plumbing. The Architect’s Department letter books held in the Hocken Collections record detail of the various labourers employed.
The Education Board retained offices in the building for 27 years, and the Otago High Schools’ Office also had rooms. In 1925 it was purchased for £5,000 by A.H. Reed, for his business the Sunday School Supplies Stores, which he had established in 1907. He let part of the ground floor to the Atlas Insurance Company, and upstairs rooms to an accountant and the Otago Council of Sunday School Unions. Gavin McLean, in his history of Reed Books, writes that the ‘debt burden worried the Reeds, but they had good tenants and the Reeds Building, prominently displayed on letterheads and emblazoned with their names, gave them a feeling of security, while stamping their presence firmly on the bookselling and publishing scene’. In 1932 A.W. (Clif) Reed became a partner and opened a Wellington branch, and the firm diversified from predominantly religious publications into secular fiction and non-fiction. The company ultimately became New Zealand’s largest publishing house. A.H. Reed closed the Dunedin office in 1940 but retained ownership of the Jetty Street building for a few more years. A.H. & A.W. Reed (as it was then known) consolidated on its Wellington operations. Alfred was a prolific author in his later years and famously walked from Cape Reinga to Bluff when he was 85 years old (one of a number of walking feats). He died in 1975 at the age of 99.
In 1945 the building was purchased by John Stuart Skinner (1894-1983), a Gallipoli veteran and prominent Dunedin businessman who served as president of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce. Skinner was a seed and grain merchant and had established his firm J.S. Skinner & Co. in 1924, with offices in the neighbouring Donald Reid & Co. building. He later recalled: ‘At the end of hostilities Donald Reid & Co. informed me that with staff returning they would require all the upstairs office space and while there was no immediate haste to leave they suggested I look for other premises. As I had been offered Reed’s building next door a year previously I wasted no time in getting in touch with Mr Reed and completed the purchase the same day to our mutual satisfaction at the original price of three thousand five hundred pounds.’ Skinner & Co. vacated the building around 1979 but continued in business until the firm was acquired by Combined Rural Traders (CRT) in 1996. The building was known as ‘Skinner’s Building’ during this time and was still listed under this name in Wise’s directory as late as 1995. Skinner’s tenants included the Atlas Assurance Company (which was in the building c.1925-1958), company agents and secretaries, insurance agents, John Roberts Laidlaw (sharebroker, c.1946-1956), F. Meredith & Co. (indent agents, c.1968-1983), and A.S. Falconer (grain and seed broker, c.1945-1959). Brigadier Alexander Smith Falconer (1892-1966) had served as commanding officer of the 23rd Infantry Battalion in the Second World War.
From the 1980s the use of the building shifted more to residential and studio use. Artists with rooms in the building included Jeffrey Harris, Dave Sarich, Faith McManus, and Fleur Yorsten. Bryan Spittle (of the band Mink) lived in the building in the early 1990s. The experimental dentist Donald Ritchie (1912-1996) also worked and later lived on the premises. He advocated a method he called ‘trace mineral therapy’ to combat tooth decay and had earlier developed a mineral-based powder called Dentamin, which he was not permitted to sell in shops.
Despite many changes of use, the building retains much of its original character. Two ground floor window openings have been lowered to create a second entrance from Jetty Street (at the corner, altered in 1935), and a further entrance on Crawford Street. A pediment has been removed from the Crawford Street facade at parapet level. The interior has decorative ceiling plasterwork, original doors, skirtings, picture rails, architraves etc. (with varnished finishes), and the original generously-proportioned principal staircase with turned balusters and curved rail. Original fireplace surrounds have been removed, but exposed openings or replacement surrounds generally remain. A strongroom is still in place in the first floor, as does a smaller vaulted storeroom. Various internal changes include the addition of mezzanine levels and kitchens.
Lawrie Forbes purchased the building in 2012 and has carried out emergency works to bring the structure to a level of code compliance. Subsidence had badly compromised the south party wall, where the adjoining frontage of His Majesty’s Theatre was demolished in the 1970s. Forbes has significantly strengthened the structure by rebuilding this, and obtained financial assistance from the Dunedin Heritage Fund to carry out the work. What’s next? Take a look at the property listing – you might have some ideas!
Thanks to Lawrie Forbes (Zealsteel) for providing access to the building.
D Scene 16 February 2011 (‘Building may be demolished’); Evening Star, 17 September 1897 (to the editor), 24 January 1898 (editorial); Otago Witness, 25 August 1897 p.36 (Education Board Enquiry), 30 September 1897 p.29 (editorial – ‘twopenny squabbles’), 30 September 1897 p.36 (to the editor), 7 October 1897 p.18 (to the editor); Otago Daily Times, 2 September 1897 p.3 (‘Education Board’), 4 September 1897 p.4 (editorial), 6 September 1897 pp.3-4 (to the editor), 9 September 1897 p.3 (to the editor), 17 September 1897 p.4 (meeting report), 18 September 1897 p.6 (letter to the editor re bricks), 25 September 1897 p.6 (to the editor re bricks), 28 September 1897 p.6 (to the editor re bricks), 22 October 1897 p.4 (to the editor re bricks), 17 December 1897 p.6 (inspector of works), 21 January 1898 p.4 (inspector of works), 3 February 1898 p.3 (to the editor – ‘A Shameful Transaction’), 3 February 1898 p.4 (editorial), 7 February 1898 p.3 (to the editor), 8 February 1898 p.3 (to the editor), 9 February 1898 p.3 (to the editor), 12 February 1898 pp.3, 6 (to the editor), 14 February 1898 p.3 (to the editor), 18 February 1898 p.4 (to the editor), 21 April 1898 p.7 (busyness), 28 October 1966 p.8 (obituary for A.S. Falconer), 20 December 1983 (obituary for J.S. Skinner), 24 September 1996 p.5 (obituary for Doanld Bruce Ritchie), 8 August 2012 p.7 (‘“Huge job” of restoring Reed’s Building starts’), 31 January 2014 (‘Developer to sell historic building he saved’); Tuapeka Times, 28 August 1897 p.3 ‘Dunedin Gossip’), 4 September 1897 p.3 (‘Dunedin Gossip’), 18 September 1897 p.3 (‘Dunedin Gossip’).
Stone’s, Wise’s, and telephone directories
Baré, Robert, City of Dunedin Block Plans. (Dunedin: Caxton Steam Printing Company, )
Calvert, Samuel, engraver after Albert C. Cook, ‘Dunedin’, supplement to the Illustrated New Zealand Herald, July 1875.
Jones, F. Oliver, Structural Plans of the City of Dunedin NZ, ‘Ignis et Aqua’ series, .
McLean, Gavin. Whare Raupo: The Reed Books Story (Dunedin: Reed Publishing, 2007), pp.19-60.
Dunedin City Council permit records and deposited plans (with thanks to Glen Hazelton)
Otago Education Board, ‘Contract book’ (Hocken Collections AG-294-30/12)
Otago Education Board, ‘Architect’s Department letter books’ (Hocken Collections AG-294-39/09, AG-294-39/10, AG-294-39/11)
Otago Education Board, ‘Scrapbook’ (Hocken Collections AG-294-18/02)
‘John Stuart Skinner: An account of his life written during 1976-1978’ (Hocken Collections Misc-MS-1000)