Tag Archives: Dresden Piano Company

Dresden Building (Capitol Building)

Built: 1912-1913
Address: 67-69 Princes Street
Architects: Salmond & Vanes
Builder: G. Lawrence & Sons

At the end of the nineteenth century there were two big music firms in New Zealand: Charles Begg & Co. and ‘The Dresden’. The head offices and showrooms of these businesses were right next door to each other in Princes Street.

The Dresden Pianoforte Manufacturing & Agency Company had been established by David Theomin and Frederick Michaelis in 1883, in part of an older block of buildings designed by David Ross and built in 1867. These premises, between the Octagon and Moray Place in Princes Street, included a music warehouse (for sale of instruments, sheet music etc.), piano and organ showrooms, piano manufacturing workshops, a concert room, and rooms for professional music teachers. The company claimed that its Dunedin premises alone never held fewer than 200 to 250 large instruments, such as pianos, organs, and harmoniums. An innovative hire purchase scheme was hugely successful, and by 1907 the Dresden had 258 employees, and branches or agencies in 60 towns throughout New Zealand.

A contract for the erection of a new seven-storey building designed by Salmond & Vanes was signed on 17 February 1912. The site was immediately to the south of the old one, where two other buildings from Ross’s 1867 block were demolished. The old Dresden premises (facelifted in the 1940s) survive today and are occupied by Moray Gallery and Toast Bar. Salmond & Vanes’ records in the Hocken Collections include two sketch drawings which show some of the evolution of the design. They are for buildings one storey lower than the final design, apparently on the original site, and one features striking half-timbered gables in Tudor style. Because of the fall of the land, two of the levels would be built below the street.

Hocken Collections MS-3821

The total cost of the building was £18,504, putting it among the most expensive erected in Dunedin in the first two decades of the twentieth century. £1,000 was spent on tiling alone, with the exterior decorated with yellow and black Faience tiles manufactured by the Leeds Fireclay Company (Burmantofts Pottery). Yellow and black were the Dresden company colours. The overall style was a mixture Tudor Revival and Art Nouveau styles with three three-storeyed oriel window bays, and arched window openings on the top floor. The building is one of the city’s earliest examples of reinforced concrete construction; and steel framing for the frontage included a 10-tonne girder manufactured by A. & T. Burt, reported to be the largest girder put into a Dunedin building up to that time. It was also among the tallest buildings in the city, with the hill it was built on giving it a higher total elevation than the larger New Zealand Express Company building in Bond Street. The builders were G. Lawrence & Sons, with Turnbull & Jones contracted for the electrical work and George Davies & Co. for the heating. Completion of the work was recorded by Salmond & Vanes on 20 June 1913. Theomin must have been pleased with it, as the following year his company commissioned the same architects to design a branch building in Cashel Street, Christchurch, which though smaller was very similar in style.

Sheet music department

Organ showroom

Christchurch branch building

In 1912 the piano was at the peak of its popularity in New Zealand, with more pianos imported that year than in any other before or since. Annual imports had increased gradually from 1,200 in 1878 to 5,700 in 1912. Most were German, but the First World War soon changed that. In 1915 the Dresden Piano Company changed its name to the Bristol Piano Company ‘for reasons which will be obvious to patriotic citizens’. There is evidence of real prejudice against the firm and its owners. A correspondent from Gisborne wrote to the sensationalist Truth newspaper complaining that Theomin was German, favoured German products, and employed Germans in influential positions. The paper defended the company’s founder, explaining that he was born in England and was the son of a Prussian Jew. The firm’s new name was taken from Theomin’s birthplace: Bristol. Other German or German-sounding names were changed during the war or shortly afterwards: the Dunedin Liedertafel became the Royal Dunedin Male Choir, Brunswick Street in South Dunedin became Loyalty Street, and members of the Hallenstein family altered their name to Halsted.

Advertisement from the Evening Star, 2 January 1915, explaining the name change

Examples of sheet music written by Dunedin musicians and published by the Bristol Piano Company: ‘British Boys’ (1915) and ‘Tropical Moon’ (1930)

The Bristol Piano Company building was a hub of musical activity in the 1920s and even had its own concert chamber, but the depression, new forms of entertainment, and declining sales of pianos, were hard on the company. In 1933 the Dunedin building was sold to a syndicate of Dunedin businessmen and rebuilt as shops and professional offices. It was noted at this time that a stone wall constructed by convict labour in 1862 could still be seen in the basement. The building was renamed the Capitol Building and is still known by that name. The Bristol Piano Company moved to Dowling Street and ceased trading in Dunedin in 1936. The national company went into liquidation in 1938. A later music firm in Dunedin called the Bristol Piano Company was a separate entity.

Occupants of offices in the building have included lawyers, doctors, and dentists. In the early years many of the rooms were taken by music teachers and the Barth School of Music (1921-1972) were long-standing tenants. This school was run by three sisters: Beatrice, Irene, and Ruby. They had a room each on the fourth floor for individual lessons, and there was a classroom where they taught theory to the younger pupils and hosted meetings. They were leading members of the Society of Women Musicians of Otago, and Beatrice administered the Dunedin Centre of Trinity College of Music.

A photography studio designed by the architects Miller & White was added above the existing top storey of the building in 1933. This was originally occupied by the photographer J.J. Webster, and in 1954 was taken over by Campbell Photography, which continued there to 1986. The lawyers Albert Alloo and Sons are now the longest-standing occupants of the building.

Much of the façade detail has been destroyed or covered over, including decorative tilework, parapet railings and detailing, and capitals. The arched window openings on the fourth floor have been replaced with square ones. The essential form of the building remains unchanged, however, and the original window joinery of the oriel windows is also mostly intact. Maybe it will return to the yellow and black Dresden colours one day. For nearly 60 years the building was much higher than its neighbours, until Evan Parry House was built on the site of the Bristol’s old rivals, Begg’s. It still makes a strong statement today, being tall and imposing among a collection of mostly lower buildings, and bringing variety to the streetscape.

Newspaper references: Otago Daily Times, 17 April 1867 p.1 (erection of old building), 23 April 1900 p.4 (about the company), 1 September 1909 p.3 (about the company), 22 August 1912 p.6 (new building); Otago Witness 18 May 1867 p.11 (old building); Grey River Argus, 7 January 1915 p.5 (name change); N.Z. Truth, 10 April 1915 p.7 (Theomin and Germany); Evening Star, 31 May 1933 p.3 (image and reference to wall). All references except the Evening Star sourced from Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

Other references: Dalziel Architects records, Hocken Collections (MS-2758/0727); Salmond Anderson Architects records, Hocken Collections (MS-3821); Stone’s and Wise’s directories; Suzanne Court, ‘Barth, Beatrice Mary’ from Dictionary of New Zealand Biography; W.H. Morton Cameron, Ports and Cities of the World (London: Globe Encyclopedia Co., [1924]).