Address: 21-27 Moray Place
Architect: Robert Forrest
Builder: James Gore
This post continues the theme of public halls with the Oxford Buildings, known originally as the Temperance Hall and later as the Choral Hall. Completed in 1874, this venue was erected for the Dunedin Temperance Hall Company, a group formed chiefly by members of the Pioneer Lodge of the Temperance Order of Good Templars. The building was intended for the use of various local temperance groups, which were then part of a large, vigorous, and influential movement. They aimed to fight what one local clergyman described as ‘great evils arising from intoxicating drinks’. The hall was also available for general hire.
On the ground floor were offices and the ‘lower hall’ or meeting room, which measured 25 x 41 feet. On the first floor was the larger ‘upper hall’, which measured 72 x 43 feet and contained sitting room for 750 people. This hall had a stage and gallery and an ‘elliptical cove’ ceiling of varnished kauri with sunlights of stained glass. Kauri timber was used throughout the building. The facade was designed in a simple Renaissance Revival style, with rustication and round-headed windows on the ground floor, and curved and triangular pediments above the windows on the first floor. The building was described in the Otago Daily Times as being of a ‘plain but substantial character’.
The architect was Robert Forrest and the hall was one of his early works in his transition from the role of building contractor to the role of architect. The building has been mistaken for a William Mason design due to confusion with an unrealised theatre project that G.R. West put forward for a nearby site around the same time. The builder was James Gore, who submitted a tender of £2,778. The foundation stone was laid by the Mayor, Andrew Mercer, on 26 December 1873, following a procession in which 1,200 people took part. A bottle placed in the stone contained a scroll signed by officers of various lodges, newspapers, coins, and a company prospectus. The building officially opened with a soiree, concert, and dance, on 14 August 1874.
For decades, balls were held (the floors were designed with this in mind), dancing lessons given, and many concerts and other entertainments put on. The Kennedy Family were among the first to appear in the hall with their performances of popular Scottish ballads in 1874. The world billiards champion John Roberts played here in 1876, and the tight-rope walker Henry Morris (‘The New Zealand Blondin’) performed in 1878. A waxwork exhibition featured likenesses of the Kelly Gang and other famous people. One series of chamber music concerts was organised by Raphael Squarise and Arthur Barmeyer through their Otago Conservatorio of Music. A four-day Maori Carnival was held 1902.
Religious meetings were held in the building for nearly 40 years. The Salvation Army’s first New Zealand meetings were held at the hall on 1 April 1883, both preceding and following the better-known outdoor gathering commemorated by a brass plaque on Cargill’s Monument. The Army continued to use the hall for three years. From 1886 the Open Brethren hired it, and it was at this time that the name of the building was changed from the Temperance Hall to the Choral Hall. The Brethren were led by the evangelist Alfred Brunton, who had earlier preached at Farley’s Hall. He led Brunton’s Choir, a group of up to 100 singers that was known throughout Otago, favouring the new style of emotional (and sometimes sentimental) Moody and Sankey songs. This ministry through music may explain the adoption of the Choral Hall name. Brunton died in 1900 and the Brethren continued to hold their meetings in the hall until 1920, when they moved to a new building.
Many clubs and societies met in the Choral Hall. The Dunedin Burns Club held meetings and gave concerts, and from 1891 to 1906 the Otago Art Society held its annual exhibitions in the building. Frances Hodgkins, then just beginning her career, was among those who exhibited. There were also many political meetings and lectures, the latter including such topics as ‘Reincarnation as a Factor in Evolution’ (by a theosophist) and ‘Eighteen Months in the Canadian Far North’ (for the Otago Institute).
11 July 1889 was a significant day in the history of New Zealand. The inaugural meeting of the country’s first women’s union, the Tailoresses’ Union, was held at the Choral Hall and Rev. Rutherford Waddell gave a speech denouncing working conditions and ‘sweated labour’ in factories. This contributed to the breaking ‘sweating scandal’ that led to the Sweating Commission of 1890, which was in turn instrumental in the passing of the Factories Act and other legislation by a new Liberal Government.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) met in the hall and the Women’s Franchise League of New Zealand grew out of this, holding its inaugural meeting at the Choral Hall on 28 April 1892. This group played a pivotal role in promoting women’s suffrage and widely circulated the petition that was so influential in the successful campaign for women to be given the vote.
In the early 1920s the first-floor hall was converted to a clothing factory for Butterworth Brothers, who employed about 40 staff on the premises, putting their robe department in the gallery and machinists on the main floor. A fire broke out on 16 March 1927, the same day that thousands of people gathered in the streets for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York. The blaze extensively damaged the first floor and roof, but the ground floor (where the auctioneer Spedding used the old lower hall) escaped with little more than water damage. The building was rebuilt, but the panelling that can be seen in the hall today suggests that the polished kauri ceiling was lost. The space was later used by Sharland & Co. (wholesale druggists) and the Dunedin Frock Manufacturing Company.
The Temperance Hall Company sold the building as early as 1882, due to debt and the difficulty of competing with newer halls. In the late nineteenth century it was owned by D.C. Cameron and in the early twentieth century it passed to the Taylor Trustees. In 1932 they employed the architects Miller & White to design extensive alterations to the building which were carried out by the Glue Construction Company at a cost of £2,500. This saw the removal of the lower hall and the building of three shops on the ground floor. A new verandah used Wunderlich pressed metal, while shop fronts featured Australian rose mahogany woodwork, decorative leadlights, and orange and black terrazzo slabs. This work was described in the Evening Star as being in ‘ultra-modern style’. The main staircase was rebuilt in a new location and a lift installed by Turnbull & Jones, for which a small penthouse was added to the roof. The first floor facade decoration seems to have been left unaltered at this time, but in 1944 it was stripped of its ornamentation and given a plainer style that was then fashionable. A new name, ‘Oxford Buildings’, was added to the parapet in relief lettering.
The auctioneers Spedding’s (succeeded by Scandrett’s) took one of the shops. Eliza Squire (a milliner and seamstress) occupied the middle one from 1939 and remained there for twenty years. The other shop, at 25 Moray Place, was occupied by Modern Books from 1943 to 1954. This was run by the Dunedin Co-Operative Book Society (one of just a few bookshop co-operatives in New Zealand), which had socialist ideals and aimed ‘to foster the reading and writing and production of books, pamphlets, circulars and other publications of a nature that will promote an active and intelligent interest in progressive ideas and activities’. The shop specialised in New Zealand books, history, music,and philosophy, as well as general literature. Landfall editor Charles Brasch was involved with the management and day-to-day running of the shop, which was frequented by the local literati. Janet Frame sometimes browsed there in its last year or so, hoping to ‘glimpse one of the literary figures of Dunedin or one visiting from up north’. From roughly 1956 to 1976 the same shop was occupied by Catholic Supplies.
The old upper hall became the Manhattan Lounge in 1960. The space remained essentially unchanged but the old gallery became a bar (originally a coffee bar) with a dance area on the floor below. The Lounge was a popular venue up to the 1980s, and later became the Manhattan Theatre. At the time of writing it is used by the Vertical Aerial Dance studio, which offers specialist pole dancing classes. The shops are now occupied by Modern Miss (vintage clothing), and Whiteroom (sellers of designware, furniture, lighting, and contemporary art). The building looks well kept but the grey exterior colour scheme is a little at odds with the warm colours of the terrazzo.
A lot more could be included in the story of this building. In pulling together various strands I’ve been impressed by the national significance of its social and cultural history. It’s a frequently overlooked treasure, easily worthy of registration as a category I historic place.
Newspaper references: Otago Daily Times, 25 March 1873 p.2 (meeting for proposed hall), 14 April 1873 p.2 (meeting – site put forward), 17 May 1873 p.2 (formation of company), 14 August 1873 p.3 (West’s proposed hall), 27 November 1873 p.4 (tender accepted), 17 January 1874 p.2 (Rev. James Clark on alcohol), 21 January 1874 p.6 (laying of foundation stone), 26 June 1874 p.2 (progress), 7 August 1874 p.3 (description – nearing completion), 15 August 1874 p.2 (opening and description), 21 August 1874 p.2 (finishing touches), 29 August 1874 p.8 (description), 18 September 1876 p.3 (John Roberts, billiards champion), 25 August 1882 p.3 (buildings to be sold), 28 September 1882 p.2 (sale), 27 June 1883 p.3 (lease to Salvation Army), 8 June 1889 p.2 (Sweating Scandal meeting), 29 April 1892 p.3 (Women’s Franchise League meeting), 5 July 1920 p.4 (Open Brethren move out), 17 March 1927 p.10 (fire), 18 March 1927 p.13 (fire); Evening Star, 17 March 1927 p.6 (fire), 20 September 1932 p.2 (alterations), 24 January 1933 p.1 (alterations).
Other references: Stone’s Otago and Southland Directory; Wise’s New Zealand Post Office Directory; telephone directories; Dunedin City Council permit records and deposited plans; Barrowman, Rachel, A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand (Wellington, 1991) pp.125-127; Frame, Janet, An Angel at My Table (New York, 1985) pp.126-129; Stacpoole, John, William Mason: The First New Zealand Architect (Auckland, 1971); Hocken Collections MS-2758/0288 (Miller & White plans)