Address: 75 York Place
Architect: James Louis Salmond (1868-1950)
Builder: Stephen Samuel Aburn (1869-1947)
New Zealand’s first woman medical graduate, Emily Hancock Siedeberg, lived in lower York Place for much of her life. Her handsome residence at number 59 (since renumbered 75) was built in 1903, five years after she went into private practice in Dunedin. Her family connection with the land dated back nearly as far as her birth.
Emily’s father, Franz David Siedeberg, was a Jewish settler from Memel, Prussia (now Klaipėda, Lithuania) and had been a pioneer in the Otago gold dredging industry in the 1860s. He married his second wife, Irish-born Anna Thompson, in 1867, and Emily was born in Clyde on 17 February 1873. She grew up as the second eldest of four children and later remembered a happy childhood with never a cross word between her parents.
Six months after Emily’s birth her family moved to Dunedin, where Franz worked as a builder. His larger contracts included the construction of the Royal Exchange Hotel (later Standard Insurance building), Albany Street School, and stone abutments for the Jetty Street overbridge. From 1875 the Siedebergs lived in York Place, on a block of land where Franz built four houses. He later acquired adjoining property and built a two-storey wooden house.
Emily was educated at the Normal School (Moray Place) and Otago Girls’ High School, and studied medicine at the University of Otago from 1891 to 1895, graduating in 1896. She furthered her studies in Dublin and Berlin, before returning to Dunedin at the end of 1897. Early the following year she set up practice in one of her father’s York Place houses, in which he had arranged modest consulting and waiting rooms. Emily’s sister, Isabella, was housekeeper and looked after social engagements, and there was also a young maid. At first a horse trap and driver were hired as required, and later Dr Siedeberg had her own gig and employed a lad to drive it.
Franz died suddenly in September 1902, and six months later Dr Siedeberg visited architect James Louis Salmond to commission designs for a new house in front of the old family home. Salmond’s diary records his work on plans at the end of March 1903. He estimated the cost would be over £1500, and Siedeberg requested changes to get the cost under £1200 as the building was financed with a loan. The final drawings were ready in May, and at the end of that month the building contract was awarded to S.S. Aburn, who put in a tender of £1065. Aburn must have considered the job a good example of his work, as one of his advertisements showed his staff posed outside the building.
The house is in the style known as Queen Anne (confusingly, as the revived elements are not specific to the reign of Anne). The bay windows, elaborately decorated gable, and exposed red brick are typical of Salmond, and originally the house also featured his signature chimney stacks. The roof was slate. It is interesting to compare the York Place house with one of Salmond’s timber designs, at 12 Pitt Street.
A photograph taken in the 1910s shows the original exterior appearance, as well as Dr Siedeberg herself in her yellow Clément-Bayard motor car. She was one of the first women in Dunedin to own a car, and was once prosecuted for driving it at faster than a walking pace (a charge she successfully defended). She continued to drive until she was well into her eighties.
On the upper floor of the house were a drawing room and four bedrooms, necessary as Dr Siedeberg’s mother, sister, and younger brother all lived with her. Mrs Siedeberg was resident for twenty years and died in the house in 1923. Isabella, an accomplished artist who had studied at the Dunedin School of Art, stayed until the 1920s, when she moved to Auckland. Harry, the youngest of the family, lived in the house until his marriage in 1911, when he moved to the old family home next door. He was an insurance agent and successful sportsman, who played cricket for New Zealand and was four times national billiards champion. He was also an Otago hockey and football representative. The older brother, Frank, was New Zealand chess champion and later worked as an engineer in Germany and England.
An entrance at the side of the house (since closed up) led to Dr Siedeberg’s waiting room, and across the hall was the consulting room, which faced the street. This arrangement kept the front door and hall clear for visitors making use of the corner sitting room where, if it was not time for tea, sherry and biscuits were the favoured refreshments. Other downstairs rooms were a large dining room, a dressing room, a bedroom for the maid or maids, and a kitchen with adjoining pantry and scullery.
Dr Siedeberg’s niece, Emily Host, left some personal insights into life in the house, although it is not possible to fully verify them. She recalled a large tin bath in the scullery, high off the floor, and most of the time with a thick slab of wood across it for use as a bench. Dr Siedeberg was adamant the maids must take a bath every Saturday, although at least one objected to so much washing and bathing.
This was Elsie, whom Host described as a ‘blowsy blonde’ much addicted to boyfriends. On one occasion a noise was heard and Emily and Isabella came downstairs in gowns and long plaits to find one of these boyfriends climbing out of Elsie’s bedroom window. Afterwards the window was nailed up so that it could only be opened about two inches at the top.
Siedeberg wrote that in early days maids who white aprons and caps and said ‘Yes Miss’ or ‘No Ma’am’ when spoken to. Later they refused to where aprons or caps and became ‘very offhand in answering’.
Host described her aunt as someone who acted and thought according to Victorian principles. She had a sweet, dignified nature, and was very understanding of the human failings of those who were nasty to her. She shocked her family and a large proportion of Dunedin by not taking a ‘proper’ view of ‘fallen women’, whom she often took into her home and helped.
Dr Siedeberg was Medical Superintendent of St Helen’s Maternity Hospital (the first in New Zealand to have an antenatal clinic), Medical Officer of the Caversham Industrial School, and anaesthetist at the Dental School. She was also an advocate of controversial theories of eugenics. The many organisations she played a leading role in included the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women, the New Zealand Medical Women’s Association, the National Council of Women, and the Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial Association. She was awarded a CBE in 1949.
Emily Siedeberg married in Los Angeles during an overseas trip in 1928, at the age of 55. Her husband, James Alexander McKinnon, was the retired manager of the Mosgiel Branch of the National Bank, and Emily became known as Dr Siedeberg-McKinnon. A new house for the couple was built in Cairnhill Street around 1929, and they moved again to Cargill Street around 1938. The second move was, according to Emily Host, so a frailer Mr McKinnon could be nearer to the bowling green.
The York Place house remained in family ownership with rooms rented to various tenants, including Mrs Elizabeth Tweedy who lived there for over twenty-five years. James McKinnon died in 1949 and Emily moved back to her old home around 1954, remaining there into the 1960s. She spent her last few years at the Presbyterian Social Service Association home in Oamaru, where she died on 13 June 1968 at the age of 95.
In 1969 the house was much altered internally for use by the Otago Polytechnic for its School of Architecture and Building, and it was later used by the School of Art (to 1983) and the School of Nursing (1983-1987). In its more recent history the building has again become a place of medical practice, being the premises of the Dr Safari Appearance Medicine Clinic. Dr Soheila Safari is, in common with Emily Siedeberg, a graduate of the University of Otago, and has also worked as a general practitioner. She established her clinic in 2006 and has been based in York Place since 2008, offering a wide range of cosmetic treatments. Studio rooms are found on the first floor, still accessed by the same beautiful grand staircase built in 1903.
Otago Witness, 17 September 1902 p.22 (obituary for F.D. Siedeberg), 23 November 1904 p.62 (F.V. Siedeberg); Otago Daily Times, 10 February 1898 p.2 (new practice in York Place), 4 July 1914 p.5 (motor car).
Stone’s, Wise’s, and telephone directories
Deeds indexes and registers. Archives New Zealand, Dunedin Regional Office.
Births, Deaths & Marriages online, https://www.bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/Home/
Cyclopedia of New Zealand, vol.4, Otago and Southland Provincial Districts. (Christchurch: The Cyclopedia Company, 1905).
Host, Emily Olga. ‘Emily Siedeberg McKinnon’ (‘Notes made by Mrs Host when visiting the Hocken Library in 1966’). Hocken Collections, Bliss L9 McK H.
McKinnon, Emily H. and Irene L. Starr. Otago Pioneer Women’s Memorial. (Dunedin: Otago Daily Times, 1959).
Sargison, Patricia A. ‘Siedeberg, Emily Hancock’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand. Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, retrieved 25 July 2016 from www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/3s16/siedeberg-emily-hancock
Work diary of James Louis Salmond in Salmond Anderson Architects records. Hocken Collections MS-4111/004.
Special thanks to Dr Soheila Safari and Tina Catlow of Dr Safari Appearance Medicine Clinic.