The hub of the matter

Norman Ledgerwood with his book Heart of a City: the Story of Dunedin’s Octagon.  Photo by Peter...
Norman Ledgerwood with his book Heart of a City: the Story of Dunedin’s Octagon. Photo by Peter McIntosh
There's more than one side to any story. Particularly when it's about the Octagon, as Sam Stevens discovered. 

There's nothing like a reminder from our colonial past to put things in perspective.  Try this one: "Carts crossed the open ground on muddy tracks.'' It sounds like a bleak scene from the backblocks.

Here's another: "A large gang of men commenced digging trenches to provide protection to the public in the event of an air-raid, or bombardment from the sea.'' It could be a scene from World War 2 Europe, perhaps.

But both scenarios are actually descriptions of real events that happened much closer to home - in Dunedin's Octagon, in fact - in 1873 and 1941, respectively.

A recently released book, Heart of a City: the Story of Dunedin's Octagon, gives an insight into how an area often referred to as "a sea of mud'' then as a civic wall-flower, finally emerged as a dynamic, somewhat eclectic, area where green space, municipal buildings, an art gallery and church exist alongside entertainment venues, retailers, cafes and bars.

The book's author, retired Dunedin architect and self-professed "very amateur'' historian Norman Ledgerwood, says he initially intended to write about the businesses, architecture and events in the area bordered by Moray Pl.

But he soon realised that would be a project of epic proportions, and reduced the scope of the book. As it was, he was immersed in the research for "about two and a bit years, and many, many hours''.

But he found the task far from onerous; while trawling through hundreds of documents and plans in the Dunedin City Council archives, the Hocken Library and the Otago Settlers Museum, he was rewarded by many moments of pure excitement as he stumbled on obscure or little-
known snippets of information about the inner city area.

He even came across a tantalising reference to a trip made by a New Zealand Company representative to the area as early as 1826, and reference being made to the upper harbour as "a suitable site for a future city''.

Despite the conscious decision to limit the scope of his survey, Mr Ledgerwood said he could not resist the odd foray outside the Octagon in terms of subject matter, because some material was just too interesting.

He notes, for instance, that early plans by surveyor Charles Kettle had the site now occupied by First Church clearly marked as "Castle'', indicating he may have thought that, like Edinburgh, fortifications (even token ones) should preside over the city.

The town centre, bounded by Moray Pl, was planned by Kettle in 1847, but unlike Edinburgh's circular Moray Pl, early surveys of the area all included a central area with an octagonal shape.

Mr Ledgerwood speculates the shape may have been easier to survey and lay out on the
inner city's sloping terrain.

From the 1860s, the Octagon was carried along on the coat-tails of the city's rapid development as a centre for retail and trade.

Dunedin became a conduit for wealth generated by mercantile activity and farming ventures and gold discoveries in inland Otago.

But as recently retired Hocken librarian Stuart Strachan points out in the book's preface, the Octagon long played second fiddle to Dunedin's Custom House Sq and Exchange area, and only emerged as the administrative and civic focal point of the city in the latter half of the 20th
century.

However, the area was no poor cousin, and early directories of the city show between 1860 and 1871 the lower Octagon went from being dotted with small cottages to accommodating 30 businesses and a hospital.

In the 1860s, up to 50 men worked to (manually) remove a raised area of land known as Bell Hill, which allowed better access to the Octagon from Princes St.

The spoil from this massive project was used in the reclamation of much of the foreshore near what is now lower Stuart St.

Although the area was growing - and losing its distinctly beach-front feel - many of the town's prominent citizens thought the many-sided city centre was letting the side down.

As late as 1891, the Dunedin Amenities Society described the Octagon as "a standing disgrace to the community, an eyesore to most of the citizens, and an object of ridicule to strangers''.

Soon after, the council and society pooled almost 400 to buy plane trees (some of which still stand) and cabbage trees. The new greenery was bordered by a cast iron fence to keep passing horses and cows (which still roamed the town belt) from eating the flowers and foliage.

Some years earlier, others had their eyes on the green area. In the early 1850s, Dunedin's Presbyterian fathers were surprised to see building materials being delivered to a piece of New Zealand Company reserve land in the centre of Moray Pl (later to be called the Octagon).

Unbeknownst to them, the Anglican community (who they referred to as the "Little Enemy'') were quietly pursuing plans to build a large church in the centre of the reserve.

A stoush between the Anglicans and Presbyterians ensued before a compromise location for St Paul's Church was found at the top corner of the Octagon and upper Stuart St. The church was later replaced by the existing Anglican Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1919.

Like the Octagon itself, the book is divided into sections, and discusses the history and occupancy of the buildings which formerly stood in each quadrant or have dodged the wrecker's ball to the present day.

The southeast quadrant of the Octagon - home to Stewart's Coffee between 1958 and 1999 - has undergone the least alteration since the 1880s, with all but one of the present buildings surviving largely unchanged since that time.

In the 1860s, the area was better known for its large vegetable gardens, planted out by Chinese miners. The early Chinese community regarded the eight-sided area as a repository for "good feng shui'' because "eight'' sounded like the Cantonese word for "good fortune'', Mr Ledgerwood points out.

Despite the auspicious associations, buildings were several times destroyed or badly damaged.

In 1865, fire spread from a small house behind the Royal Oak Hotel. Fire struck most tragically in 1879 when 12 people (including six members of one family) died in a blaze in what is
now the Regent Theatre.

In 1925, a Dunedin architectural firm prepared designs for the new 2000-seat Regent.

As Mr Ledgerwood points out, the so-called "revived baroque'' interior design is lavish by any standards.

The theatre opened in 1928 (construction had taken just 30 weeks) and opening night films Madame Pompadour and Two Flaming Youths were well received by movie-goers.

The popularity of the theatre finally started to wane in the 1970s when the rise of public television caused a dramatic decline in the number of people attending movies and theatre performances.

Mr Ledgerwood resists references to "curtains falling'', but points out it took Dunedin artist Shona McFarlane to enter the fray with the proposal the cinema be converted into a major live venue before its future became more certain.

"At one stage, there was even a possibility it could be turned into a car park or a furniture warehouse,'' he says.

Ms McFarlane argued Dunedin should not be without a venue for ballet, theatre, and dramatic performances; a distinct possibility given the ageing His Majesty's Theatre in Crawford St was entering its twilight years.

In the early 1970s, the Otago Theatre Trust was formed and raised and spent funds on the theatre's operation and upkeep.

However, it soon became evident that the small triangular performance area was too small for many visiting acts, and reports were received of New Zealand Ballet Company dancers risking serious injury as they leapt from the small stage, often straight into walls.

The chapter detailing the history of the southwest quadrant is aptly entitled "Rags to Riches''.

The area, once home to Turkish baths, billiard saloons, and drapery stores, now accommodates the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and a cinema.

In 1911, the Methodist Central Mission bought 35 The Octagon (now the Hoyts cinema) and, from 1912, shared its main auditorium with lessees who enticed movie-goers in with a variety of short films, travelogues and news-reels.

Episodical shows such as The Lone Ranger and Buck Rogers, combined with trays of ice creams, ensured regular attendance at each matinee.

The theatre companies leasing the auditorium were required to provide the mission with a synopsis of every film to be shown, and the lease stated the mission could prohibit the screening of films it considered to be objectionable on the grounds "that the same extol vice, or are inimical to public morality or to the Christian religion''.

The lessee would be fined 10 each time it showed a film the church had not approved.

The mission sold the Octagon Theatre to Amalgamated Theatres Ltd in 1967. The company demolished the building in 1993, to make way for the new Hoyts mutliplex.

Mr Ledgerwood thinks the best-known business in the area would be the DIC, a large department store which operated in the Octagon between the early 1920s and the 1980s.

From the early 1940s, the store was home to the "Magic Cave'' children's play area, and the Christmas "Pixietown'' display, part of which is now housed at the Otago Settlers Museum.

A visiting dignitary - then governor of the Reserve Bank Leslie Le Faux - was intrigued by the mechanism driving the small pixie characters featured in the display.

A DIC director was heard to remark, "Do take care. You can jigger up the economy if you like, but don't jigger up Pixietown.''

A variety of retailers occupied the building after the DIC fell prey to recession in the 1980s and closed, including the now ubiquitous The Warehouse.

The building was remodelled to accommodate the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1994.
Mr Ledgerwood said it was interesting to discover continuities between businesses and buildings in the Octagon.

The oldest building in the Octagon, the Oban Hotel (now the Lemon Room) was built in 1868.

A pharmacy still operates in a building (on the corner of George St and the Octagon) where "Sprosen Chemists Pharmacy'' opened in the late 1880s.

Behind altered or more modern facades in the lower northeast Octagon, the guts of many buildings from the 1860s and 1870s remain largely intact, he says.

If Mr Ledgerwood could wave a magic wand, and restore one area of the Octagon to its former (late Victorian) glory, he would choose to undo changes in this quadrant.

"Change to the architectural character of any city is inevitable, of course, but in the 1960s, there was a rush to modernise the appearance of the buildings which were seen as old fashioned.

They are recognisable but, unfortunately, many of the ornate period features were removed,''
he says.

But he agrees Dunedin got off lightly compared to many cities in New Zealand in terms of retaining historic architecture.

However, at one time, even the stately municipal chambers building, in the northwest quadrant, was under threat.

As the city grew in the 1870s, it became apparent that existing civic buildings in Manse St were becoming inadequate. In February 1874, city engineer S.H. Miriams prepared plans for a site between St Paul's Church and the corner of George St.

The council took no action until 1876, when it resolved that competitive designs for a new municipal building be invited from architects from around the country; the best plans would earn the submitting firm the tidy sum of 200.

In the interim, heated debate on the building's location erupted, with some prominent citizens suggesting Dowling St as the best site.

In October 1874, the council abandoned the Octagon plans, only to rescind the decision a month later.

Passions were so high that, after the vote, the mayor [who had cast the deciding vote] was unable to quell an unseemly brawl, and he left the chamber for 15 minutes to allow passions to cool, Mr Ledgerwood notes in his book.

After a change of architects - Dunedin based R.A. Lawson replaced the initial design competition winner, Auckland-based T.B. Cameron, amid concerns over costs - a figure of 7000 was set for the first stage of development. Project costs increased during construction and had reached 20,000 by the time the offices doors opened in 1880.

The municipal chambers were built of Oamaru stone, with a lower base of harder Port Chalmers bluestone. As Mr Ledgerwood states, the most striking feature of the building - which was in itself a bold statement on the city's coming of age - was its 47m tower, which housed a
600kg fire warning bell, and a lookout balcony for the brigade based in Harrop St

The interior of the building remained largely unchanged until construction of the new town hall began in 1928. In 1939, the interior was again modernised and relined, with impressive original stairs removed.

The building overlooked the Octagon without incident - well, almost without incident - until March 1962, when a large chunk of ornamental cast iron fell from the tower, crashed through the roof, and came to rest on a ceiling joist above the mayor's office.

This was the last in a series of small but cumulatively unnerving incidents which involved heavy masonry ornaments coming unstuck from the building's exterior: the tower was deemed to be unsafe and upper sections were removed by 1964.

Mr Ledgerwood notes that city planners had ulterior motives, and refers to a heated meeting at which it was stated that if the tower came down, the rest of the building was bound to follow.

In 1970, a scheme to build four linked buildings incorporating a library, administration, civic theatre and municipal chambers on the site of the existing chambers was unveiled to an extremely underwhelmed public.

But, as Mr Ledgerwood notes, on seeing plans and a scale model of the buildings - think 1970s East German chic - some members of the public were more angry than underwhelmed, and the proposal was roundly rejected during a very fiery public meeting in the town hall.

By the early 1980s, plans to level the building had been abandoned, much to the relief of many, Mr Ledgerwood says.

And what of contemporary plans to build an extension to the town hall in Harrop St?

His expression clouds slightly. "Don't get me started,'' he says. But after describing the street as historically significant revises his statement to "that's another story for another day''.

So what does the future hold for the city centre?

Ideally, the bloodletting (and major alterations) are over for the time being.

"Perhaps the time is approaching when the whole of the Octagon, with its somewhat eclectic collection of architectural styles, should be classified as an historic area, thus preserving it for future generations,'' he writes in the book's conclusion.

Mr Ledgerwood says discussion on traffic flow through the Octagon is needed; a pedestrian mall might be more conducive to outdoor dining and festivities, and this could only be achieved if the centre of the area was closed to traffic, or access restricted.

- The Heart of a City, is written and published by Norman Ledgerwood, pbk, $36.

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