Block Capital

Revisiting the golden age of the Wellington apartment building.

Block Capital

Revisiting the golden age of the Wellington apartment building.

Between the World Wars, Wellington, a port with a parliament attached, became a far more urbane city. One signifier of its increasing sophistication was the medium-scale apartment building. In the interwar years, more than 30 apartment blocks of four-to-six storeys were built in the inner city, despite a recession in the early 1920s and the Depression that lingered for much of the 1930s. 

Clearly, there was an appetite for apartment living. A well-appointed city flat was an attractive option for the salaryman or woman, or childless couple, with a secure income from one of the government departments, banks or professional firms headquartered in the nation’s capital. On the supply side, the multi-storey apartment building was enabled, in an earthquake-prone city, by the mandated use of reinforced concrete in masonry buildings. 

Some significant buildings from the golden age of the Wellington apartment survive, several of them on Oriental Parade which, as New Zealand’s finest promenade, was fertile territory for the type. One of the best of the interwar concrete apartment buildings is Anscombe Flats. 

The building, which was constructed in 1937, is named for its architect, and original owner, Edward Anscombe, a purposeful individual who began his career as an apprentice carpenter. Anscombe was a great believer in the apartment building as a solution to the challenge of providing decent urban housing. When, in 1936, he took his concept for 18 five-storey apartment buildings in working-class Newtown to the new Labour government, Cabinet minister and future Prime Minister Peter Fraser told him flats “are alien and foreign to the country”. Undaunted, Anscombe demonstrated his ability where the whole city could see it: on Oriental Parade. His moderne-style building at number 212 housed one apartment, plus maid’s quarters, on each of the four floors above street-level garages; the top apartment – Anscombe’s own – was a penthouse.

A few hundred metres from Anscombe Flats, at 262-264 Oriental Parade, Gallipoli veteran Alfred Victor Smith designed his take on the moderne apartment building. Five-storey (plus garaging) Sunhaven, which was completed in 1940, is plainer than Anscombe Flats, but with its flat roof and striped parapet, and balconies with curved corners and rolled steel handrails, it makes a low-key and very sympathetic contribution to the Oriental Bay scene. 

The human-scaled masonry apartment building also made its appearance on the other side of town, notably on The Terrace, which was a residential street before its lower half became a corporate canyon in the 1960s. Five-storey (plus penthouse) Braemar, at 32 The Terrace, is an art deco-ish building – now occupied by offices – constructed in 1924-25 to a design by Crichton, McKay & Haughton, and distinguished by its protruding oriel windows. For years, apparently, Braemar flats were favoured by affluent widows.   

Up above The Terrace, at 32 Salamanca Road, Kelburn, redoubtable local teacher Emma Rainforth commissioned four-storey Chevening from Llewellyn Edwin Williams, an Australian architect who practised in Wellington in the interwar years. The apartment building, which was constructed in 1929, blends the art deco and stripped classical styles, and its asymmetrical canted bay windows and columns of mullions give it an impressive street presence. Restored in 2011 by Studio Pacific Architecture, Chevening has recently been gifted to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. 

If any building serves as a coda to the art deco/moderne era of Wellington apartments, it’s the Dixon Street Flats. With the construction in 1944 of the 115-apartment building, large-scale, multi-unit modernism arrived in the city. Dixon Street Flats were designed by the Department of Housing Construction under chief architect Gordon Wilson – the government had accepted, a little reluctantly, that the apartment building did, in fact, have a role to play in the provision of urban public housing.

Wellington Architecture: A Walking Guide
By John Walsh, with photographs by Patrick Reynolds.
Massey University Press, 2022, $30

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