Workaday past is city's future

By Michael Findlay

Olveston House. Image / supplied
Olveston House. Image / supplied

Deep in a turreted Scottish baronial drill hall, Ian Taylor's Animation Research Ltd produces immersive 3D experiences. At the other end of the city in a Renaissance revival wool store, AD Instruments makes new tools for science research and education.

The reuse of these buildings has sparked new interest in Dunedin's heritage architecture.

It's no longer simply a pleasing part of the urban environment; it's become an important asset for the city's economic and cultural future.

Auckland is justifiably proud of its Britomart and Wynyard quarters where historic commercial buildings and new developments have become a new destination to both work and leisure.

To see whole blocks undergoing a similar transformation, walk from Dunedin's Octagon down Princes St towards Queens Garden and head for Vogel St, where the partnership between the Dunedin City Council and building owners is emerging.

Dunedin is still a city of churches, town halls and public spaces.

The Municipal Chambers and St Paul's Cathedral (1915) stand over Robbie Burns' shoulder and the tree-lined avenue that runs along the city's spine.

The Dunedin Railway Station (1907), a Flemish Renaissance cloth hall uplifted from Bruges, sits at the base of Stuart St with the Gothic Law Courts (1902) and deceptively innocent-looking prison side-by-side on the opposite corner.

High up on a bluff is the soaring Gothic spire of R A Lawson's First Church (1873), sited above the old port to raise the spirits of Scots settlers making their way up the harbour after their long voyage.

Many houses built by the city's merchants, including Olveston (1907) and Larnach's Castle (1874), overlook the city from the surrounding hills.

High St, like its namesake in Edinburgh, sweeps up a central ridge from the railway station.

The early business centre expanded in the blocks to the south, laid out on the reclaimed harbour.

Banks and insurance offices, department stores, hotels and theatres quickly filled any gaps.

As the sea walls moved further out, buildings that had fronted the harbour became surrounded by later structures. The names of Wharf, Water, Bond and Jetty streets tell the story of a city's commercial development.

The old government precinct was filled by the Chief Post Office (1936), a vast granite block of modern classical formality now transformed into hotel, spa and commercial spaces.

Guests, residents and workers in the newly refurbished buildings bring new opportunities with them.

A great, disused department store on Princes St now houses Van Brandenburg Architects, cafes, offices and creative studios.

The city's other main green space, Queen's Garden, is framed by a solid wall of Victorian financial buildings including the French Renaissance head office of the New Zealand Insurance Company (1885).

Any 19th-century building engineered to store wool and grain has the mass and strength to be a good candidate for strengthening and the revitalised buildings along Vogel St are rewarding their new owners' faith.

Not all are presented in their full Victorian finery, as the desire to modernise led to a number being stripped of their facades decades ago, but even these plainer structures reveal their handsome side when sympathetically overhauled.

Long known as a heritage destination in New Zealand, Dunedin is starting to use these buildings again and the city is being revitalised as a smart place to live, work and enjoy a rich urban experience. The annual Vogel St Party draws thousands to the area where many of the buildings are open to view.

- NZ Herald

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