Banks, cheap shops and fast-food joints have threatened to take over Auckland's main street, once a mecca of department stores and elegant shops. But there are signs Queen St is fighting back.

Back in the 1950s the women of Auckland, bedecked in hats, gloves and high heels, flocked to the city's fashion heart for a day of shopping.

Queen St, the most famous street in the country's Queen City, was enticing and elegant, a place far removed from dull suburbs with a corner dairy. Lined with beautiful shops, department stores and tearooms, its steep inclines were accessed by rattling trams.

Shoppers dedicated a whole day to traverse the heights of the fabled street, stopping to admire the window displays in department stores that included Smith & Caughey's. In the mid-20th century Queen St stood as a beacon of international city sophistication — exclusive, opulent, chic.

Clothing designer Barbara Herrick, now 83, remembers visiting Queen St as a young girl. "I recall standing in front of one of the shops as a schoolgirl. It was a particularly beautiful store, but I can't recall its name. It always had a single dress in the window. Queen St was really the fashion centre of Auckland then."

Advertisement

Years later, in the 1950s, Herrick was commissioned to create a clothing range, known as Sophie of 5th Avenue, for Smith & Caughey's. "I had my own range called Babs Radon, which was sold in a store called Flair on Vulcan Lane. The range I created for Smith & Caughey's was more exclusive."

Herrick remembers the department store as a very special place. "It was an elegant store that never let its standards drop. I particularly remember the beautiful fabric department, which is no longer there. They had fabrics you couldn't find anywhere else."


1930: The view from Lower Queen St to the Dilworth building.


She fondly recalls the upstairs tearoom where uniformed staff served "a delicious Devonshire tea", and remembers the Lamson chutes that linked the tills to the accounts department. "The store attendants would take your money and pop them in the tubes. The accounts department would send back the change. I have no idea how it worked, but it was very special."

The Queen St that Herrick recalls is far removed from Auckland's main street circa 2014. Changing times and tastes have eroded some of its historical status and cache as a fashion centre. Many of the grand old buildings have been demolished and replaced with glass and concrete towers, elegant stores by fast-food joints and cheap shops.

As undercover malls with free parking lured shoppers away, stores such as the Farmers Trading Company, which had been in the CBD for nearly a century, pulled out. This year the Farmer's store in Queen St closed.

But Queen St may yet claw back its reputation as a fashion drawcard. Later this year popular international labels Topshop and Topman will open on the northwest corner of Queen and Victoria Sts, where the ANZ bank has just moved out. Their arrival is expected to be a drawcard for other fashion labels.

Jamie Whiting, chief executive of Top retail, who is charged with bringing Topshop to Auckland, says with the arrival of a flagship Topshop on Queen St the company expects local retailers to benefit from an increase in foot traffic in the CBD.

"Anecdotally, we've already heard from a number of retailers in the CBD who are thrilled about the store's imminent arrival. Queen St is currently undergoing somewhat of a renaissance and Topshop and Topman will be another great addition to the street."

Advertisement


1905: View of Albert Park from the intersection of Queen and Victoria Sts.


The development of Imperial Lane — which leads from Queen St to Fort Lane and contains some upscale eateries — and the addition of luxury brands Louis Vuitton and Gucci have already injected some upmarket opulence to the street. The development of Prada and Christian Dior stores, which will open later this year in the Tower Centre, will add to the street's fashion scene.

So is Queen St going through a retail rebirth after decades as a somewhat dull business precinct? And can we be proud of our main street?

Errol Haarhoff, professor of architecture at Auckland University, says Queen St is on the right track. Haarhoff, who specialises in urban design, arrived in Auckland in 1999 to find a Queen St that was "pretty awful, dull, boring, and very dead". It has improved greatly since then, particularly over the past decade, he says. "Investment in quality streetscapes, people living there, the added values from our 'lane-ways', and the link to the waterfront, quality 'shared streets' have all helped to improve it." Queen St acts as an excellent conduit to other parts of the city centre, Haarhoff says. "What does make Queen St great is the easy access and connectivity to the surrounding lanes and their high level of amenity — Lorne St, High St, Fort St and Fort Lane, for example."

He still thinks Queen St can be "a bit dull" in parts compared to similar cities. Haarhoff maintains that cities need great urban squares to create a sense of identity and urban pride.

"Auckland has no such place, and I discount Aotea Square ever becoming such a place." But Auckland has a great waterfront as a public space, he says. "This is our greatest urban asset, to which Queen St leads you."


1947: Places like Lyons tearoom and milk bar (top), at the corner of Swanson and Queen Sts, were the cafes of their day, replaced now by Burger King. Photos / NZ Herald

A few old

family businesses survive in Queen St. Roger Marbeck's family music store, Marbecks, has just celebrated its 80th year in Queens Arcade at the bottom of Queen St. Marbeck has seen many changes to the street since he started working in the store in the early 1960s.

"Queen St was exciting and bustling, especially when all the shops were open late on Friday nights," he says. "People would flock to John Court's and Smith & Caughey's department stores. There were lots of milkbars — the Riviera in Queens Arcade was very popular, very retro in today's terms."

Marbeck remembers the 1970s and 80s not so much as a time of historical pillage and plunder but as an era typified by optimism.

"The developments really seemed like progress at the time; demolishing the old and putting up shiny glass towers in their place. The 80s really were a boom time — there were Ferraris in the street."

One building that has weathered the storm of changing fashion is the St James Theatre. It has escaped the developers' demolition ball so far, but sits abandoned and neglected since a fire in 2007. It is owned privately and, at present, is the focus of protracted negotiations between its owner and the council regarding its future use. Bob Kerridge, executive director of the SPCA, has a lifelong involvement with the theatre. It was the flagship of a chain of cinemas owned by his father, Sir Robert Kerridge. As the founder of St James Saviours, a group dedicated to restoring the theatre to its former glory, Bob Kerridge says a renovated St James would be a valuable asset to Auckland's art precinct. Its location near the Aotea Centre and the restored Civic Theatre is ideal.

But for Herrick, Queen St when she was young remains enmeshed in her memories. "Queen St used to be the centre of everything but now the malls have taken over. The suburban malls are all exactly the same. I am so glad I have my memories."