By ANNE GIBSON
The building where generations of Aucklanders took their first breath is about to be demolished.
The former St Helens Hospital - above Spaghetti Junction and opposite Vodafone House in the central city - is to be pulled down to make way for apartment blocks.
Without any preservation orders or historic classification to protect it, the solid old building which served generations of Auckland families between 1906 and 1968 has come to the end of the road.
St Helens has its foundations rooted firmly in the beginning of the welfare state in New Zealand.
At the turn of the century, Prime Minister Richard Seddon devised a scheme for state care of mothers and babies, which led to the birth of a national network of St Helens Hospitals, and the St Helens Hospital Movement, named after Seddon's birthplace in Lancashire, England.
Seddon established the first two hospitals in the early 1900s - the first in Wellington in 1905 and the other in Dunedin.
St Helens Hospitals were then set up in Auckland, Christchurch, Gisborne, Invercargill and Wanganui.
Mothers and fathers were eternally grateful.
The first baby born in the Wellington St Helens on June 17, 1905, was named Richard Seddon Keith, according to the New Zealand Herald archives.
Yet celebrating the opening of the Auckland hospital in Pitt St led to the great man's death.
"Mr Seddon died at sea in 1906 while travelling from Sydney to open a St Helens hospital in Auckland," the Herald recalled in 1955 at anniversary celebrations.
The tuberculosis epidemic of the 1920s put pressure on the country's hospitals and the post-Second World War baby boom added to the demand for scarce maternity beds and hospitals.
Things got so bad that the Labour MP for Christchurch East, Mabel Howard, delivered her stork bureau plan in July 1946. This was "a Dominion-wide proposal" for an organisation to be established to cater for women unable to book beds in maternity homes.
Miss Howard surprised the House by saying an investigation was also being made into the introduction of painless childbirth.
The lack of beds in maternity homes even raised talk about a state of emergency being declared, recommended by Hilda Ross (Opposition - Hamilton).
A surprise came in 1942 when five lots of twins were born in a fortnight at St Helens in Auckland. With only 36 to 38 women in the hospital at any one time, the odds were against it.
But the good times did not last. Just a few years after it was built, people were calling St Helens in Auckland too small, too noisy and out of date. In 1938, a Government committee of inquiry looked into maternity services and St Helens was found to be woefully inadequate. The Herald reported in July 1938 that Auckland needed a new St Helens.
"The St Helens Hospital, which contains 32 beds and is the largest of its kind in the Dominion, is considered by the committee to be inadequate for the increasing demands made upon it.
"The hospital provided practically the only public maternity hospital service of a population of over 212,000. It received 652 in-patients in 1935-36. The site is exposed to the noise of traffic, including the sirens of fire engines leaving the central station near by, some of the buildings are old and out of date, many facilities are lacking and the domestic staff are obliged to live out."
St Helens held its 50th jubilee celebrations in October 1956. The first baby born there, Mrs R.H.S. Dyason, who was then living in Melbourne, sent a cable: "Greetings and best wishes to the matron, staff and guests at your anniversary from No 1 on the register."
Mrs Dyason's third Christian name was Seddon, after Richard Seddon.
In 1957, it was reported that the hospital had averaged 1000 births annually, but it also noted the "dingy passages and staircases, low ceilings and poky rooms." Change was afoot and St Helens was about to be closed.
An architectural competition in 1959 resulted in the design for a new three-block maternity hospital.
At the beginning of 1968, the new St Helens in Linwood Rd, Mt Albert, was opened. It was blessed by the Catholic Bishop of Auckland, James Liston, and the Anglican Bishop of Auckland, Eric Gowing.
On February 16, 1968, the first babies had been born at the new St Helens. Irony did not escape those involved: "We had our teething troubles," said the matron, Sister J. Coles.
"Pitt St to miss first cries," said the Herald on February 16, 1968, reporting the shift of mothers, babies, equipment and staff to the new Mt Albert hospital.
"Not everyone is glad to be leaving the Pitt St hospital. Mrs F. W. Watene, who had her ninth child and first girl at St Helens two days ago, is very sorry to go," the paper reported.
For the past few years, the old St Helens has been run by the Corrections Department as a periodic detention centre.
Hopes that the building would be saved surfaced last year when Argyle Estates proposed to restore the hospital and add apartments, offices and shops.
Now Auckland property developer Ken Kells has bought the vacant, run-down building. His Rawson 2000 has resource consent from the Auckland City Council, granted in May last year, to demolish the building.
Mr Kells has applied to build 34 town houses and four apartments in three separate buildings on the site, with parking for 75 vehicles.
The apartments will be built along the Pitt and Hopetoun St frontages.
Historic Places Trust heritage adviser Antoine Coffin said the building was not registered as historic. Nor was it on the council's schedule of historic buildings, said planner John Stoupe.
"Be where you want to be," shouts the marketing literature for the "Hopetoun urban zone," appealing to couples with no children and fat wallets. Apartments start at $298,000.
The literature overstates the existence of the hospital by a good 20 years, saying it operated for 80 years when, in fact, it was replaced after only 62 years.
"Hopetoun is all about respect - respect for the site, respect for its inhabitants, respect for a lifestyle," boasts the marketing.
The death of the famous old birthing hospital is now imminent.
By ANNE GIBSON