The old city precinct gathered around Pākaitore and the law courts, and under the stern watch of the Rutland Stockade, was the big end of town in colonial Whanganui.

It included government buildings, a number of the city's ubiquitous masonic lodges and gentlemen's clubs, local branches of big trading companies and the headquarters of the Wanganui Chronicle.

The thriving commercial quays were just below and the hotels and banks of lower Victoria Avenue were close at hand.

These days the UCOL campus with its collection of new and old buildings, some adapted from earlier uses, dominates the neighbourhood and many years of declining commercial life have left their mark on the gracious Victorian and Edwardian edifices along Drews Ave, Ridgway St and Rutland St.

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Signs of revival, however, are cropping up everywhere.

Small businesses like Article cafe, NZ Glassworks and Brews on Drews are among the green shoots, but a major step forward is currently under way on the pivotal corner of Ridgway St and Drews Ave.

In 2018, Whanganui district councillor Hadleigh Reid purchased the four vacant properties, which step down the hill on Drews Ave, with the intention of saving them from demolition and giving them a new life within their 19th century skins.

Contractors are now hard at work on the site.

The building on the corner of Drews Ave (originally known as Wicksteed Place) was the cornerstone of what used to be called Stevenson's Block, after the former mayor James Lockhart Stevenson.

Constructed primarily of timber, it dates from 1853, making it one of the oldest surviving commercial buildings in the central city.

Drews Avenue from Ridgway Street, 2007. Photo/ Beverley Sinclair, Whanganui Regional Museum Collection
Drews Avenue from Ridgway Street, 2007. Photo/ Beverley Sinclair, Whanganui Regional Museum Collection

Over its long life, it has housed a succession of businesses, including the premises of prominent real estate agent H R Beauchamp, whose commercial interests in the 1920s and 1930s extended beyond property dealing to insurance, shipping and steamer tickets to Europe and the USA.

Up the back stairs was the headquarters of the Wanganui Employers Association.

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The neighbouring brick properties have also had a series of tenants, most notably drug and fertiliser-manufacturing company Kempthorne Prosser, whose large factory now sits in ruins on the outskirts of Aramoho. More recently, the building served as the base for Te Waipuna Health Centre.

Earthquake concerns and the lure of modernisation have put paid to some of the more elegant detailing on the masonry facades of the smaller buildings over the years.

The final building in the block, the opulent Cosmopolitan Club, built in 1900, is not part of the current redevelopment project.

It has already been restored and upgraded by Hadleigh Reid, whose dental business has been based there since 2010.

*Frank Stark is the director at Whanganui Regional Museum.