Colonial architecture is pure gold

There is talk of a new "Gold Rush" in Central Otago – not quite as in the days of Gabriel's Gully, one hastens to add, but with the current gold price, mining two or three moderate claims in Central Otago looks promising. As long as the gold price remains high (currently around $2000 an ounce), goldmining, even on a comparatively smaller scale, can only encourage investment.

Gold built the cities of Dunedin, Melbourne, Bendigo and Ballarat. Our ties to Australia were maybe a little more reciprocal back then during the halcyon gold-rush days of the 1860s. Our colonial architecture attests to it.

From the outset of the gold rush, many fine architects moved to Dunedin during its rapid growth; William Mason from Auckland, RA Lawson from Melbourne, George Mallinson and Julius Toxward from Christchurch and Invercargill, and many others. Notably the eminent WC Vahland was responsible for much of Bendigo's architecture.

English-born Mason is of interest because, by 1862, he had already been in the colonies for 20 years, was a well-known and respected member of Parliament, and was one of Governor William Hobson's long-serving officials.

Mason established a working relationship with Melbourne architect William Henry Clayton – who already boasted 15 years' colonial experience, mostly in Northern Tasmania – during which time he had designed about 300 buildings including five churches, three banks, a mechanic's institute, theatre, three steam-and-water mill breweries, mansions, villas, and bridges. Mason was a Tasmanian by birth, trained in Brussels, and most of his work was built within Launceston and its neighbourhood.

He remained in Dunedin for about six years and then moved to Wellington as Colonial Architect, the only man to enjoy that title.

This illustrates the close-knit intercolonial ties between Melbourne and Dunedin during this time, perhaps at a level somewhat more sophisticated than one would have imagined. Both these cities' fortunes were borne out of their respective goldfields – though Melbourne had got an earlier start by about 10 years.

Mason, apparently, would design what was required of him, while Clayton followed his own preferences for interpretations of the neo-Renaissance style. Mason would be remembered for several major commissions in Dunedin, particularly for the 1865 building intended for a post office but mainly known as the old Exchange building. It was also used successively by the university, the Colonial Bank, and the stock exchange; he was responsible for the Bank of New Zealand (1863), the Exhibition building (1864 and subsequently converted to a hospital), the Bank of New South Wales (1866) and many others. Clayton's influence could be seen in Edinburgh House (1865), the Provincial Council Chambers (1865), the Colonial Museum in Wellington (1865), and All Saints' Church (1864). Mason was elected Dunedin's first mayor, serving two terms, from 1865-1867.

Mason's The Exchange (Post Office) he described as "Palladian with Italian and Grecian features". Of the Greek classical styles, he employed Doric and Corinthian supplemented by carved spandrels, friezes, cornices and balustrades. The scale of this building was quite monumental, with a ground-floor storey height of 6.7 metres and a 36.6m tower very much in keeping with European ambitions.

The dramatic aspect of this building was seen at distance – with its tower and recessed upper storey creating the triangle effect. The ground floor was largely arcaded and the overall impact was Victorian. It was as a result of constructing this building that Mason was the first to introduce [white] Oamaru stone on a large civic scale. He placed a notice in the Provincial Gazette and, as a result of this, Oamaru stone, which proved ideal for cutting, was discovered. Up until this time, stone had been imported from Hobart to Dunedin. The Clayton-Mason partnership often tended to the overtly ornate, high Victorian style.

The Otago Witness recording the occasion of Sir William Grey's visit to this building site, had this to say:

"... the cutters for a simple architrave were in place; and steam having been got up ... His Excellency was enabled to see how easily the stone can be worked. He stood by while ashlar was cut from blocks, by means of a steam-driven circular saw, and while men with a hand saw made deep cuts into a block which was being worked into a capital; he was shown the speed with which ballusters can be turned – 36 can be finished in a day of eight hours, by one man, so that the labour for each costs less than 4d; and he watched the first chippings by which a block was roughly moulded, in its progress towards an elaborately finished capital. His Excellency examined with great interest two beautiful cabinet specimens by Mr JL Godfrey, samples of real art, as well as proofs of the delicate working of which the Oamaru stone is capable; and he also saw how easily the stone yielded to the chisel of Mr Godfrey and other of the workers."

The devastating Christchurch earthquakes serve as testament to the fragility of our colonial, architectural heritage. It is our collective responsibility to preserve what little remains, before everything is lost to short-term expediency, council ineptitude, and blinkered vision.

Stephen Oliver is the author of 16 volumes of poetry. He lived in Australia for 20 years and now resides in the King Country. He works as a freelance writer and voice artist.

Waikato Times