30 May 2014

Turret toppings

As I mentioned in my last blog, about weathervanes, I’ve spent some time recently looking up, which has brought me a new appreciation for the embellishments that have been added to Auckland’s towers and turrets, spires and steeples.

As crosses are to be found on many – though not all -- churches, flagpoles are common on all types of structures, and plain needle-like finials are often found on cupolas (like the examples at Auckland Grammar School, pictured below), I have not, for the most part, included any of them, focussing instead on the more unusual or unique forms of ornamentation.

The plain finial and flag pole on Auckland Grammar School's main building
Most of these turret toppings are purely ornamental, though I suspect some do have a purpose, as lightning rods, diverting the electrical charges of lightning strikes into the ground where they are diffused. Electricity pioneer Benjamin Franklin was the inventor of (in 1749) and a huge advocate for lightning rods, and their efficacy made them extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. This advertisement from the Manawatu Standard, 10 July 1903, shows lightning rods were also popular in New Zealand and how imaginative their designs could, in fact, be.

So, let’s get on with showing you what I’ve been looking at.

Allendale House, corner of Crummer and Ponsonby Roads
On a prominent corner site in Auckland’s inner city suburb of Ponsonby stands Allendale, the large 1890s mansion of George Allen, a saddle and harness maker. This impressive local landmark has been successively a doctor's surgery, Maori girls hostel, boarding house, refuge for alcoholic men and a restaurant, and is now home to the ASB Community Trust, who restored the building after purchasing it in the 1990s.

Allendale is built in a style common for Victorian bay villas, which includes ornate wrought iron work on the verandahs, in the cresting on the roof, and on the turret, as well as the two side roof peaks. These are topped with beautiful examples of the ironworker’s craft – wonderfully sinuous and organic designs.

Allendale House
United Maori Mission Hostel, corner of Hepburn and Smith Streets, Ponsonby
The exact same design as that found on Allendale’s roof can also be found on the roof of a large private dwelling, just a couple of streets away (below, left). Built in the 1890s in the Queen Anne style and sitting on a 1259m2 section, one can only imagine how grand this building must have been when first built. At one time, it functioned as St James’ Presbyterian Manse, then, in the 1940s, it became one of three hostels run by the United Maori Mission, catering for the ‘spiritual, social and material requirements’ of the young Maori people who were then moving in droves from rural New Zealand to the city (Elsdon Craig, ‘Gillies, Heppy and Shelley: The Story of Three Mission Hostels’, Te Ao Hou, no.19, August 1957).

Though it still functions as Te Kainga Aroha, a hostel for young Maori women, this once elegant old house looks rather ramshackle and unloved these days. Luckily, its wonderful roof ornament remains.

United Maori Mission Hostel (left) and St John's Methodist Church (right)
St John’s Methodist Church, Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby
Though I said above that I would not, for the most part, include churches in this post, some have roof ornaments that deserve a mention. On top of one of the small pinnacles of St John’s Methodist Church, for example, is a fine piece of wrought iron decoration (above, right), not dissimilar to the two mentioned above, though it is more angular, less organic in its lines.

St John’s also has an interesting cross on top of its spire, as you can see from the photo below, left. The church was built in 1882 in the Gothic Revival design by prominent local architect Edward Bartley (who also designed the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind Workshop building with its superb weathervane).

St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Jervois Road, Ponsonby
Not far from St John’s is another Gothic Revival-style church, with an interesting embellishment on top of its spire. I suspect this was once a weathervane and Auckland’s occasional wild weather has been responsible for its partial destruction in the 135 years since the church was built. I visited this church during Auckland’s annual Heritage Festival last October so you can read more about this impressive old church in an earlier blog

St John's Methodist (left), St Stephen's in Jervois Rd (centre) and St Stephen's, Symonds St (right)
St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Symonds Street, Auckland city
There’s another, even older St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in the inner city, this one in Symonds Street. Built to last from local basalt stone between 1847 and 1850, this is Auckland’s oldest surviving church and, in keeping with its early Free Church association, it was originally more spartan in design – the Greek-style portico and prominent tower were later additions. Presbyterian churches tend to exclude explicit Christian iconography so there is no cross atop the spire, though it does still have an ornament, a spiky and angular fandangle.

Old Ponsonby fire station, Williamson Avenue, Ponsonby
Heading back to Ponsonby, we find the former Grey Lynn Borough Council Chambers and Volunteer Fire Station building which stands at the Ponsonby Road end of Williamson Avenue. This brick building, dating from 1889, was designed by architect John Mitchell, and resembles many American fire stations of the period. Its bell tower was a practical addition – the bell was rung to alert the volunteer firefighters when fires broke out in the surrounding suburb, though this is actually a replacement tower, reinstated when the building was restored in 1985. It is likely, then, that the adornment on top of its tower is a modern addition but it fits well with the building’s heritage status.

Civic Theatre, Queen Street, Auckland city
Last but not least in this tour around Auckland city’s turret toppings is the magnificent Civic Theatre, which opened in December 1929. Its tower is surmounted by a very ornate embellishment, though I haven’t been able to find out any information about it. The Civic was the last of the great atmospheric theatres to be built in Australasia. Its interior has to be seen to be believed, with its Indian-fantasy-temple-garden foyer, and the starlit night sky and Persian Palace minarets in its auditorium. But that’s a story for another day, another blog …