Unfaded Glamour

Melissa Rimac peeks behind the facades of a South Island town’s captivating streetscapes.

02 Oct 2012

Stand just about anywhere in Dunedin – once New Zealand’s dominant commercial centre- and you’re likely to be within eyeshot of at least several buildings which inspire audible swoons.

Settled initially by Scottish immigrants eager to recreate their homeland, this compact university city is home to New Zealand’s largest and most intact concentration of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, spared the development which blighted so many other historic hot-spots when the economic focus shifted north.

The gold-rush of the 1860’s sparked an era of prosperity which spiced up the streetscape with fanciful Gothic, Italianate, Georgian and Palladian revival flourishes that still turn heads.

Dunedin lured a can-do, aspirational set who vied for influence and recognition. The rivalry was played out in the streets, creating an architecture buffs’ wonderland of baroque cathedrals weighted down with gargoyles, handsome mansions, stately bluestone piles and funky art deco shopfronts.

The best way to get a feel for the energy and passion that underpins these striking buildings is to accompany Athol Parks on one of his intriguing  City Walks architecture- focused tours. Not only does Parks know minute details about just about every noteworthy building, he speaks of the cities erstwhile inhabitants as if they’re chums.

Parks visibly smarts when he recalls the rancour felt by the volunteer soldiers who created the unashamedly Scottish Garrison Hall, whose community hub was forcibly acquired by the government. All manner of luminaries walked under the watchful gaze of it’s guardian unicorn and lion: Mark Twain, Dame Nellie Melba, Antarctic explorers, returned Boar War soldiers, television stars.   

George Troup, the man behind Dunedin’s iconic railway station, faced an unusual reversal of the architect -client schism: he was told to sex up his preferred, more restrained design. What transpired was a cocky nod to Edwardian confidence and the excitement associated with rail, a grandiose statement- piece embellished with stained glass, cherubs, mosaics and arched ticket windows. 

As you walk along some Dunedin blocks, shades of San Francisco come to mind, thanks to a web of external fire escapes. Near the harbour is a district of mercantile buildings that almost look forlorn without accompanying tall- ships.

Princes Street is crammed with classified heritage buildings, but the Savoy, with its distinctive lion faced motifs and chain-supported awning most readily conjures visions of an altogether more elegant era.

The tour also takes in the quirky, like one -time churches resurrected into theatres and an imposing bank now turned strip club. 

City Walks

Photography: Melissa Rimac