New Zealand’s Tallest Building – NZ Express Co. 1905

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A building worth celebrating. Image: Private postcard collection.
A building worth celebrating. Image: Private postcard collection.

New Zealand’s first skyscraper was built on the corner of Manchester and Hereford Streets between 1905 – 06 for the New Zealand Express Company.  This state of the art seven storey building, which took the title of New Zealand’s tallest building, was designed by the Lutrell Brothers who hailed from Tasmania, Australia.

Their arrival in Christchurch in 1902, brought new ideas and the latest construction techniques which were used on their other buildings such as The Royal Exchange, The Lyttelton Times Office, King Edward’s Barracks and The Theatre Royal. The Express building took influences from contemporary American commercial buildings, in particular the 1890’s Chicago skyscraper style.

Facades were erected architecturally in the Renaissance style, “the architects depending for their effect on the composition and imposing proportions rather than a lot of needless detail.”

It was mixed with a colonial Edwardian style which complemented the requirements of the up and coming Christchurch firm, the Express Company who were replacing their modest and unpretentious former offices on Bedford Row. The new building brought all the branches of the business together under one roof which formerly had been scattered throughout the city.

The building was built by W. H. Bowen, who had also built the new Theatre Royal. He would only live until October 1909, dying at age 57 after illness.

Sub contractors were  T. H. Davies, painter; Bradley Bros. plumbers; W Goss, joiner; W. Strange and Co.’ office furniture; Turnbull and Jones Ltd supplied and installed the two electric lifts.

The architect’s impression of how the New Zealand Express Building would look on its completion was published in The Weekly Press on 8th November, 1905. The sketch shows the confidence and prosperity of the day and an example of one of New Zealand’s most successful colonial company investing during the burgeoning economy.

The Christchurch Press congratulated the NZ Express Company for confidence “shown in the solid progress and prosperity of the city.”

“It is a distinct indication of the prosperity and growth of the provincial centre that the company should find itself warranted in erecting the present commodious and handsome structure”

The New Zealand Express Co. Building under construction. Source: The Canterbury Times, 25 July 1906, p. 41. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0065

The ground floor housed offices and the dispatch store, and the upper storeys contained 36 large sample rooms. Here the wares of manufacturers from all around the world were on display for importers to view. This was a change in established business practices in the city were purchases had previously had to be made from illustrated catalogues.

There was a look out on the roof, 135 feet from the street. The floors were linked by an Otis lift, entered from the main corridor off Manchester Street, and a goods lift from the store off Hereford Street.

The walls of the ground and first floors were reinforced concrete, the remainder brick; the whole structure stood on reinforced concrete foundations 10 feet wide.

Designed to ‘resist’ earthquakes

At 11.57am on 8th December, 1908 a severe earthquake was felt. From the height of the Express Building the quake was strongly felt. There were a ‘goodly number’ of travellers in the building at the time, which resulted in a general stampeded for the basement down the staircase.

The building had been designed to ‘resist’ earthquakes, and beyond the swaying, there was no damage – nor was there to other building in the city.

Clients enjoy the view

Being located in Manchester St, the building received it’s fair share of attention from local prostitutes who were known to take their clients ‘to admire the architecture of the tallest building in Christchurch.”

Christchurch Detectives Osborn and Miller arrested an ‘exceptionally well-dressed and respectable-looking man, named Louis Leon Cohen, at his sample room in the NZ Express Building. He was a commercial traveller for jewellery, headquartered in Wellington, and had gone to Mr Pannell’s rooms to buy stock and whilst there had uplifted two rings, 19 diamonds and two rubies, valued at £15 7s 6d.

Cohen had no previous police record, and was a married man of supposedly good character so the crime seemed highly unusual. He pleaded guilty, was convicted and fined £5.

The building had a Category One Historic Places Trust Classification. However 105 years after its construction, extensive damage caused by the September 2010 deemed it unsafe. The City Council’s immediate demolition order brought about a nationwide fight to save it from the wrecker’s ball. Hours later, this decision was reversed when the building’s owner proposed to dismantle the building over several weeks. However, this move was quashed by the later court decision which secured its demolition.  This was carried out just prior to the February 22nd earthquake.

Sources: Press, 21 March 1907; Star 8 Oct 1909; Press, 9 December 1908; Press, 13 June 1911, Page 6; Press, 14 June 1911, Page 2

Architect's Impression of the Completed New Zealand Express Building
Architect’s Impression of the Completed New Zealand Express Building. Source: The Weekly Press, 8 Nov. 1905, p. 45. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, Reference CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0005

The New Zealand Express & Co. Building c. 1910
The New Zealand Express & Co. Building circa 1910. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 35-R401

The view south over Christchurch from the top of the new Express Building, 1906. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 30 AUGUST 1906 p014. Source: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19060830-14-1.
The view south over Christchurch from the top of the new Express Building, 1906. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 30 AUGUST 1906 p014. Source: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19060830-14-1.

 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Noel Brettoner says:

    “The building was built by W. H. Bowen, who had also built the new Theatre Royal. He would only live until October 1909, dying at age 57 after illness.”
    W. H. Bowen was my great-great grandfather; my mother’s mother’s father.
    He was responsible for considerable high-caliber building construction & refurbishment in & around Christchurch, & was well known & active in several clubs & organisations.
    Interestingly, our mother’s mother (Ida Ellen Cox Bowen; nee-Cox) married Robert James Jay; who was the Christchurch Manager of this building!. 🙂

    If there are any Jays or Bowens ‘out there’, I would love to get in contact, concerning our family’s genealogy etc. 🙂

    Like

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