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Unseen Auckland

Published
January 7, 2023
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AUCKLAND is the largest city in Aotearoa New Zealand, and also the most heavily criticised. It has grown massively in the age of the automobile, from about 330,000 in the early 1950s to 1.7 million today.

Auckland’s Northwestern Motorway, seen from the Grey Lynn Library

Most of this new growth has been fairly characterless. But the older parts of Auckland and even some suburban areas are full of charm if you know where to look.

Many older people are therefore choosing to retire to apartment buildings in the inner city.

And among the published lists of things to do in Auckland, such as this official page, many of the to-dos are also in the inner city.

From New Zealand’s oldest city park — the Auckland Domain (1843) — through Victorian churches and Art Deco buildings from the 1920s, the older parts of Auckland are actually so full of lovely things that you wonder why the tradition was not kept up in the newer suburbs.

The Civic Theatre, on the corner of Queen Street and Wellesley Street in downtown Auckland

I start this ramble in the inner-city suburbs of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, where they have a lovely Art Deco public library, and celebrate Christmas with a festival of lights in Franklin Road.

The Grey Lynn Public Library

It was the coming of a massive inner-city motorway junction, mostly built in the 1970s, that really stuffed the city up. Here’s an aerial photo, taken in 1949, that shows how things used to be.

Looking southward over the Auckland Domain and the inner-city suburb of Grafton from an aircraft flying over the downtown office district of Auckland in 1949. Full credit: Grafton Road, Auckland. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-19229-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22512926. CC BY 4.0. Labels ‘Winter Garden’ and ‘Hospital’ added for this post.

On the left of the aerial photo, you can see the Auckland Domain, on a site traditionally known in Māori as Pukekawa, which includes a large area of primordial rainforest as well as some later artificial tree plantings.

A pair of glasshouses, the Temperate House and the Tropical House, are the most visible features of a part of the Domain called the Winter Garden, which also includes a fernery. Below the Winter Garden, in the picture, you can see a smaller café building from which a tree-lined park access road stretches down to a main road (Grafton Road).

To the right of Grafton Road, toward the right-hand edge of the picture, you can see Grafton Bridge, which vaults over a ravine called Grafton Gully, at that time also full of old-growth rainforest.

In the 1949 photograph, Grafton Gully is overlooked by apartments. At the bottom of Grafton Gully, both in the picture and in terms of actual elevation, there are some tennis courts and a sports field.

Off the picture, to the right, is the campus of Auckland University, which includes the old 1856 Government House and a contemporary urban marae. After the University, you cross Princes Street with its quaint old merchants’ houses to arrive at a formal city park called Albert Park.

Old Government House

The urban marae on the city campus of Auckland University

Princes Street Merchant’s House

Old wooden buildings in Albert Park

The Albert Park Fountain, installed quite early on in the park’s development

Another refreshing view of the fountain

The band rotunda at Albert Park (it is on a sloping site)

Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand in the 1840s and again in the 1860s, generally regarded as the chief instigator of the 1863 invasion of the lands of the Waikato Māori, which he directed from the Old Government House. Damaged at least once in the past, this is the sort of statue that might not be there forever, I suspect.

Further west lies the city’s downtown office district, which you can just see popping up in the background in the following photos, also taken in Albert Park.

A selfie by the fountain with the Sky Tower, and some apartments in Kitchener Street, behind

Queen Victoria. This statue actually dates back to Victorian times itself.

The South African War Artillery Memorial and one of two historic coastal defence guns in the background, with the Metropolis apartment building further behind

Though it is not as old as the Domain, Albert Park is much more obviously Victorian, and a bit of a time capsule in that sense.

One thing my editor Chris noticed was that there had been some vandalism between the time some of those photos were taken, on New Years’ Day in 2022, and when he visited a bit over a year later. The artilleryman’s sword is now gone.

The same memorial, January 2023

And so, for that matter, is the sword belonging to a figure with a more peaceful significance called ‘Love Breaking the Sword of Hate’, which you can see in these two photos from back in the day.

Love Breaking the Sword of Hate, photograph by Henry Winkelmann (between 1900 and 1909), Auckland Libraries collection, Albert Park (H W) Tourist Series 1495, no known copyright, via DigitalNZ.


Frederick George Radcliffe, Albert Park Auckland (ca. 1903). Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries (35-R137)

The plinth does not say what this lovely statue means or who carved it (Andrea Carlo Lucchesi). The sword had been broken off before, then apparently replaced in 2015, and now broken again: ironically perhaps because whoever did it may have thought it had the same significance as for the colonial soldier. Or simply because it was easy to break.

Love Breaking the Sword of Hate, January 2023

The site occupied by this statue has also become a bit overgrown lately. And it looks like something has been thrown at Love’s head, as well.

On a more pleasant note, before the coming of the motorways, you could wander freely from city offices to the Auckland Domain/Pukekawa in your lunch break, through ancient rainforest once you made it past stuffy old Albert Park and the university. Or over the top of the rainforest, if that took your fancy.

Grafton Bridge, by J. W. Chapman-Taylor, 1920s. Source: Te Papa, registration number O.002437. See URL http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/224456

A lot of the things I have just mentioned in the area of the Domain are still there. But the large stand of rainforest in Grafton Gully, its tennis courts and sports field, are no more.

Sadly, Grafton Gully is full of motorway concrete and flyovers these days: a mass of concrete and traffic that also makes it harder to get to the Auckland Domain from downtown than it used to be. No more easy lunchtime strolls to the Domain and back, in other words.

But though it is now somewhat cut off, the Domain, New Zealand’s oldest urban park and one of the largest, is still there and very much worth visiting. I’ll start with the Winter Gardens, which, like the Art Deco libraries, theatres and other buildings of the town, was erected in the 1920s.

The Entrance to the Winter Garden. Spot the date: 1927.

Information panel on the Temperate House

The closed Tropical House in the Winter Garden

A visitor taking a photo of one of the several classical statues in the Winter Garden

The lily pond in the Winter Garden, looking toward the Fernery entrance

The Fernery Entrance

The Fernery is sunken and low, which helps to keep it moist, even though it is otherwise outdoors and unenclosed. At the very bottom, there are pools containing richly coloured goldfish.

Walking down into the Fernery

Down in the Fernery

Fernery Goldfish

At the moment I only have indoor photos of the Temperate House, as the Tropical House is being renovated right now.

Inside the Temperate House: the next two photos were also taken inside the Temperate House

Excuse fingers!

A temporarily dried-out ornamental pond next to the Tropical House

The next photo shows the café building, formally known as the Winter Garden Pavilion, behind a larger duck pond.

If you enjoyed this post, you may wish to continue on to Part Two, which takes the form of a continued ramble around Pukekawa (The Auckland Domain) and into the inner-city suburb of Parnell, with a discussion of the history of some monuments including, in a few cases, their recent damage and destruction.

(Some changes and additions to the part of this post that talks about Albert Park were made on 24 January 2023.)

You may also wish to check out my award-winning book about the North Island, available from my website a-maverick.com.

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