The Renovation of The Customhouse


In the late eighteen-eighties, a comparatively young Auckland found itself in need of a substantial public building: to serve as a Customhouse worthy. of the commercial capital of New Zealand; and to be capable of accommodating the occasional ministerial visitor, in view of the removal of the political capital to Wellington.

The obvious location for such a building was a large, unoccupied section at the foot of Albert Street overlooking the harbour. Bur what kind of a building to put up was not so obvious. It had to be both spacious and flexible, since it would certainly have to afford room for other government offices. Equally important: it must enhance the citizens' feeling of their dignity and importance. The mid-Victorians were passing through an era of vigorous commercialism that found expression in a new type of compendious retail establishment, where a single enterprising merchant sought to meet virtually all the needs of the middle-class shopper - the department store. Architecturally speaking, this called for a representative splendour of the kind met, a century earlier, by the ornate royal palace, and, a century later, by the ostentation of the Moscow Metro.

Late nineteenth century architects, attuned to the tastes of the upper middle class, spent some of their talent on creating the large and imposing buildings that the new shopping emporiums called for - reflecting the affluence and genteel luxury to which their bourgeois customers aspired. They produced R.H. Macy's in New York; Selfridges in London; in Paris the Bon March& of the Boucicaults. and, a little later, the monstrous Warenhaus Tietz in Berlin and Gerngross in Vienna.

The main staircase

In London, Marshall and Snellgrove had just adorned Oxford Street with a monumental warehouse of this kind. It was in a style reminiscent of the late French Renaissance but verging on the baroque, and it was sufficiently grand and capacious to impress the New Zealand Ministry of Works. The task of replicating it in Auckland was begun in 1889. It became and has since remained the most imposing building in the city. The cost was £15,366. Seventy years later the Customhouse was obsolete. The vast but antiquated Long Room from which three generations of importers had extracted their shipping documents from a score of little counters; the warren of little offices that supplied maps and charts produced by the Lands and Survey Department and housed the Inspectors of Weights and Measures - all required new premises. A new Customhouse on Quay Street came into being, leaving its predecessor vacant - a prey to dereliction and sporadic vandalism.

Public-spirited efforts to save the old building now scheduled for demolition came to nothing. Notable was a scheme initiated by Les Andrews to turn it into a centre for the performing arts. A considerable sum was pledged by his supporters: but still far to little to interest the authorities.

The children's kingdom

It was left to the enterprising John Hulbert, an American engaged at the time in the Hyatt Hotel project in Fiji, to propose a practicable scheme to turn the building, not back into an Antipodean Marshall and Snellgrove, but into a combined cultural and commercial centre to be run on a co-operative basis. With great energy he overcame formidable obstacles and carried through tortuous negotiations with the 'Save the Customhouse Committee', the City Council, the Historic Buildings Trust and the Government itself, until the proposal became a reality. This was a start: but only the beginning of a three-fold task - to restore the century-old building to physical health and strength; to convert the interior to its new purposes; and to recruit personnel familiar with the retail scene, experts in their particular fields, in sympathy with the ideals that lay behind the project as a whole.

The construction work was tackled with energy and imagination by Hulbert's friend Glyrin Braddy - a collaborator in a previous enterprise. The primary need was for a new steel frame right through - from the basement to the tower. Every second joist throughout the building was tied to brick, or the stress was transferred by shear panels to walls capable of accommodating lateral shock. In the basement the floor had to be lowered right through to provide the necessary head room.

Licensed restaurant, looking from the bar above

Whether it was a question of purely structural strengthening or functional modification, Mr Braddy's ingenuity is evident on all sides. Those varying floor levels, for instance, that lend interest to halls and corridors, have an aesthetic effect just as important as their purpose to conceal required seismic bracing. Again, though it might seem attractive to preserve fireplaces and substantial brick chimneys, they are superfluous in an age of electric heating. Instead, an intricate concealed ventilation system is based on them, the flues serving as substitutes for unsightly ventilation vents that have been eliminated. The lavish old Victorian stud heights seventeen feet on the ground floor, fourteen feet on the one above, and twelve feet on the top storey - have been used by Mr Braddy to introduce interesting mezzanines and half-storeys. In January The Old Auckland Customhouse Limited was opened as a truly multi-cultural and commercial centre, designed to meet public needs. With emphasis on entertainment for the people of Auckland, for out-of-town visitors and for tourists, it provides a well equipped theatre, a licensed restaurant, a cafeteria and a refreshment bar, a natural foods store, and bookshops for adults and for children. The latter is part of a 'Childrens' Kingdom' that is imaginative in its design and the amusement that it provides. The children enter a realm that is theirs first and foremost (adults admitted only if accompanied by the young) through glass doors on which are painted legendary creatures familiar to them. Within they find an assortment of toys, games and hobbies. Books are stored on shelves they can easily reach. There is a small amphitheatre where they can sit in seats of an appropriate height, to watch a clown or a magician, or simply to listen to a tale being read. A model pet-store provides more than just small animals in cages; there's a display area where pets can be handled under the supervision of an expert who gives advice on keeping, grooming and feeding live creatures.

There is an emphasis on 'doing' in the children's area. They can climb aboard the pirate ship, spin down the chute, crawl through the mystery tunnel, and play 'Shop', serving one another with a real cash register.

The Book Centre

Art, in the Customhouse concept, is not something just to be looked at and admired. It begins with creative activity. In the suite of rooms (one could almost say halls) provided for arts and crafts, artists can be observed at work. Not only is work of all kinds in progress here spinners, weavers, batik dyers, glass blowers, potters, sculptors and even a blacksmith (not to produce horse-shoes but wrought-ironwork) have booked in on a ten-day roster schedule: but there are exhibition rooms at hand so that their finished products can be properly shown and sold. (The display and sale of art and craft objects is not confined to those who have actually worked here. Facilities are available to 'outsiders' too.) Adjacent is a well-stocked department of art and craft supplies. There, onlookers inspired to try their own hand at this or that kind of work can obtain the materials they want. They will be given expert advice in selecting what they need. In the natural food section you can talk to the manager about vitamins or diets, buy free-range-laid . eggs or organically-grown vegetables.

(You have his assurance that the food served in the Cellar Cafe down below, or in the licensed restaurant that adjoins the Long Room Theatre, conforms with his standards.)

Arts and crafts emporium

While you were in the Cafe you may have taken down from the rack one of the overseas papers available to patrons, or brought to your table one or other of the books from the shelves that line the walls. They are an overflow from The Book Centre across the corridor. There, with a very warm invitation to browse, is a wide range of both classical and contemporary works. There are books on art, travel, biography and history: side by side with a representative collection of New Zealand books and works in foreign languages. Another feature of The Old Customhouse is the availability (free of charge) of fine committee rooms for the use of non-profit-making societies of all kinds. These have supper-making facilities attached. The former Long Room of the Customhouse, known to three generations of importers who came to its innumerable counters to lodge or withdraw their shipping documents, is completely transformed into a theatre. Its great height might have been ' made expressly for 'flying' scenery. Lighting equipment is. elaborate and up-to-date. Acoustically it is nearly perfect. To form a stage a large number of small rectagular platforms fitting tightly together are assembled, so that the size and even the position of the stage can be altered quickly and easily. The same requirements have dictated the seating which, within minutes, can be re-located for a conventional proscenium production: for traverse or for theatre-in-the-round. Those of us who care about the arts have been heartened to see the Customhouse come back to life-handsome in its new paint; details picked out in sky-blue and gold. In fact the fine facade remains virtually untouched, apart from some very minor alterations (notably a small terrace that gives better fire emergency egress from the theatre as well as easier access for disabled persons). Inside the building a novel kind of organisation has come into being. It seems to be something essentially different from the pattern of independently competing shops and boutiques that cram the conventional arcade. Here the effort is being made to put the emphasis on service and co-operation. There is service not only to the public, but to all those employed in the project, in the way of vocational training' and a profit-sharing scheme; co-operation in the form of a single financial management; frequent consultation; and wherever possible interchange of staff.

It already looks as though the ideals that guided this project have become a reality and are bearing fruit.

Theatre booking office


Originally published in Art New Zealand 23 Autumn 1982