Cuba Street Heritage Area

  • Cuba Street Heritage Area is one of the best known of Wellington’s heritage areas and a place celebrated for its character and social life.

    Cuba Street was one of Te Aro’s earliest streets. Surveyed in the 1840s, it was later extended both south and north and at one stage, before Cuba Street was truncated at Wakefield Street, it ran all the way to the waterfront at Jervois Quay. The street has had significant periods of development and prominent cycles of prosperity. It became a significant retail area after the first tram service was established in 1878. During the late Victorian and early Edwardian era, a building boom transformed the street and helped establish the character still visible today.

    Today Cuba Street runs the length of Te Aro from Wakefield Street to Webb Street, a distance of 1.8 kilometres. It takes in seven blocks in all, gently rising in elevation as it goes and changing in scale from high to low. Along the way are some of the city’s most intact heritage streetscapes, containing a variety of interesting heritage buildings. In some places the area extends around corners of the many cross-streets to take in buildings that make a clear historical and architectural contribution. An example of this is Wakefield Street, where five buildings are included in the area.

    The heritage character of the area is not continuous; there are considerable differences between blocks and there are portions that make relatively little contribution to the values of the area. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the street retains a coherence and collective value transcending the less interesting parts.

    Cuba Street is a place of high heritage value and importance to Wellington. The purpose of defining the street as a heritage area is to protect the buildings and important spaces from the effects of inappropriate sub-division, development or use and to encourage sympathetic and compatible change when it occurs.

  • close Physical Description
    • Setting close

      The setting of Cuba Street is, in the immediate sense, the street. In a relatively narrow concourse, surrounded by – in the main – two and three storey buildings that form something of a canyon, generally the only interruption from the proximate setting are the six streets that intersect Cuba Street and some taller buildings visible over the top. The only exception to this is the open area and modern buildings between Manners and Dixon Streets. Towards the top of the street (or southern end) the setting becomes a more expansive one. This is due to the slightly higher elevation, more vacant space and smaller buildings, and allows views to Mt Cook, distant hills, visible city buildings and other parts of Te Aro.

      Cuba Street’s broader setting is Te Aro. Cuba Street sits in the middle of this area, and within a short distance of Cuba Street are the wider avenues of Taranaki and Victoria Streets. Te Aro is a rapidly changing part of Wellington, a mixture of the commercial and high-density residential, with a smattering of older buildings. Cuba Street, particularly its older portions, sits somewhat distinct from this general pattern but is no less a part of it.

      At the bottom or northern end of the street, Civic Square is close by, as are the taller buildings of the CBD and wharf area. The latter is a reminder that Cuba Street once extended all the way to Jervois Quay, before the construction of the Michael Fowler Centre.

      At either end of the street there are significant visual stops that play their part in defining the street’s setting. At the southern end is the large bulk of the former MED building on Webb Street (now enlarged as Webb Street Apartments) and at the northern end is the Michael Fowler Centre. Both are uncomfortable neighbours for the heritage area.

    • Streetscape or Landscape close

      Cuba Street is one of Wellington’s signature streetscapes. The form of the street and its buildings illustrates both the development of the street over time and the physical and social evolution of the wider Te Aro area. The gentle rise to the south and the many cross-streets create many long vistas which connect the area with Te Aro and the surrounding hills.

      The visual quality of the streetscape is characterised by the common features of the buildings. The typical pattern of the buildings is of an ornamented upper façade set above a verandah, with a well-glazed shop front below. The consistent expression of this pattern contributes considerably to the character of the street and is enhanced by the almost continuous street wall line created by the majority of the buildings rising vertically from the street boundary and finishing at a parapet line.

      Perhaps the most important common feature of the Cuba Street buildings is the significance given to the street front and the principal shops over secondary elevations and spaces. The majority of the façades are deeply modelled, a natural consequence of load-bearing masonry construction, symmetrical in their layout, and are ornamented and embellished with a wide variety of neo-Classical or Baroque motifs popular at the time of their construction. The emphasis on the street front is characterised in the almost universal use of parapets on the buildings which serve to protect the aspirational values embodied in the many elaborate façades from direct association with the rather prosaic qualities of the roof structures covering the buildings. Most of the buildings featured complex original parapet designs; very few of these parapets survived the precautionary removal of high-level masonry after earthquakes in 1931 and 1942. Traces of these parapets remain in the many bland modern parapets put back up to cover roof edges. The visual richness of these façades imparts a very high quality of streetscape to the area and conveys a strong sense of history and historical continuity to the area.

      The street wall is relatively evenly scaled in each block and typically varies by just a storey above or below the median building height in each block (with a few notable exceptions). The predominance of the Edwardian buildings contributes a degree of visual detail and texture to the street wall rare in Wellington – the more modern curtain walls and planar façades of the later 20th century are few and the street is a much visually richer place for that

      Cuba Street is visually connected to the wider Te Aro area with the many intersecting streets offering long views to the hills surrounding the inner city – Mount Victoria to the east, Kelburn to the west and Brooklyn to the south. While the historically important view to Brooklyn is cut off from the upper part of the street by modern development, it still has a tangible presence in the lower reaches of the street. The view to the harbour was cut off with the building of the Michael Fowler Centre. The intersecting streets contribute to the character and values of the Cuba Street area and include many important heritage buildings which contribute to and enhance the heritage area.

    • Contents and Extent close

      The extent of the heritage area is contained in the District Plan Chapter 21 Appendix 21.

      The Cuba Street Heritage Area is, in one sense, a straightforward area based around one street. Also included are immediately adjacent heritage buildings on cross-streets. The boundary of this area is therefore the immediate street, from Wakefield Street to Webb Street, a minimum of one building wide on both sides, but not limited to that. It also includes outbuildings and stand-alone buildings that are physically or historically linked to buildings directly on Cuba Street. It incorporates some immediately adjacent buildings in streets that intersect Cuba Street. In including these additional places, the boundary is drawn around the nearest and most convenient legal boundary.

      The area includes buildings of various ages, styles, forms and scale. There are many listed heritage buildings within the area, a number of buildings that potentially might be listed, as well as buildings that make a more modest contribution to, or don’t detract from, the overall heritage character. There are also buildings that make no contribution to that character or whose presence has a negative impact on the area.

      In addition, the area contains features other than buildings. Most of these are the prosaic items that any street might contain, such as street and traffic lights, signs, wires and the like, but there are other features, such as the ‘Bucket Fountain’ in Cuba Mall, that can be considered to contribute to the heritage character of the area, as well as other items that do not.

    • Buildings close

      There is a distinct gradation of commercial prestige, evidenced in the buildings, which shows the different influences and pressures brought to bear on the area as it has developed and illustrates the cycles of prosperity driving that development. The northern end, close to the civic centre and the waterfront has a large collection of very substantial commercial buildings which extend the central business district around the city’s civic centre. Further south, the original development of the street was mainly to serve the nearby inner suburbs and the buildings reflect this in their progressively smaller scales, primary retail and residential uses, and increased age.

      The predominant building uses are commercial and residential, a mix characteristic of Cuba Street since the early days. Although the disposition of these uses has significantly changed over the years, they are expressed in a diverse range of building types and eras. These range from the very oldest remaining buildings on the street, the small Victorian timber houses and shops in Upper Cuba Street (set amongst car yards and low modern buildings) to the medium-scaled hotels, hostels and pubs in the middle sections of the street to the taller Edwardian commercial buildings, hotels and modern concrete office buildings at the northern end.

      The age of buildings on Cuba Street ranges from the 1860s to contemporary, with the most significant development of the street taking place in the early 20th century. While some of the later buildings incorporate remnants of much older original 1860s and 1870s structures (i.e. Cubacade, and others), the street as a whole is most remarkable for its large and diverse collection of Edwardian commercial buildings.

      The old buildings are a disparate group representing a wide and interesting variety of owners, architects, uses, styles and scales. They share a nearly uniform and high quality of design and construction and convey a particular pride of place and sense of permanence not expressed in the street’s modern buildings.

      While the buildings are diverse, they share a similar and highly compatible palette of materials. The surviving Victorian buildings are typically constructed of timber, with corrugated iron roofing. The majority of the Edwardian buildings are of masonry construction, mainly load-bearing, and have finishes ranging from the characteristic rendered brick (Working Men’s Club) to more rare instances of exposed brick (No. 134 and others), with a few buildings combining these two finishes. The joinery is predominantly timber although there are examples of steel and bronze windows. Almost without exception these buildings have pitched corrugated iron roofs, hipped in plan, supported on timber or steel structures; many of these roofs survive in their original form, particularly in the southern part of the street, to create a varied and interesting roofscape which gives the backs of the building a distinctive character in the wider streetscape. The post-World War I buildings are principally concrete, with moulded or rendered façades.

      Nearly all of the buildings feature verandahs, typically cantilevered or stayed; in the upper region of the street a few verandahs are still supported on posts at the kerb and reflect the visual character of the street at it was in Victorian times. These verandahs provide necessary pedestrian shelter to the area and are an important visual feature. The absence of original verandahs on a few key buildings (BNZ, National Bank, Working Men’s Club etc.) gives them greater prominence in the streetscape.

      Some buildings retain their original shopfronts, or substantial parts of them. The pattern, and some of the materials, of the original shopfronts can be discerned in many more buildings. This adds a high degree of visual interest to parts of the street at pedestrian level. The main concentration of original shop-fronts is in the upper part of the street in the late Victorian and early Edwardian buildings, although there are examples in most of the blocks and more contemporary buildings like Civic Chambers and James Smiths retain a large amount of their original shop-fronts. The older shopfronts are typically plate glass, set in timber joinery on tile plinths and are often associated with tiled or marble porches and steps.

      The old buildings make a major contribution to the heritage, architectural and streetscape values of Cuba Street. Contemporary buildings and recent developments, particularly the plethora of roof-top additions in inappropriate light-weight materials for their setting on masonry buildings, mainly detract from the key qualities of the heritage area.

    • Structures and Features close

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    • Other Features close

      Not available

  • close Historic Context
    • General History

      The evolution of the Cuba Street Heritage Area illustrates the influences which have shaped the city. The name Cuba recalls the second New Zealand Company ship to reach Port Nicholson, just a few months after the Tory had arrived. On board the Cuba were the surveyors who laid out the streets and sections of the proposed settlement. Cuba Street follows the line of the surveyors’ original plan, although at first it reached only as far south as Ingestre (now Vivian) Street.  Subsequent events, especially natural calamities such as earthquake and fires, had a significant impact on the locality, as they did across the city. So too did new forms of transport such as trams (which were introduced in the late 1870s) and motor vehicles, which became increasingly numerous during the 20th century. Since the 1960s the precinct has seen various efforts by retailers and the City Council to attract shoppers to the city in the face of strong competition, initially from suburban shopping centres then, more recently, from regional super-malls. Yet, despite these pressures, Cuba Street has retained much of its historic character. During the years of frenetic demolition and reconstruction that followed the deregulation of the economy in the mid-1980s this section of the city remained largely untouched.

      Less than 200 years ago, before the arrival of the European settlers, this area was part of an extensive, low-lying plain known to the tangata whenua as Huriwhenua. It was bisected by the Waimapihi Stream which took its name from the chieftainess, Mapihi, who frequently bathed in its upper reaches. The creek rose at the head of what is now Polhill Gully, then flowed down a valley (Aro Street) before crossing the swampy plain to join the harbour at a point just southeast of what, today, is the junction of Cuba and Manners Streets.  When the first New Zealand Company settlers disembarked at Lambton Harbour they squatted temporarily in the vicinity of Pipitea Pa (Thorndon) but after the allocation of sections in August 1840, they spread along the shores of the harbour to Cuba Street which marked the eastern edge of the small settlement. Further expansion to the east was impeded by a Maori village, Te Aro pa, at the mouth of the Waimapihi Stream,  and by the wetlands which lay beyond it. For the first three years Maori and European coexisted in relative harmony, but after the Wairau Incident (1843) tension mounted. Armed conflict eventually occurred during Te Rangihaeata’s guerilla campaign which threatened to erupt into war in 1846. Fearing for their lives, settlers built an earth fortification, known as the ‘Wellington Wall’ which ran the length of Cuba Street. 

      Although on the outskirts of the town, some of the street’s sections were developed relatively soon after the land sale. This was probably because the town’s first wharf and most important early facility, (built by Captain W.B. Rhodes in 1841)  was located a short distance from the junction of Cuba Street and Manners Street. (In those days Manners Street followed the line of the shore.) However, activity soon extended beyond this immediate area. In 1847, for example, William Tonks built a brickworks some distance from the shore in the vicinity of what is now Tonks Avenue.  For all that, Ward suggests there was only one house in Cuba Street by 1850.  Another early entrepreneur was Mary Taylor who followed her brother, Waring Taylor, to Wellington in 1845. He had opened a drapery in Herbert Street and she started a similar business from a small wooden shop on the corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets. This was the start of this site’s long association with the drapery trade. Nowadays Mary Taylor is perhaps better known for her life-long correspondence with the writer Charlotte Bronté. The two met as children and were close companions before Mary emigrated to Port Nicholson. Her letters to the novelist, and their mutual friend Ellen Nussey, offer a unique glimpse of life in the new town from the perspective of an acerbic shopkeeper. 

      The most significant event of Taylor’s time was the massive earthquake which rocked Wellington in 1855 and raised much of Te Aro flat by more than a metre.  It was a terrifying experience for the town’s inhabitants, but they soon benefited as previously saturated sections in the swamp to the east of Cuba Street were able to be used for housing. But elemental forces had more in store for the settlement. The following year fire broke out and burnt a cluster of warehouses near the wharves. If the weather had not been uncharacteristically calm the conflagration might have consumed much of the town. Mary Taylor described how this prospect might occur in a letter to Ellen. ‘We roof our houses with thin pieces of wood put on like slates and a slight breeze would have set a dozen roofs on fire at once. Waring’s place is about 200 yards off; mine 300 yards more, but there are wooded buildings all the way and I should only have the favour of being burnt last.’  Within a few years Taylor’s drapery was no longer on the edge of town and she herself was an agent in the area’s rapid growth. Before she returned to England in 1859 she purchased Town Acre 181 from Algernon Tollemache, one of Wellington’s major investors who owned 34 sections around the town, and subdivided it to create Leeds Street, named by her to commemorate the industrial city of her beloved Yorkshire.

      By 1863, houses, hotels, shops and small factories extended from the wharf to the top end of Cuba Street, which appears to have been extended to Webb Street during the 1850s. The Waimapihi Stream still flowed through the area, but it was confined, and traffic was able to cross it on ‘London Bridge’ at the junction of Cuba and Ghuznee Streets. Photos of the locality taken in the 1870s, show a wide thoroughfare lined on both sides with wooden buildings interspersed by the occasional paddock. Small cottages stand beside more substantial two-storey commercial buildings such as Kirkcaldie and Stain’s Cuba Street branch, Barber’s dye-works and the Nag’s Head Hotel.  From a child’s perspective, the most important part of the street was probably ‘Johnny Martin’s Paddock’, a large vacant area to the east of Cuba Street (bounded by Cuba, Vivian and Taranaki Streets) where young people gathered to play cricket and other sports.  Among them was young Robert Greig who later recalled the introduction of steam trams (whose route ran up Cuba Street and along Vivian Street) in 1878: ‘They were not a success. They were extremely noisy, lumbering contraptions and to make matters worse they were painted a startling red colour. Badly frightened horses would plunge and rear at their approach and on occasion, bolt through the streets causing panic and pandemonium among drivers and pedestrians alike.’ 

      These anti-social vehicles were withdrawn in 1882 and replaced with horse-drawn trams which ran from Lambton Quay to Newtown by way of Willis, Manners, Cuba and Vivian Streets, then Cambridge Terrace and Adelaide Road.  Their introduction made Cuba Street more accessible to many more of the capital’s residents and, as a result, it became an important retail area. Although most of the street’s custom came from the surrounding inhabitants, the growing range of speciality shops (especially its numerous draperies) attracted customers from all over the city. The area also became known for its artisans, such as Guiseppe Bernasconi, an Italian woodcarver who set up shop opposite the White Swan Hotel in 1870. Here he made violins and decorative piano cases, as well as a wide range of Victorian architectural ornaments including the carved heads of old Wellington identities which adorned John Plimmer’s Royal Albert Hotel. 

      Cuba Street’s vibrant development reflected a period of vigorous economic activity prompted by Vogel’s public works programme, and by increased emigration which had a direct impact on the locality. In 1875, for example, three quarters of Wellington’s 8000 residents lived in Te Aro.  However, the area suffered a major setback in 1879 when a huge fire destroyed many buildings in lower Cuba Street. Wellingtonians were wary of building in brick after the earthquakes of 1848 and 1855, and preferred timber which was more flexible. The central city was an extreme fire danger because so many structures were built close together and, as Mary Taylor noted, had wooden shingles on their roofs. The risk of an uncontrollable fire was accentuated by the low pressure of the water supply available for fire fighting and the likelihood that Wellington’s incessant winds would fan the blaze. Fires had already caused significant damage in 1856 and again in 1868, but they were nothing compared to the conflagration which erupted on Sunday 15 March 1879. The blaze began in the Imperial Opera House in Manners Street, jumped to the other side, where it destroyed the Wesleyan Church, then spread to Dixon and Cuba Streets, where it burned buildings on both sides including the Royal Oak Hotel and the Market Hall. By the time it was bought under control, 10 acres had been devastated and 30 buildings destroyed. Damage was estimated at £100,000. 

      Remarkably no one was killed. The legacy of the great fire, as it was known, was an improved fire service and the widespread use of masonry construction, particularly for commercial buildings. Six months later the New Zealand Mail reported ‘all is activity at the scene of the late great fire, several brick buildings being in the course of erection to replace wooden ones destroyed. Of these Messrs. Graves and Flemings drapery establishment at the corner of Manners and Cuba Streets is the largest.’

      In the following decade and especially during the 1890s, the port at Queens Wharf was increasingly congested as Wellington became the busiest harbour in the country.  A series of reclamations in 1882, 1886 and 1893 created more land along the waterfront and shifted the commercial axis further south towards Cuba Street and Courtenay Place.  The reclaimed land was serviced by a network of new streets including Jervois Quay (which followed the new shoreline) and the northward extension of Cuba Street which joined the Quay south of Queens Wharf.  The New Zealand Mail noted that the initial reclamation ‘had the effect of creating quite a stir in the building trade at the Te Aro end of the city. Cuba Street presents a remarkably improving appearance from the handsome and substantially built stores and places of business which are in the course of erection.’  Typical of those was Thomas Turnbull’s ornate design for James Smith’s new Te Aro House which, in 1886, replaced an earlier two-storey wooden building that had been saved from the flames of the great fire but which succumbed to another fire in 1885. The new drapery store (which included an elaborate early sprinkler system)  dominated the streetscape because a large tower rose from the centre of its street frontage making it visible from some distance away. During the next 20 years numerous buildings of a similar size appeared along both sides of the thoroughfare; their elaborate facades often concealing their mundane structures and iron roofs from sight.

      The street’s pre-eminence was acknowledged in 1904 when Joshua Charlesworth’s Wellington Town Hall was completed with its grand colonnaded entrance facing onto Cuba Street. Above the portico an ornate clock tower, as high as the hall itself, articulated the city’s sense of pride and importance.

      Three years into the new century the surface of the street was ripped up to allow tram tracks to be laid in preparation for the introduction of electric trams in 1904.  The replacement of horses by this new invisible power source illustrated the contribution of evolving new technology to the area’s booming economy, and the innovation added further impetus to the area is growth. Over half of the listed heritage buildings in Cuba Street were erected between 1900 and 1910. The peak year was 1907; buildings from that year still stand on both sides of the street, from one end to the other, which suggests that this remarkable growth was evenly spread. It also included adjacent areas. The new Hannah’s Boot Factory, for instance, which was built in 1908 behind the shoe shop in Cuba Street, was a huge structure which filled most of the block between Cuba, Dixon, Ghuznee and Taranaki Streets. Its production of 6000 pairs of footwear each week was another indicator of the capital’s vibrant economy at this time.  The only part of Cuba Street to escape complete renewal at this time was a section of the southernmost block (between Abel Smith and Webb Streets), and pockets of the block between Vivian and Ghuznee Street, where some of the simpler timber shops survive.

      Wellington’s remarkable development slowed after 1910 and in subsequent decades virtually ground to a halt because of events abroad, such as World War I and the Depression. Cuba Street was not immune. The Depression, especially, affected this area as severely as any in the capital. The street’s shops served the poorest section of the city and, with wages cut, benefits suspended and unemployment at unprecedented levels, the local population’s suffering was great. Politicians promised better times but, by 1932, few believed them anymore. Despair eventually turned to anger. Pat Lawlor, who lived in upper Cuba Street as a child, was present when rioting erupted among the landmarks of his boyhood on 11 May. The previous day the journalist had watched angry crowds besiege Parliament, then smash windows and loot shops in Lambton Quay and Willis Street, while the police looked on but took little action. The following day when 2000 unemployed gathered at a vacant lot in upper Cuba Street, the police were more prepared. Wild scenes occurred as rioters threw bricks and the police, some of whom were mounted, charged into the crowd flailing batons. Seven rioters were injured, trampled as the crowd fled. 

      Few new buildings appeared in Cuba Street during the Depression. Activity was largely limited to the remodelling of existing ones. For example, James Smith’s Edwardian premises on the corner of Cuba and Manners Streets (1907) was transformed into a modern Art Deco building in 1934.  At the same time, further down the street, the Town Hall’s clock tower was taken down because the Napier earthquake (1931) gave rise to concern that it might be a danger.  Wood Brothers’ heavily embellished Edwardian edifice at 126 Cuba Street (built in 1908 to a design by J.C. Maddison) was shorn of its prominent peaked parapet and protruding colonnaded balconies for the same reason.

      Conditions gradually improved after the election of the First Labour Government in 1935 but especially after World War II, which re-invigorated the world’s economy. Nevertheless, Cuba Street remained largely as it had been at the turn of the century. It continued in its traditional role as a retail area with a particular emphasis on clothing and fabrics. The boom times of the 1950s barely touched the precinct as inner-city residents began to shift to the fast-growing suburbs on the cityís fringes. Only when unionists and police scuffled in Cuba Street during the 1951 waterfront dispute did the area briefly attract attention.

      As the suburbs flourished so did their shopping centres which increasingly drew business away from the central city. Cuba Street declined. Turnover dropped and the residents of yesteryear who had moved to the suburbs were replaced by transients. The precinct’s eclipse seemed complete in 1965, when the trams which had been its lifeblood for almost a century, were withdrawn from service.  The dominance of the motor car, which had driven the development of the suburbs, was evident to all. For several months much of the street was closed so that the tram-tracks could be removed. By chance some shoppers and retailers noticed that the absence of traffic was in itself an attraction. Retail sales increased and letters to the editor suggested that the public were enthusiastic about the temporary pedestrian mall: ‘if Robert Browning were alive he might compose a poem starting “Oh to be in Cuba Street now that the quiet is there.”’  In November 1965 a deputation led by the Cuba Street Businessman’s Association presented a petition to the Council, signed by more than 5000 people, requesting that Cuba Street become a permanent pedestrian mall.  The idea was accepted. Burren and Keen, architects and town planners, were commissioned to design the mall which was opened on 14 October 1969.  Its entrances at either end were clearly defined by a grid-like sign structure which matched the height of surrounding buildings. Within the mall gardens, seats and a water fountain with cascading buckets created a distinctive ambience.

      Cuba Mall was an important innovation – the first New Zealand city street to be transformed in this way. The concept of malls had evolved in the United States in the 1950s as a way of luring shoppers back to the centre of cities such as Kalamazoo and Miami,  and international interest in the Wellington example suggests that it was also a significant contribution to the evolving field of urban renewal.  Since its inception the mall has been revamped twice; first in 1979 and then again in 1998. Its most controversial feature, Graham Allardice’s water fountain, has survived both upgrades and considerable criticism  to become one of the city’s most loved features.

      The mall has kept lower Cuba Street competitive but the upper end was, until recently, frozen in a time warp because plans for a controversial motorway ‘by-pass’ through the area remained in abeyance. In the meantime, the designation over the proposed route led to the sustained neglect of properties in upper Cuba Street and adjacent roads such as Footscray and Tonks Avenues, and Arthur Street. Paradoxically, the hiatus preserved some rare wooden cottages and shops dating back to the 1870s and 1880s that would otherwise have been replaced. With work on the bypass now underway, many of those places are being resited in new precincts and streets, and when the work is finished and a new, multi-lane road crosses southern Te Aro, upper Cuba Street will be a much different place.

      Recent changes in social attitudes have also visibly altered the character of the street. More relaxed liquor laws introduced in the early 1990s saw many shops transformed into bars, cafes and restaurants. Similarly, more tolerance of the sex industry, including decriminalisation of prostitution, has allowed its providers to be less discreet than they have been in the past. Cuba Street and its environs have long been known as the ‘red light’ district. This has been exemplified by strip clubs, sex shops and prostitutes on Vivian Street at night, although this kind of activity is not as publicly prevalent as it once was.

      Perhaps the most significant trend in recent times is the enthusiasm for inner city living which has led to many commercial buildings being refurbished as apartments. There are a number of examples sprinkled along or just off Cuba Street, although most of the larger conversions are in lower Cuba Street. Allied to this are the older shop / dwellings that have always been a feature of Cuba Street and which are being steadily gentrified for a new generation of occupiers. This influx of inner-city dwellers is changing the area considerably, but it is also renewing the vitality of Cuba Street and ensuring its future viability.

      Block Histories

      Block 1 - Wakefield Street to Manners Street

      This is the only block on Cuba Street that is built (partly) on reclaimed land.  In the settlement’s early years, Cuba Street did not extend to the shoreline and for much of the period the land that was later used for the street extension (part Town Acre 211) was occupied by prominent settler William Barnard Rhodes’ store and residence, which was in turn sited in front of his wharf.   It is possible that prior to reclamation a nascent Cuba Street was extended towards the shore, but there is only scant evidence for this.

      Reclamation was undertaken by the Wellington City Council from 1882 to 1886.  Following this, Cuba Steet extension and Wakefield Street (then Victoria Street) were formed.  Cuba Street was extended all the way to Jervois Quay, but was later blocked off and incorporated into the site of the Michael Fowler Centre.

      Sections were sold by the council to private purchasers but building construction was slow.  By 1891 just six buildings stood on Cuba Street and two on Wakefield Street near the Cuba Street intersection (where Anvil House is today).   By 1900 this number had changed only slightly – nine on Cuba Street and three on Wakefield.   One of those was George Winder, who established his ironmongery business on the corner of Cuba and Manners Street soon after Cuba Street extension was put through.   He later sold the property to James Smith. 

      In the period during and after the construction of the electric tramway in 1903-04, the remaining sections quickly filled up.  Many of the buildings on this block are the first constructed on their sites, including the Columbia Hotel (1908) and the Kennedy Building (1905) opposite it.  On the corner with Manners Street are two long-standing buildings, the former Te Aro branch of the Bank of New Zealand (1917), which replaced an earlier building on the site, and the former James Smith building, which was established on the site in this building in 1907, after the business moved from the corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets.  The Art Deco façade dates from 1932, with an extension along Manners Street (1934).  Subsequent additions in the 1960s extended the building a considerable distance north along Cuba Street.  Its chamfered corner accommodated trams turning into Manners Street. On Wakefield Street, the only original building within the heritage area is the Hyams Building (1903), but the street is notable for a number of buildings from the 1950s and 60s that now occupy prominent sites opposite the Civic Centre.  

      Block 2 - Manners Street to Dixon Street

      The dominant feature of this block through much of its history was the Royal Oak Hotel, which was one of the city’s best known hotels and occupied the entire end of the block on the eastern side of the street for 80 years, until its demolition in 1981.  The last Royal Oak was completed in 1899 or 1900, but it was preceded by earlier versions, one of which burned down in the 1879 Te Aro conflagration.   It was built on part of what was originally the Market Reserve (city market), now Te Aro Park.  This was where the city made stalls available for farmers to sell produce, but it was reported that, in the 1860s, few took advantage of the opportunity.   Today The Oaks, the ostensibly temporary building that has occupied the site since 1981, is named after the hotel.  For the 80 or so years it stood, the three-storey hotel was a significant presence in the street.

      On the other side of the road perhaps the best known of the early buildings was the Nags Head (later the Alhambra), described by Lous Ward as an ‘old-fashioned hostelry of the English type’.  The Union Clothing Company had a store on the prominent corner of Manners and Cuba Streets for many years.  In the late 19th century, there were five commercial premises on that part of the street, in what was a well-established and built-up area.  In the middle and late 20th century, the drapery firm of Evans had a shop in this group and in 1960 a MacKenzie’s department store was built at 74-76 Cuba Street.   (It had previously occupied a building at 116 Cuba Street.) Today there is no building in this group built earlier than the 1960s.

      Block 3 - Dixon Street to Ghuznee Street

      This section is known today as Cuba Mall, created in 1969.  It was the first street in New Zealand to be closed off to through traffic.  For much of the 19th and 20th centuries this part of Cuba Street, and indeed much of the street, was defined by one building – Te Aro House, on the corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets,  The business began as a drapery owned by two women called Smith in the 1840s.  This may have been the first building on Cuba Street.  Named Te Aro House, the building was bought by James Smith (no relation).  The first building was replaced  - in timber – and then in 1886 a substantial masonry structure, complete with a prominent tower, was erected on the site.  This was the most famous incarnation of Te Aro House and it still stands, albeit greatly altered from its original form.  James Smith later went on to establish his business on the corner of Cuba and Manners Street.  The building was renovated and reopened as the Burlington Arcade in 1928, and it was at this time that the tower was removed and the building gained its present external appearance.  For much of the latter part of the 20th century it was a Woolworths department store.  Today it awaits a new makeover, which is likely to remove it even further from its past.

      During the 1860s and ‘70s, the buildings in this block were like the others in the street – timber and mostly single-storied; many were domestic dwellings.  Commercial buildings were slowly established, but it was not until trams brought people to the street in the 1880s that the commercial potential of the street was unlocked.  With retail income growing, the gradual improvement in the quality of building saw some of the street’s finest buildings constructed in this area.  Perhaps the best known of these was the building erected by Robert Hannah in two parts, in 1904 and 1908, later the Wellington Working Men’s Club, at 101-117 Cuba Street. 

      The other significant feature here was the range of buildings erected, a broad collection of retail outlets, hotels and small industrial buildings, such as Barber’s dye works, which began operations there in the 1870s and later built new premises, which still stand, in 1910.  Of the many hotels built here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Bristol Hotel is the only one – albeit in part – that has survived in this block.  It once extended all the way to the eastern corner of Ghuznee Street but this portion of the hotel was replaced by the Bristol Court in 1982.

      One of the best known and longest standing hotels in the street was the Masonic (formerly the Masonic and Family Hotel), which stood next to Hannah’s Building, on the east side of the street. Described by Pat Lawlor as ‘another very old Cuba Street hotel’,  it was still standing in 1970s.  On the other side of the street, on what is today occupied by a branch of Hallensteins, was Whitehead and Pears, drapers and milliners who occupied a shop in Cuba Street from 1908 to 1977.  Hallensteins, founded by Bendix Hallenstein in 1876, has had a long presence in the street. It took over one half of Whitehead and Pears’ old premises after occupying a smaller, purpose-built shop on the south-west corner of Cuba and Vivian Streets from 1920. 

      The most significant change to Cuba Street prior to the construction of the Bypass was the creation of Cuba Mall.  In 1965 a group led by the Cuba Street Businessmen’s Association gave a petition to the Council signed by more than 5000 people seeking to make Cuba Street a permanent pedestrian mall.  Approval was eventually granted and four years later Cuba Mall opened, complete with a huge entry sign at either end, gardens, seating, lighting and the soon-to-be-famous bucket fountain. 

      Another important development in this block was the construction of the World Trade Centre and its Cuba Street entrance at Cubacade, which was completed in 1970.  The plans were unveiled in 1963 by businessman Arthur Cornish.  The development was all but invisible from Cuba Street, with the only conspicuous link to it being the incorporation of the development with the arcade at 110 Cuba Street (now Cubacade).  However, it was a significant addition to the area, replacing many old buildings on Ghuznee and Sturdee (now Victoria) streets and dominating the skyline from that part of the city. 

      The most recent alteration to the street, just north of Cubacade, was the formation of Left Bank, by What’s New Ltd, through the removal of a single storey addition to the McKenzies building in 1999 and the conversion of the space and part of the former World Trade Centre into an open arcade, with access to Victoria Street.  This was the first permanent interruption to the street wall in Cuba Mall.

      Block 4 - Ghuznee Street to Vivian Street

      Like the previous block, this part of the street took shape as a mixture of single-storied timber houses and buildings and open space from the 1860s onwards.  During the 19th century, one distinctive feature of the street was the bridge (known as London Bridge) that crossed the stream at the intersection with Ghuznee Street.  Nearby was a paddock where local resident George London kept ducks, so the bridge took its name from the paddock’s owner.

      During the 1860s, Kirkcaldie and Stains established a branch – on the eastern side of the block – not far from the Ghuznee Street intersection. The building was later taken over by Thompson and Bennett. Next door, alongside Swan Lane, was the first incarnation of the White Swan Hotel  (later known as the Wakefield and demolished in 1991). The hotel site is today the only open space in the block.  The White Swan, which was named after an early coastal schooner and gave its name to the right of way alongside,  was affectionately known as the ‘Dirty Duck’.  

      On the other side of the street, Louis Ward identified commercial establishments owned by names such as Martin and Miller and a garden owned by Edward Dixon,  whose influence on this part of Cuba Street was considerable.  Before Garrett Street was formed, the site was occupied by the Galatea Hotel (1868).   When Garrett Street was formed, its southern corner was occupied by the Imperial Hotel, later (in 1905) rebuilt in concrete and brick. The building survived until the mid-1980s.

      By 1891,  the block was full, with perhaps as few as three houses left.  However, with the possible exception of Block 6, this part of Cuba Street retains the area’s oldest buildings.  Several timber buildings dating from the mid-to-late 1870s (numbers 142, 144-146, 158, 160 and 162-166) remain on the west side of the street. The buildings at 142 and 144-146 may have been built before 1875,  but 20th century alterations and claddings have obscured their true age. The building at 162-166 was built for the abovementioned Edward Dixon,  cordial manufacturer, a well-known figure in Wellington history, but all the buildings have had a typically mixed history.  Each building has one identifiable use that has lasted longer than the others, but the shifting uses have mirrored the changing times. 

      This is the furthest north along Cuba Street that 19th century timber buildings have survived.  The arrival of the tram led to major changes in the area from the 1880s onwards, culminating in the Edwardian building boom, which saw most of the present buildings in the area constructed, particularly at the southern end of the street. Among the more prominent of a series of buildings constructed during that period are the McGuire Building (1901), L.T. Watkins Building (1904) and Reid Building (1904, but refurbished in 1930).  The latter was set back from the street to form a rounded corner for the tram.  These buildings changed the appearance of the street dramatically, helping make Cuba Street a shopping district to rival Lambton Quay. 

      In the early 20th century, the buildings were confined to a surprisingly narrow range of uses, dominated by clothiers and draperies.  Over time this gradually changed, with a broader range of occupants appearing, including hairdressers, photographers, fruiterers, butcheries, restaurants and cafés, a private hotel, chemists, bakeries and fishmongers.

      Some other, suprising uses also appeared.  The Johnson and Edilson Building at 173 Cuba Street was the home of the City Rifle Range until 1972, as well as being the long-standing home of the Wellington Fish Co.   The influence of the burgeoning movie business can be seen in the construction, in 1915, of the Queen’s Theatre  at 181 Cuba Street, which may have begun life as a playhouse but was soon showing movies.  It closed as a picture theatre in 1955 and thereafter had a range of uses, including as a billiard saloon and a wholesale furniture outlet.  One of its ground floor premises on Cuba Street has been a cakeshop or café from at least the early 1980s.

      This block is also notable for the lack of ‘new’ buildings.  There are just three buildings dating from the late 20th century.

      Block 5 - Vivian Street to Abel Smith Street

      Southern Te Aro was predominantly residential for much of its early history.  This block was something of a transition from the commercial end of Cuba Street to the residential.  The nature of this mix can be seen in the Ward Map of 1891,  which shows commercial buildings appearing at the northern end of the block, while the rest of the street is mainly residential. 

      This arrangement was substantially changed by the arrival of the Salvation Army, which has dominated this part of Cuba Street, in one way or another, from the late 19th century onwards.  One house on the eastern side of this block (Town Acre 128), and a short distance from the Vivian Street intersection, was owned by Major James Paul, an officer in the British Army.   His daughter Annette joined the Salvation Army in 1889 and had a successful career, reaching the rank of Staff Captain.  When the Army’s accommodation for needy women became overcrowded, she donated the then very large sum of over £3,500 to assist with new accommodation.   As a result the "Paulina Rescue Home" was built in 1894 on land owned by the Paul’s.  The home was transferred to Owen Street in 1907 and the building demolished.  It was then replaced by the ‘People’s Palace’ – the Army’s traditional name for its cheap, liquor-free hotels – and it opened in 1908.  It was later augmented by wings built on the rear of the site and renamed ‘The Railton’. 

      The Salvation was also linked to the building on its northern boundary.  Designed by architect James O’Dea, this building was constructed in 1904 for Dr Patrick Mackin. It was rented by the Salvation Army between 1916 and 1928 as its National Headquarters and then purchased outright.  It was then converted into an extension of the ‘People’s Palace’.  In 1986, after nearly 78 years of operation, the hotel was sold to the Presbyterian Church, who soon onsold it. The building was then turned into the budget hotel Trekkers. In 2003 an extra floor was added to the building in the same Classical style. 

      The Salvation Army’s association with this area continued with the construction, in 1989, of its national and regional headquarters building – Booth House – immediately across the road.  This very large building, together with the development of Wellington Trawlers, the main factory of which was completed in 1964, led to the removal of many earlier buildings from the street.  Nevertheless the status of this part of the city was exemplified by the decision of the National Bank to build a fine building on the south-western corner in 1917. The ground floor has been occupied by restaurant Logan Brown since 1996.

      Block 6 - Abel SMith Street to Arthur Street/Bypass (incl. Tonks Grove) and Block 7 - Arhtur Street/Bypass to Webb Street

      These two blocks are more properly considered together, as they comprised one block on the original New Zealand Co. map, and their history was very much bound together. Arthur Street was formed during the 1860s and Tonks Avenue (now part of the bypass) was probably formed at a similar time, although it was then known as Tonks Grove.  The name has been revived for the partial recreation of Tonks Avenue, as part of work in the Inner-City Bypass.

      In the mid 19th century, the top of Cuba Street (on Webb Street) was dominated by a brick works owned and operated by William Tonks. William (1806-1876) and Jane Tonks (1803-1877), and their five children, arrived in New Zealand in 1842. About 1853 Tonks bought Town Acre 99, now part of upper Cuba Street, from Algernon Tollemache, but he had already been in business making bricks near the corner of Cuba and Webb Streets. The clay for the bricks came from the hill behind Webb Street. Tonks also acquired Town Acre 97 and Tonks Avenue, originally known as Tonks Grove, once extended into this piece of land. The family’s land holdings ebbed and flowed with their fortunes.

      The family made a considerable contribution to the development of Wellington in a number of ways.  William Tonks’ oldest son William jnr. was the contractor for Wellington’s first major reclamation of Lambton Harbour in 1857-63. He was also responsible for developing the land on either side of Arthur Street (named after his son), which he began subdividing in the 1860s. Enoch Tonks took over the brickmaking from his father.  The sons and their offspring all went into different trades and businesses, but it was for bricks that the family was best known.

      The Tonks owned a number of houses in the area, some built for themselves, others for their workers or associates, and some of these still stand. The oldest remaining Tonks house, now located in Tonks Grove, dates from 1868.   The house formerly at 270 Cuba Street, built about 1873, was occupied by William Cheesman, a friend of the Tonks.  It was later occupied by Kate Tonks and her family.  This house was rebuilt as part of work on the bypass and located on a new site.  No. 62 Webb Street was another owned by the Tonks, as was 282 Cuba Street, which may date from the late 1860s.  The house lived in by William and Jane Tonks was built where the Moran Building (1906) sits today, on the south-west corner of the bypass intersection on Cuba Street.

      Town acres 97 and 99, those acquired by Tonks, had just six houses on them by 1866.  This grew to 16 by the mid-1880s and to 21 by 1905. Across the road, on town acre 101, through which Arthur Street ran, its development was much quicker. At its high-point, in the mid-1870s, 35 houses were crammed into the section. 

      After its early period in the Tonks family’s hands, upper Cuba Street was progressively sold off by the family. As might befit an inner-city residential area, a number of shops were built, many of them converted or extended houses such as 282 Cuba Street.  There was a pub, the Star and Garter, on the western corner of Cuba and Webb Streets, which Pat Lawlor described as a ‘favourite resort of the people who lived in the many small cottages then in that area’.   It went on to become a lodging house. Today it is a car yard.

      That a number of houses remained in this part of Cuba Street is due to the long period the area around Arthur Street and Tonks Avenue spent in limbo after their purchase for the Wellington urban motorway extension through Te Aro.  In this part of the city, most of the buildings within the proposed motorway route were bought by the Ministry of Works during the 1960s and 70s and remained on their original sections, albeit slowly deteriorating over time. Many of them have now been moved to new locations, including a cluster round Tonks Grove, an attempt to recreate Tonks Avenue, although the new version is much shorter than the original.  Just to the north of the Bypass, on the western side of Cuba Street, the older buildings were all removed by the early 1980s and new buildings constructed.

      The cottages and small businesses that once lined this part of Cuba Street have only survived at its southern end.  To the north, the change has been considerable.  Various new buildings and open spaces occupy what were once small worker’s cottages and their equally small gardens.  On either side of the street, just one building constructed prior to the end of World War II [Cuba Court  (1941)] – remains in the portion north of Tonks Grove.

  • close Cultural Value
    • Significance Summary close

      Not assessed

    • Aesthetic Valueclose
      The aesthetic significance of the Cuba Street Heritage Area is apparent in its variety of its buildings, which include examples of all major styles since the 1870s. In particular, the period of unprecedented prosperity at the beginning of the 20th century is well represented by a rich collection of Edwardian buildings. Many feature substantial and decorative street frontages, designed to entice customers, often masking more modest structures behind them. Cuba Street’s best buildings rival any others in Wellington for the quality of their façades and inventive use of decoration. The street is long enough to include a variety of buildings that tell us something about the part of the street they were built in. Of particular townscape interest is the gradual transition from larger buildings at the northern end to smaller buildings at the south, which still largely mirrors the kind of Cuba Street townscape that emerged in the late 19th century. Many shop / dwellings, once a common feature throughout Te Aro and other parts of Wellington, have survived in upper Cuba Street, as have some residences. Cuba Mall is Wellington’s premiere pedestrianised street, and is a landmark for its assemblage of fine heritage buildings, and as one of Wellington’s best known restaurant/café/bar precincts.
    • Historic Valueclose
      Cuba Street is an area of great historic and social importance to Wellington. Its formation dates back to the beginning of organised European settlement in 1840 and, for the majority of the time since then, it has been one of Wellington’s premier streets, known for its long history of retailing, especially drapers and department stores, as a place where people have lived and plied trades and crafts, and more recently for its nightlife and alternative culture. Cuba Mall itself has historic significance as the first street in the country to be re-designed for exclusive pedestrian use.
    • Scientific Valueclose
      The heritage area has a recorded history that spans several centuries and is likely to have high archaeological value. The precinct includes a number of structures of technical and scientific value which illustrate different methods and styles of construction. Many survive in authentic condition.
    • Social Valueclose
      Cuba Street’s significance as an important thoroughfare serviced by trams has been undermined somewhat by their removal, the creation of a pedestrian mall and the construction of the inner-city bypass at its northern end, all of which have re-defined its continuity and cohesive identity. Nevertheless, the social importance of the street lingers on, reinvigorated by the influx of apartment dwellers on its margins.
    • Level Of Cultural Heritage Significanceclose
      The Cuba Street Heritage Area is an outstanding collection of heritage buildings that date from the late 19th and early 20th century. It is a rare example of an inner city / CBD commercial heritage area which has somehow survived the earthquakes and economic development that have levelled its equivalent inner-city streetscapes in Auckland and Christchurch.
    • New Zealand Heritage Listclose
      Not assessed
  • close New Zealand Heritage List
  • close Additional Information

Last updated: 8/24/2022 1:31:02 AM