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14 September 2016

Protecting Ponsonby

With changes to Auckland in the Unitary Plan, heritage manager Edward Bennett is concerned that “a slow degradation” could gradually chip away at the historic character of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn over the next 50 years.


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“If quality buildings go up, that’s fine, but there’s no particular mechanism to make sure it’s a good development,” says Bennett.

The biggest worry, he says, is the new pre-1944 demolition cut-off control overlay. “That has protected an awful lot of buildings which are now not protected. However, even if it’s a Grade 1 heritage building, if it’s not scheduled, it can go. Unfortunately, our historic places legislation doesn’t have the teeth to save buildings. No government wants to be the one to do that.”

It’s nothing new, he reflects, rattling off changes to our urban landscape, both swift and gradual, that have changed the face of the Western Bays area since early days. Like the War Memorial to local soldiers killed in the Boer War (1899 to 1902) which sat alongside Tole’s Paddock, the site of a pig farm between The Cavalier and the row of shops along Three Lamps, on the corner of College Hill and Ponsonby Road.

“There were no specific bodies associated with it and there were other memorials to the Boer War soldiers, the Auckland War Museum for example. So the memorial was removed to the Symonds Street Cemetery in the 1930s when they shifted the original three lamps lamp-post from the middle of the road,” says Bennett. Just like the original gates to Myers Park in Queen Street, there is no documentation to record when or why this urban statuary changed. It simply disappeared and “was probably destroyed when the motorway went through”.

The Ponsonby Post Office showing the three lamps at the intersection of Ponsonby Road,1915. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

The Ponsonby Post Office showing the three lamps at the intersection of Ponsonby Road,1915. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

Prior to the 1860s, the area from Shelly Beach Road, along Jervois Road to Wallace Street and Point Erin was a farm known as Campbellville, owned by John Campbell. From the 1870s to 1879, the farmer started carving up the land for sub-division. At first, wealthy residents owned waterfront villas with their own boat ramps at Herne Bay and St Mary’s Bay and commuted to work in the city by boat. Vestiges of these original marinas remain today. They had no access by road at all. Later, gentleman’s residences began spreading out as the area became a very desirable coastal suburb where people bought land for a property villa with a garden. 

Looking along the beach at Sentinel Road Bay, showing boat sheds and houses on Sarsfield Street, Herne Bay, 1911.Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

Looking along the beach at Sentinel Road Bay, showing boat sheds and houses on Sarsfield Street, Herne Bay, 1911.Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

“Whole streets went up alarmingly fast, because this was factory production,” says Bennett.

Bennett explains Ponsonby had an early advantage in that it was fairly flat with clay soil devoid of rocks. The farmer sold to developers who levelled the land and sold the clay to brickmakers to make the chimneys on site so they didn’t have to cart it away.

Next the spec builders came in and would buy several properties each. In some of the earliest streets, like John Street, about 10 different jobbing builders would build clumps of four or five houses in a row that were identical, then move on. “You see the same thing repeated over and again,” says Bennett.

An example of 3 near identical houses in John Street, Ponsonby.

An example of 3 near identical houses in John Street, Ponsonby.

By the end of the 19th century, people decided this looked boring. So builders started buying five houses down from each other so the pattern did not look so obvious and different patterns emerged in Grey Lynn from the 1880s onwards. Different streets are noted for their distinctive arrangements.

Two villas, six houses apart on Rose Road, Grey Lynn.

Two villas, six houses apart on Rose Road, Grey Lynn.

Bennett explains people may not realise the value of what we have in our own back yard. Ponsonby and Grey Lynn are outstanding heritage areas with the largest concentration of wooden Victorian houses in the world.

“In North America, cities like San Francisco have larger areas of wooden houses but large new clumps of 1920s and 30s apartment buildings have been built inside this area.

“In Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, almost nothing has been rebuilt from the 1960s to the 1990s. And everything is built, by and large, in wood. There are whole streets where every building is from 1910 and there is a heritage overlay to protect it. In theory, getting rid of the 1944 rule doesn’t affect that part of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn.

“Under the Plan, a lot of houses in Westmere and Pt Chevalier can get a lot taller. Do you want a high storey wall directly west of Grey Lynn Park?  At the moment wandering through Grey Lynn Park, there aren’t 20 apartment blocks looking at you, but there could be in the future.”

We could also lose heritage buildings along Ponsonby Road, laments Bennett. “Admittedly they aren’t using land particularly well and most aren’t noteworthy. But some are extraordinary.”

Especially those in the group around Franklin Road: “The terrace houses built for the three Edgar sisters at 203 to 209 Ponsonby Road, for example.

And on the western side by Vermont Street at number 222 (Bistro 22) to 224 (Ponsonby Butchers), the Edwardian buildings next to Prego.

Then there’s the house at 225 Ponsonby Road built for Florence Keller who died in her 90s as the oldest practising surgeon in the world. There are two houses next door and two more that sit on either side of St John’s Church – five buildings that should be made a set piece and scheduled by the Council.

“It’s up to the residents to be vigilant. But in most cases you don’t know what’s happening until it’s too late. That’s the problem with things being non-notifiable.”

“In about 60 years from now, houses like Holmedene at 195 Ponsonby Road and the Braemar Building next door on the corner of Franklin Road will probably be really good restaurants because we know they're worth keeping but the remaining Victorian houses in the area are a worry. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee when they are changed that it will be done well. “It’s up to the residents to be vigilant. But in most cases you don’t know what’s happening until it’s too late. That’s the problem with things being non-notifiable.”

Aucklanders will have a chance to celebrate their unique built heritage when the Auckland Heritage Festival 2016 takes place from Saturday 24 September to Sunday 9 October. Be sure to catch Edward Bennett’s lecture on Myers Park and St Kevin’s Arcade.

To get in touch with the Ponsonby Heritage events team, email heritage@iloveponsonby.co.nz

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