The complex history behind some of Wellingtons’ favourite parks

Emus, earthquakes, and estates – oh my! Matthew Plummer takes a trip down the garden path to explore how three Wellington parks came to be.

By Matthew Plummer
Illustrations by Rachel Salazar

Featured in Capital #87
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Botanic Garden

Wellington was always intended to have a Botanic Garden. Scientific research and global trade in the early 19th century supercharged the concept of the monastic physic garden, where plants were grown for agricultural or medicinal purposes. The New Zealand Company instructed surveyor William Mein Smith to include “ample reserves for all public purposes such as a … botanical garden” in his design for the city.

Creating reserves also drove up land values. Five hectares of Town Belt were duly set aside in 1844, but it took almost a quarter-century, some questionable transactions with iwi, and impetus from the Chief Government Scientist James Hector before the garden was established in 1868. Hector planted 127 varieties of conifers, and today the Botanic Garden has some of New Zealand’s oldest pinus radiata, grown from seeds imported from California, ancestors of millions of pines across the country.

The new concept of planned urban recreation spaces came out of concern for the health of the population. Joseph Paxton’s Birkenhead Park in England, opened in 1847, was the world’s first publicly funded civic park. It inspired municipal parks across the world, including New York’s Central Park (1853). Photos of the Botanic Garden in 1880 show paths laid out for promenading in a landscape dotted with immature trees and bushes. By the start of the 20th century the vegetation had filled out, and the 1897 New Zealand Cyclopedia praised the garden as “the only redeeming feature of Wellington.”

The city council took over management of the Botanic Garden from the Royal Society in 1891, and inevitably the balance shifted from science to recreation. It was hugely popular – with visitors arriving on the Kelburn Cable Car (1902) and the electric tram to the Tinakori Road entrance (1904).

Attractions included a collection of animals, including emus and monkeys. Zoo-keeping must have been relaxed, as they regularly escaped, attacking children and keeping Thorndon’s residents on their toes. When UK circus Bostock & Wombwell’s gave a year-old lion cub to Prime Minister Richard Seddon in 1906, the animal collection was moved to the new Zoological Garden in Newtown. King Dick (the lion, not the PM) was stuffed when he died in 1920 and now enthrals children in the Wellington Museum.

The departure of the animals was balanced by an investment in recreational facilities, with huge earthworks creating Anderson Park in 1910. Government-funded “relief work” during the 1930s Depression filled in the gully to create a temporary transit camp for the military in World War Two, where the Lady Norwood Rose Garden now flourishes.

This was a pet project of Edward Hutt, the city council’s Director of Parks and Reserves, and generously supported by the Norwood family (Sir Charles Norwood was a former Wellington mayor). Work progressed smoothly until a gardener accidentally sprayed the roses with herbicide shortly after the garden’s completion in 1953, killing all but two beds. The Council covered up the error, blaming a mystery fungus. Seven decades on the garden remains highly popular. It’s a horticultural throwback, but perfectly in keeping with the wider setting.

Kelburn Park

The initial wave of settlers made quick work of turning Wellington’s hillsides into pasture, despite government restrictions on scrubbing native bush. In 1843 Col. William Wakefield protested against the damage to the Town Belt (“one of the greatest ornaments of the Town”) – to little avail. The rapidly denuded slopes must have made for a desolate setting, and by 1897 the Cyclopaedia described Wellington as the “ugliest in the colony”.

Yet within a year the foundations of our city’s quintessential postcard view would be laid – helped by the establishment of Wellington City Council in 1870, and spurred on by the Wellington Tree Planting and Scenery Preservation Society. Founded in 1895, it persistently sought civic funds to plant native flora, and restore beauty to the natural environment.

“Kelburne” (the ‘e’ was quickly dropped to avoid confusion with Kilbirnie) was established on farmland purchased by the Upland Estate Company from William Moxham in 1896. Wellington historian Fanny Irvine-Smith in Streets of my city, 1948, described it as an “essentially man-made suburb”: opened up by the cable car at one end and the viaduct at the other, a warren of pathways and zigzags, and houses perched on steep hillsides – all offset by Kelburn Park’s incongruously flat playing fields.

Kelburn Park was the initial anchor of the development, with Parliament granting £10,000 to fund the park and approach roads in 1897. Kelburn was intended to stand out from the mass of land coming to market, and the scope of works was impressive: a small ridgeline was levelled at the north to improve the central city vista, with spoil tipped into the gully that ran south along Salamanca Road today (further levelling was done by Depression “relief labour” in the 1930s, and motorway construction in the 1970s).

The cable car – funded by the developers – opened up land that would have been a long slog from Lambton Quay in the pre-tram era, offering a point of difference from other new suburbs. Construction started in 1898, with spoil from the top tunnel filling in the Kelburn Park gully. Progress was slower than expected, and the “cable tram” opened in February 1902: the developer’s toleration of their contractor delivering behind schedule probably reflected slow uptake of sections in Northland.

Sluggish sales drove the pursuit of a large-scale resident. The Victoria college Act was passed in 1897, and the institution needed a campus. Wairarapa farmer Charles Pharazyn (an investor in the new development) offered the College six acres of land and £1,000 if it sited the new college in Kelburn: enough to see off its interest in the site of the widely loathed Mount Cook Prison Gaol (now occupied by Massey University), much to the dismay of local residents who preferred students to convicts. Kelburn Park was ready by the end of 1906, with spoil from the construction of the now iconic Hunter Building – unsurprisingly – added to the gully.

The landscaping created a campus entrance unrivalled among New Zealand universities, and ensured Kelburn’s unwaning reputation as a desirable suburb. Today Kelburn Park has a timeless feel, with the Kelburn Municipal Croquet Club (established in 1913) operating from a pavilion built in 1924. The impressive fountain was installed in 1955 (with a motor recycled from the demolished Centennial Exhibition centrepiece) at the edge of the grounds; perched above the CBD’s towers it creates a sense of scale and grandeur.

Midland Park

Strong tremors were felt across Wellington in the early hours of May 24th, 1968, originating from a powerful M7.1 earthquake in Inangahua, 235km away. Little remembered now, it caused huge damage to roads and railways in the South Island, killed three people, and triggered a change in the Municipal Corporations Act allowing local authorities to step in to strengthen buildings.

The new powers were the perfect match for the mayor, Michael Fowler (later Sir Michael) who had beaten long-standing mayor Frank Kitts by 20 votes in the 1974 mayoral race. Fowler was a prominent architect who’d worked for Ove Arup in London, and designed Wellington’s modernist Overseas Passenger Terminal in the early 1960s. The Golden Mile’s 187 “earthquake risk” buildings were his opportunity to remodel Wellington on a grand scale, and breathe new life into a city that had stagnated under Kitts.

A wave of demolitions commenced, with heart-breaking losses including the ANZ Bank and the Art Deco Colonial Mutual Building. Also on the chopping block was the much-loved Midland Hotel. Damaged in the Inangahua shake, it was purchased by the City Council in 1979 and levelled to create a park at the Lambton Quay end of Waring Taylor and Johnston streets.

The Midland Hotel (completed in 1915) was designed by Henry Eli White, regarded as the leading designer of theatres and public spaces in Australasia. White’s legacy in Wellington includes the high Edwardian St James Theatre. The Midland’s Spanish Mission style was an outlier on Lambton Quay, with rounded window arches and huge cornices that hung metres over the pavement; its seven storeys (two added in 1923) made it a dominant presence in the city’s heart. It was regarded as a smart hotel, offering silver service tea and coffee with linen napkins.

Fowler’s dynamic leadership and architectural vision skipped over council processes, particularly as growth in the civil service meant a chronic shortage of public space in the city centre, where the waterfront was still part of a working port. The Mayor had the votes. Demolition started in late 1981, despite unsuccessful last-minute efforts to halt work by the Historic Places Trust and others, brushed off by Fowler as “eleventh-hour Charlies”.

The new park was designed by City Council architect Ron Flook, a South African recently arrived in New Zealand. It opened in 1983: a plaza in 1960s American style featured lawns and concrete, a four-metre waterfall wall, and plentiful sunlight, in line with Flook’s design ethos of space for “rest, comfort and enjoyable observation”.

Midland Park quickly became a popular spot for escaping the office for coffee or lunch. Fowler was keen to press on with his next project: a green space on the site of the old BNZ building. But the loss of the Midland Hotel led to the creation of the Wellington Civic Trust in 1981, bringing new vigour to the urban conservation movement, and the City Council’s new Conservation Committee vetoed the proposal.

Midland Park was sympathetically remodelled in 1995 as part of a new 25-storey tower at 157 Lambton Quay. The fountain wall was replaced by Silvia Salgado’s water sculpture Ngā kōrerorero (the ongoing dialogue), but the curved canopies and lighting, trees, and overall feel of Flook’s design remain. Fowler’s modernist space, more popular than his eponymous concert hall, is a fitting legacy for a mayor the Dominion Post said was arguably “the most influential the capital has had over the past 100 years”.


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