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Union Steam Ship Company's Offices and Stores, Dunedin

The following article is courtesy of  Heritage New Zealand magazine (Issue 147 Summer 2017). Words by Jamie Douglas.

Photo of the former Union Steam Ship Company Store.
Photo courtesy of Graham Warman

Once badly affected by rain damage and pigeon poo, a Dunedin landmark has been restored to glory.

The former Union Steam Ship Company’s Offices and Stores building in Dunedin was built to help ensure the safe passage and delivery of a range of goods and produce to the world.

Today, the 1883 building has been recognised with a Category 1 listing and is delivering a shipment of a much more valuable commodity – people – to Dunedin’s Warehouse District, bringing life back to a precinct that for many years had been left to languish.

In its heyday it was a magnificent sight, prominent in its maritime setting – the port just across the road – with entry from Water Street and wrapping around Cumberland and Vogel Streets. The original ornate, Italian architectural detail was modernised in the late 1940s to reflect a more streamlined Art Deco/Moderne style.

By then the National Mortgage and Agency Company had taken occupancy of the building, having swapped premises with the Union Steam Ship Company in 1921.

Photo showing the inside of the former Union Steam Ship Company Store before the restoration.
Inside the badly deteriorated building, before the upgrade works began. Photo courtesy of Dave Hanan.

The appearance may have changed over the years, and the building may now be divided into three separate titles, but its scale and presence still hold firm to this day, thanks in large part to its current owners.

The way the three owners have returned a degree of status and charm to the building is a credit to their drive, passion and vision.

Assistance was initially provided by the Dunedin City Council, with a $20,000 grant in 2010 to help with the restoration of heritage features, while recognition of the outstanding transformation came in 2013 with the building declared the overall winner in Dunedin’s annual Heritage Re-use Awards.

Along the way it picked up the Barlow Justice Valuers/Heritage New Zealand Interiors Award for the Psychology Associates offices on the first floor.

Steve Macknight owns the grand corner building that is home to the psychologists, a wine company and an artist with gallery space. The top floor, which extends through to owner Dave Hanan’s building, is occupied by an electronics firm.

“It is great recognition for the building,” says Steve, of the recent Category 1 listing. “These buildings tend not to be recognised for what they are when they are seen in a rundown state. We knew the history of the place when we took it over in 2010. People didn’t believe the original building was still around because the ornamental features had been changed [in the 1940s].

Photo of the works at the former Union Steam Ship Company Store.
Inside the building, while the works were underway. Photo courtesy of Dave Hanan.
“It was in very poor condition. It had been empty for many years and we had a lot of problems with pigeons and rain water. 

“I’m a structural engineer so can see where things are at. You really do feel the history of the place when working on them. We had a good bunch of architects in Dunedin in the late 19th century. The foundations are reinforced concrete so these buildings were meant to be good, substantial buildings.”

Dave Hanan’s entrance to his recently refurbished building is off Cumberland Street. In addition to the shared top floor, the building has been converted into five high-quality apartments, two of which are on Airbnb.

He purchased it in December 2015 after taking Steve’s advice; the pair have known each other since their days at Logan Park High School. In a unique twist, Dave also owns the property to which the Union Steam Ship Company shifted in the 1940s’ swap, having taken that on in 2009.

“Steve was a motivating factor behind buying the building, as it was in a very dilapidated state. The only redeeming features were its amazing views of the harbour and its cheap price,” recalls Dave.

“It’s certainly not a job for the faint-hearted. It’s bloody hard, and a challenging project financially. I’m very grateful for the support of Heritage New Zealand, the Heritage EQUIP fund, the Dunedin Heritage Fund and the Central City Heritage Buildings Re-use Grants Scheme. Without them chipping in, it wouldn’t have been viable.” 

Photo showing modern office space after the upgrade project.
Office space after the upgrade project. Photo courtesy of Graham Warman.
Dave’s building originally required a lot of vision to get past its “absolutely horrendous” condition. The Warehouse Precinct Revitalisation Plan put in motion by former Dunedin City Council Policy Planner Glen Hazelton was another key factor in seeing that potential realised.

“We’re very lucky in Dunedin that we didn’t have a period of huge population growth like Auckland, where a significant amount of heritage was lost. We still have massive heritage values here.” 

Juan Gaspar was the first of the current owners to purchase his building eight years ago. As with the others, the condition left a lot to be desired, but owning construction firm Dunedin City Contracting certainly helped.

“It was boarded up and a metre deep in pigeon poo, and had flooded on three of the floors. It was a monumental effort to clean the place up and it’s quite an achievement to get this place to where it’s looking pretty good.”

Juan has a flooring wholesaler as a ground-floor tenant; his business Extreme Hobbies is
on the first floor, and a comic shop and artist space are on the second floor. Heritage features include three large safes on each floor where mortgage documents were kept and an Otis lift that took six months to refurbish.

“You don’t take these buildings on unless you embrace the history and nostalgia of them. You have to really love them,” Juan says.

Photo showing modern apartments after the upgrade project.
The former Union Steam Ship Company's Store now provides modern apartments. Photo courtesy of Graham Warman.

For Heritage New Zealand advisor Heather Bauchop, the Category 1 listing is entirely fitting. “Of all the buildings nationwide associated with the Union Steam Ship Company, Dunedin’s is the most outstandingly significant and represents the company at the height of its economic power
and influence.

“At its peak, the company was the largest shipping line in the Southern Hemisphere. Its architectural transformation in the 1940s added another rich chapter to the building’s history, and today the interior has been refreshed with 21st-century thinking.” 

New Zealand Heritage List entry - Heritage New Zealand website