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Genealogists shed new light on Te Awamutu’s heritage buildings

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Members of the Te Awamutu Genealogy Group have shed new light on the social history of some of the better known buildings in the Waikato town’s CBD.

The group sought information, stories and other treasures from the community through a series of successful public open days helping to fill in many gaps in the knowledge of local buildings - which organiser Sandra Metcalfe says are often taken for granted.

A display, also developed by the group, was a key ingredient in the success of the community outreach which was supported by Heritage New Zealand’s Lower Northern office, and based on a pilot programme undertaken by Heritage New Zealand and local genealogists in Dargaville.

"The public display got people thinking about Te Awamutu and local businesses. It also encouraged them to bring their information and artefacts to share with us," says Sandra.

"Many people saw that they could contribute to our display and came back to see us. One woman returned with an original Public Works Department plan drawn on linen of the first Post Office in Te Awamutu which she had saved from destruction many years ago."

Another woman brought in a photograph with a panoramic view looking down Alexandra Street.

"Although we had seen sections of this photograph during the research process, we hadn’t seen the whole thing. Seeing the photo in context brought a whole new perspective to the main street," she says.

As genealogists, Sandra and the group were particularly fascinated by the family connections of those who came forward to share information - and especially those whose names are linked with some of Te Awamutu’s buildings.

Conversations with people, as well as careful research, have uncovered important new information on the background of some buildings.

"We discovered through tender notices, for example, that there were often several buildings in town designed by the same architect," she says.

"One example was architect S Judd of Auckland who designed the Burns and Thompson buildings. We also found out that he designed the Hodgson Motors and CT Rickit buildings too. With that knowledge, part of phase two of the project going forward will be identifying buildings designed by particular architects, rather than just by location."

Many of Te Awamutu’s heritage buildings were built in the 1920s and 30s during the Great Depression. Struck by a building downturn in the larger cities, many architects and tradesmen moved to rural towns like Te Awamutu to find work.

The migration of architects stimulated something of a boom locally which also enabled local businesses to grow. Te Awamutu firms such as LG Armstrong and FD Chunn, which were established at this time, were still operating in the late 1960s.

The materials used in many Te Awamutu commercial buildings also reflect architectural styles and advances in building technology of the time. Ferro-cement, for example, became a popular method of construction and the Art Deco style was widely used.

"Meanwhile changes in buildings reflected social change. Blacksmiths and liveries, for example, gave way to garages," says Sandra.

"Even the world of entertainment evolved. The Empire Theatre built for silent movies in the 1920s, was superseded by the new Regent Theatre which was purpose-built for movies with sound."

The name of one architect - Archibald MacDonald - came up several times during discussions with people.

"MacDonald had designed more than one commercial building in town. Following publicity about the display, we also received a phone call from a woman in Te Pahu who owned an Archibald MacDonald-designed house originally located in Hamilton," says Sandra.

"Her research went beyond her own house to at least nine other MacDonald houses in the Waikato area. By working together, we can ensure that MacDonald’s work is not forgotten."

One of the key objectives of the project is to ensure that information and materials gathered will be available for future researchers to access. The project has also highlighted the need to find items like oral histories, files and photographs which appear to have been lost or misplaced over time.

The project also highlighted the fragile nature of several of Te Awamutu’s historic commercial buildings and what this might mean for the future - as well as concern that some of the commercial buildings being researched today may no longer be around in another 20 years.

Information uncovered by the project about Te Awamutu’s historic commercial buildings will be invaluable according to Heritage New Zealand’s Lower Northern Area Manager, Ben Pick.

"Identifying heritage and gathering quality information is the first step towards protection through scheduling on the council’s district plan," he says.

"We’re excited by what the Te Awamutu Genealogy Group has achieved so far and look forward to this journey continuing."

Stage two of this project is planned for Autumn next year and will include a new group of buildings and a presentation of what the group has found so far. The group also intends to record some oral histories in conjunction with the museum.

"The scope of the project is potentially vast, so it is important to break it down into manageable stages," says Sandra.

"By bringing people along with us on this research journey we are hopeful that more and more memories will be unlocked."

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