From gothic skyscrapers to Hathaway cottages

Dotted around Auckland are a number of residential and commercial buildings designed by Canadian architect Sholto Smith (1881-1936) which are now part of Auckland’s architectural heritage. While researching Auckland’s War Memorial libraries for the Our Boys website, I discovered Smith was noted as the designer of the gorgeous, little Albany War Memorial Library - although there is some controversy over whether it was Smith or his business partner, Thomas Mullions who played the bigger part in the design.

Ref: Jock Phillips and Chris Maclean, Albany War Memorial Library,
about 1986, from
Smith arrived in New Zealand in 1920, when he was 39 years old, and joined the architectural practice of TC Mullions and C. Fleming McDonald.  He became partner after McDonald’s death and together with Mullions went on to design both residential and commercial properties. Among them the Shortland Flats in downtown Auckland which the pair owned as a venture to generate income. The flats have been described as Auckland’s smallest example of the gothic skyscraper style.

Ref: James D. Richardson, Shortland Flats, 1925,
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-1708 
Another highly visible building is the Lister on the corner of Victoria and Lorne Streets, a design influenced by the Chicago style of modern, simplified architecture dominant in skyscrapers of the early twentieth century. It was named for British surgeon and medical scientist, Sir James Joseph Lister. Interestingly, a letter to the editor of the New Zealand Building Record, dated 15 April 1924, laments the wording on the building as ‘The Lister Bldg’ not ‘Building’: “Who has not gazed with a feeling akin to awe at some recently constructed building and felt with an expression of pride that that building belonged to Auckland; when our eyes have alighted upon the name of the building, and we see emblazoned forth “Lister Bldgs” or some such name. Evidently the architect or designer has run out of lettering…”

Ref: N. M. Dubois, Lister Building (right),  about 1973,
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 786-A030-2 

One of Smith’s grandest designs was the Chancery Towers on the corner of Chancery and O’Connell Streets. 

Ref: Drawing of Chancery Chambers in The New Zealand Building Record',
15 May 1925, p.20.

The completed building was scaled down from the original design which boasted an impressive top that paid tribute to New York’s Woolworth Building -- at the time the tallest in the world.  In 1989 the Auckland District Law Society bought Chancery Chambers and restored it to ‘reflect’ its 1920 origins. It is also a site of historical significance as John Logan Campbell’s Acacia Cottage, believed to have been the first European-style home in Auckland, was built there.

Ref: Linda Tyler, Colwyn, St Heliers, Auckland, 2011.

The most romantic of Smith’s work was his own home, Colwyn, at 187 St Heliers Bay Road, Auckland. He designed it as a wedding gift to his second wife, Phyllis, naming it Colwyn after the town in Wales where they met. The house is described by Linda Tyler: “A romantic idea of a cosy storybook house which in its scale and massing recalls the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare… The built design maintains the Anne Hathaway cottage references right down to the text on the wooden mantelpiece over the fireplace. The quote inscribed there is taken from the beginning of Shakespeare’s sonnet 57: 'Being your slave, what should I do but tend upon the hours and times of your desire?'"

If you fancy becoming more intimately acquainted with Smith’s work, a tour of Shortland Flats is a feature of the upcoming Auckland Heritage Festival. Bookings are essential for the tour on Sunday 5 October. For more details, check out the Heritage Festival programme.

Author: Joanne Graves, Central Auckland Research Centre.