The 1939 City of Auckland model

Auckland Central City Library's The Model City display has the 1968 Central Area Model at its heart. Did you know that Auckland Council also cares for another city model, which dates from 1939?

The 1939 City of Auckland model is just one segment of what was once a much larger model of central Auckland. The original Auckland model was perhaps nine metres across in size; the surviving segment is about 1.8 m wide and 3.2 m long. The existing 1939 model is handmade and hand painted and covers a portion of central Auckland, from Albert Park to Hobson Street. This segment of the model is possibly all that survives from a much larger model which was made for the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition.

Image: Looking down from what is now the Auckland Art Gallery – a view of Auckland in 1939. Photograph by Marguerite Hill, Auckland Council.

The Centennial Exhibition

The New Zealand Centennial Exhibition was held in Wellington from November 1939 to May 1940, to mark a hundred years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and New Zealand’s entry into the British Empire. The Centennial Exhibition was like a World’s Fair or Expo, and was intended to promote New Zealand tourism, primary industries, manufacturing, government, and the arts. To make things a little more fun, there was a theme park, live musical performances, art galleries and displays of shiny new cars. International visitors were expected (although the outbreak of the Second World War changed that), and people from all over New Zealand attended. The Exhibition ran for seven months and had 2.6 million visitors. New Zealand had a population of 1.6 million at the time, so it was clear that there were many repeat visitors (and you could purchase season tickets). School children from all over New Zealand attended the Exhibition, often taking long train journeys to get there.

Fletchers (now Fletcher Construction) teamed up with Love Construction (now Naylor Love) to design and build the Exhibition buildings. This was no mean feat – the grounds were the equivalent of 32 rugby fields and the indoor floor space measured almost 229 000 square metres. The city model was displayed in a building called Dominion Court, which was designed by Ronald Muston and Lewis Walker of Fletchers. This building alone measured 128m by 46m.

Image: The Auckland model under construction. Fletcher Trust Archives 0302/1/259

Models and dioramas

New Zealand’s geography, industry and agriculture was represented in Dominion Court and models and dioramas were the favoured interpretation method. There were also murals and aerial photographs.

As well as models of towns and cities, there were models of railways, hydro-electric schemes, and physical features such as the Waitomo Caves (complete with faux glow worms). To give you an idea of scale, the model of Aoraki/Mount Cook was over 7.5m high.

Image: Proud artists posing with another of the city models. The four people give you an idea of scale.
Fletcher Trust Archives 0302/1/495

Hundreds of people worked on designing, making, painting, and installing the models and dioramas in Dominion Court. The models and dioramas were designed by Fletchers architect Ronald Muston (1905-1974), who went on to design significant buildings in Lower Hutt, including the Church of St James (1953), the War Memorial Library and Cultural Centre (1956) and the Dowse (1971).

Ronald Muston travelled to the United States, spending time in Hollywood, to learn about current trends in movie model design. Later, a ‘Hollywood expert’, Mr. S. Nelson, was brought to New Zealand to further advise on modelling and diorama methods. The models were an interpretive device, much like museum interactives are today.

We are lucky enough to have photographs of the models on display during the Centennial Exhibition – they were displayed at a low height so that visitors could view the model from above.

Image: Visitors to the Centennial Exhibition look at the Wellington city model, which includes the Centennial Exhibition grounds. ‘A corner of the model…’ (1939, November 29) Evening Post.

Making the model buildings

The model buildings are easily identifiable – the form, colour schemes and detailing of the buildings were based on photographs. The model is built to scale (one inch to 40 feet or 2.5 cm to 12m).

Image: A view down Wellesley Street. Photograph by Marguerite Hill, Auckland Council.

Ten thousand model buildings were handmade and hand painted for the city models, with technical high school (polytechnic) students responsible for making thousands of these tiny buildings. Newspaper reports show that Invercargill Technical College students made the model buildings for their city, so it is possible that Auckland students were involved in making the Auckland model buildings. I have not yet been able to make a connection to a specific Auckland technical school. Please get in touch if you know more!

Image: Two artists with trays of wooden model buildings painstakingly add details.
Fletcher Trust Archives 0302/1/188

Another team was responsible for making the model ships that were anchored in the model harbours. In Auckland, the navy cruiser Achilles can be seen. The Wellington waterfront included a working miniature crane.

Image: Auckland’s wharves in 1939, complete with the navy cruiser Achilles.
Fletcher Trust Archives 0302/4/121

After the Centennial Exhibition

After the Centennial Exhibition closed, the model was released to Auckland City Council. It appears to have been displayed in the council planning department and can be seen in photos from about 1970. It has also spent some time in storage over the years. The model was altered at some point – some of the buildings were removed (possibly souvenired), while the Municipal Transport Station, which opened after 1939, has been added to the model.

Sadly, the City of Auckland model was broken up into smaller pieces. This was likely due to its size and fragility. It is not known where the rest of the model ended up - please do get in touch if you know!

Image: The entire Auckland model on display at the Centennial Exhibition in November 1939. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19391108-45-1.

In June and July 2010, the remaining segment of the model was displayed as part of the Historic Landscapes: [Re] Presenting Auckland’s Future exhibition at Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Since then, it has been displayed within Auckland Council offices.

The Auckland model may be the last remaining city model from the Centennial Exhibition. I have been in touch with museums around the country but have not yet been able to locate any other examples.

Image: In case you wondered how they kept track of the model buildings – this one is clearly marked with several notations. Photograph by Marguerite Hill, Auckland Council.

In 2021, the model was professionally cleaned and stabilised by a conservator.

Image: A wee building which had come adrift over time. Any loose buildings were stabilised and reattached by the conservator. Photograph by Marguerite Hill, Auckland Council.

The 1939 City of Auckland model is currently on display in the foyer of Te Wharau o Tāmaki - Auckland House (135 Albert Street). You are welcome to come by and take a look.

Author: Marguerite Hill, Auckland Council Heritage Unit


Post a Comment

Kia ora! Please leave your comment below.