From the top of Sky Tower, the most iconic building in Auckland, New Zealand, I enjoyed the sweeping 360° views of the city and the harbor. Auckland is the only city in the world built on an active field of volcanoes, and I saw a few in the distance, happy that they were dormant at that exact moment. Closer at hand, I peered down at Auckland’s substantial urban development — the skyscrapers and the rooftop helicopter landing pads and the smaller heritage buildings. From this vantage point, I was able to pinpoint all the wonderful buildings I had seen so far and mark the locations for the ones that I still wanted to explore. These are my favorites.
#1 Old Chief Post Office
Commanding a half block in downtown Auckland and fronting busy Queen Street, the old Chief Post Office opened in 1912 to much fanfare — and at no small expense, costing more than $15 million in today’s money. The Baroque-style structure took three years to complete and served as the city’s main mail, telegraph, banking, radio, and telecommunications hub for years. The elegant four-story building features arched windows on both the bottom and top floors, with the middle floors embellished by pairs of columns. At the corners, two domed spaces provide a fifth floor. Cartouches and garlands add terrific character. After many years of decline and neglect, fresh life was breathed into the structure when it was incorporated into a new transportation center in 2006, a transformation that necessitated one of the country’s most complicated engineering projects — lifting the entire granite and stone building (all 4,000 tons of it) less than an inch to rest it on new foundations so that existing transportation tunnels underneath it could be extended, a feat that could have gone disastrously wrong in so many ways. But, evidently, it was quite the success: The building looks just as lovely today as it did a century ago.
#2 Auckland Ferry Terminal
Overshadowed by bland skyscrapers of colorless steel and glass, the brave little Auckland Ferry Terminal cheerfully marches on in its bold red and yellow color scheme. Only half a block from the old Chief Post Office, this wonderful building has been greeting arriving ferry passengers since 1912. Built on reclaimed land out of sandstone and brick, with a granite base, the terminal cost more than $11 million in today’s money. Modeled after San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront ferry building and constructed to house all the city’s ferry companies, the four-story Edwardian building features a central tower with four clock faces. With its columns, arched windows with keystones, dentil pediments, festoons, and ocular windows, the ferry terminal presents a restrained exuberance to the city. Its glory days ended, however, when the nearby Auckland Harbour Bridge opened in 1959, severely impacting maritime activity on the wharves and leading to the building’s deterioration. An $8 million renovation, upgrade, and compliance with seismic requirements and fire codes was spent between 1986 and 1988 (the cost ruffled the feathers of a prominent member of the Auckland Harbour Board, who wanted it razed, but public opinion in favor of retaining the building won out). The interior was gutted and reimagined, with office and retail use plus a few restaurants and limited ferry service, but the exterior remains a striking and important piece of architecture, retaining its human scale among gigantic neighbors and serving as a powerful reminder of the importance of ferry transport in the city.
#3 Old Customhouse
It was hard for me to imagine that the wonderful old Customhouse in downtown Auckland was dangerously close to being razed once it was abandoned in the 1970s. Fortunately, a “Save the Customhouse” campaign proved to be successful, and the building was lovingly restored. The Customhouse opened in 1889 as a government office building, with the Customs Department on the ground floor and other government departments, such as Sheep Inspector, and Native Land Court, occupying the two floors above. The French Renaissance–style building boasts slight wing projections, pavilion roofs, balustrades at the roofline, Corinthian pilasters separating windows, and a central tower with ocular windows. Once it had outgrown its purpose, the building remained vacant, faced with the very real threat of demolition before the successful campaign to save it ensured its future. Now a department store, the old Customhouse, with its turrets, wrought iron railings, architectural moldings and scrolls, and timber roof structures, windows, and doors, has been returned to its original glory and remains one of the most handsome buildings in the city.
#4 St. Mary’s in Holy Trinity Cathedral
The largest wooden Gothic church in the world, at more than 160 feet long and covering an area of more than 9,000 square feet, seemed a little overshadowed by its bigger neighbor, Holy Trinity Cathedral, but that wasn’t always the case. Built in 1886, St. Mary’s, skirted by greenspace, is a lovely church with architectural features usually associated with Europe’s medieval cathedrals. For instance, the numerous gables above lancet-shaped windows running along the sides are textbook Gothic. One large gable occupies the main entrance, containing both the ground-floor windows and two levels of clerestory windows above. The gable itself slopes at two different angles, enabling a higher ceiling above the central aisle inside, and with its brackets and the fish-scale shingles wedged into the triangular peak, to me it resembled a Swiss chalet built for heavy snowfalls rather than a New Zealand parish church in a subtropical climate. Because stone was too expensive, the architect employed Kauri wood to create this gorgeous structure. Indeed, just about the entire interior is slathered in wood — the floors, the pews, the walls, the railings, the pulpit, the intricate ceiling. Stained-glass windows are a combination of simple colored panes of glass and traditional scenes of saints and Biblical figures. In 1982, the entire church was transported in one piece across the street to its new location beside Holy Trinity Cathedral — an engineering feat that left the church beautifully intact.
#5 Civic Theatre
As soon as I saw Auckland’s fantastic art nouveau Civic Theatre, I wanted to attend a show there, but, unfortunately, after purchasing my ticket for a play the following night, I found I would be going to a newer, much less interesting performance space in a different location. Nevertheless, what I saw of the Civic impressed me greatly. After only eight months of construction, the Civic opened in late 1929, a stroke of bad luck, as the Great Depression suppressed audience numbers, which never filled the available 2,378 seats and caused the owner to declare bankruptcy only four years later. Those who did go to this movie house must have been enthralled by the “atmospheric theater” style of the Civic. Lighting and the interior design created the illusion of an open starlit sky, giving the impression that they were attending a show outdoors. As the largest surviving atmospheric cinema in all of Australasia and one of only seven left in the world (and still the largest theater in New Zealand), the Civic was also decorated with a Wurlitzer organ; a lavish Indian-inspired foyer with Buddhas, twisted columns, and domed ceilings (and more than 400 elephant statues throughout the building); and an exotic Moorish main auditorium with turrets, minarets, spires, tiled roofs, and a pair of life-sized Abyssinian panther statues. The Civic showed only movies until an extensive renovation in 1998–99 enabled it to host plays, operas, ballets, and large-scale musicals as well as an international film festival. Outside, the building occupies a corner lot, with two wings stemming from the central clock tower. Vertical open-latticework panels lead your eyes up to the friezes of neoclassical naked boys romping about, dancing and playing instruments, modestly covered in flowing cloth, and to the row of festoons at the roofline. Even if you don’t get the opportunity to see a show here, make sure you stop by just for the visual treat you’ll receive.