Monday, December 27, 2010

Oamaru - A Legcay in Limestone

Often, when I tell people one of my favourite New Zealand towns is Oamaru, I get blank or puzzled looks. It is, after all, a small place 80km south of Timaru and 12okm north of Dunedin, that most people bypass on State Highway 1. The population is around 13,000 and the town itself is every bit the slow, rural service centre that many joke about.
It's architecture though, is another matter entirely.
It has one of the finest collections of 19th century architecture - often neo-classical in style - in New Zealand.
So, for those of you who've never visited, or those who sweep through on the bypass and have never discovered 'the old town,' I thought I'd bring you this mini-picture parade, to give you an idea of 'the little Rome' that sits tucked away 'in the back of beyond.' And there's no finer place to start that on lower Thames Street. This is where you'll find a number of splendid buildings that pay homage to the discovery of local building material, limestone, in the 1850s. The two bank buildings (above) are among my favourites. The former Bank of New South Wales (right), was designed by Dunedin architect, Robert Lawson in 1883 and 100 years later, in 1983, it became home to the Forrester Gallery. Like it's mate, the National Bank (left) (also designed by Lawson and built in 1871 for the Bank of Otago), it features beautiful acanthus leaves on the capitals of its Corinthian columns.
This old beauty is the former Post Office, directly across the street from the above banks. It's now home to the Waitaki District Council. It was designed by Forrester and Lemon in 1883 - without the clocktower. This was added in 1903 by Thomas Forrester's son, John
Even if many people do see Thames Street, they often bypass Oamaru's Historic Precinct at the south end of the town. Many of the unique limestone giants here have been restored and now house local artisans or craftspeople, or are still being used for their original purposes - as pubs, wool stores or Bond stores. The handsome Criterion Hotel (above), dominates the corner of Tyne and Harbour Streets. It was designed in Victorian Italiannate style by Oamaru architects, Forrester and Lemon and was built in 1877. The hotel closed in 1906 when the district 'went dry' and re-opened as a bar in 1998.
The Oamaru Opera House meanwhile, is a showy monster in the middle of Thames Street - the main shopping street. Designed by architect J.M. Forrester, and built at a cost of around 10,600-pounds, it opened in 1907. The building has also housed the Oamaru Borough Council, the Council Chamber and assorted law offices. these days, like many of the town's buildings, it's lit at night in a range of changing colours.
This solid edifice - the Columba Presbyterian Church - is one of many other huge and stunning buildings that sit off the beaten track - down the side streets and up on the hill. In addition, Oamaru has several magnificent churches, a marvellous old Railway Station (1900), old hotels, several huge school complexes - Waitaki Girls' and Waitaki Boys' (attended by both my grandparents) chief among them; and many huge homesteads in and around the town. If you're interested in Victorian architecture, it's definitely worth spending a couple of days in the area.

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