Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The demise of the first floor

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I would imagine if anyone wanted to rent space in an upstairs location in the Masterton CBD, for whatever reason, the choices would be wide-ranging. Casting my gaze skywards it seems that there are a large number of vacant spaces in areas that were once considered prestigious.

Has our aging population lost the will to walk up stairs or is there just too much available space at ground level that is reasonably priced and more convenient?

So let me take you back in time. I can remember McKenzie’s department store being built; the vast upper floors were for stock. Back then goods had, by law, to be accessed via the New Zealand Railways and if they didn’t lose them on the way then it still took an inordinate amount of time from order to arrival. Hence the upper reaches were set aside for storage and a large goods lift was installed. Today the imposing brick and reinforced concrete building houses Newbold’s appliance store at street level and I suspect that with trucks now bringing goods to your door a day after you’ve ordered them the first and second floors will be relatively bare.

On the first floor over the road from Newbold’s there used to be a reception lounge known as the National Club Rooms. With attractive wood-panelled walls, commercial kitchen and a generous stage, the hall was regularly used for wedding receptions.

The WFCA, now Mastermall, had a sweeping stairway up to a huge lending library on the first floor. Down the road apiece meat exporters Thomas Borthwick and Sons had their New Zealand head office above the Regent Theatre with busy managerial and clerical staff spread over two floors.

A new post office was built in 1962 on the corner of Queen Street and Lincoln Road and given its centre-town location its two upper floors were most sought after. Today I gather they’re all but empty.

The government in its wisdom built the Departmental Building in Chapel Street. I was at the opening hosted by the Prime Minister of the day Robert Muldoon. He told the enthusiastic gathering that government departments were spread all over town and they were now going to be centralised in this splendid new multi-storey building. And so they were, for a while, then somehow what was left of them got spread back around the town again. Plenty of space up there for rent now I gather, if you’re interested.

Not long after that a new three-storey building was constructed for the Social Welfare Department - now WINZ - and its upper floors are now only getting partial usage.

Sometimes we pull down buildings that have upper echelons and replace them with single storey tin sheds that expose the wire netting and building paper in their ceilings. They demolished the rock solid old Cosy Theatre though it had begun a new life as the Pioneer Bar and Lounge. The celebrated lounge bar was on the first floor which later gave way to an equally popular restaurant called The Crofters Arms.

There was a first floor balcony on the front of the building overlooking Queen Street and this was used from time to time to spout speeches from, usually in a humorous vein. On one occasion I vividly recall the marvellous local raconteur, the late Evan Jaine, haranguing a much amused crowd from this veranda with an exceedingly funny monologue.

Back then of course Queen Street was regularly crowded.

There were other upstairs restaurants, one above Austin’s corner - now The Flight Centre - which allowed diners a wonderful view over the town centre. This premise has been empty for years. An even better vista was gained from the Elizabethan Room Restaurant on the first floor of the Horseshoe building in Northern Queen Street. The premise still houses a restaurant, but you walk in off the carpark.

At the Town Hall the district council will allow you to pay your rates at ground level, but entice you upstairs for all other services. The councillors however have abandoned their first floor council chambers and now meet downstairs in the Cody Lounge.

Even our public hospital, originally constructed on varying levels, was replaced with a facility built on the ground floor only.

Multi-storey buildings in cities like Auckland and Wellington are there because the terrain beneath them is so valuable that the developers need to use the air space above to gain enough rental income to cover the value of the land below. Sadly in small provincial towns the value of the land in the central business districts is comparatively low and unlikely to rise.

I’ve really only scratched the surface with some examples, but the likelihood of the Otis Elevator Company ever opening a branch in the Wairarapa is exceedingly slim.

“They claim this mother of ours, the Earth, for their own use, and fence their neighbours away from her, and deface her with buildings and their refuse” – Sitting Bull


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