Art and Architecture of Trafalgar Street, Nelson


Trafalgar Street in Nelson lost many of its historic, and iconic, buildings in the 1980’s.  This was a time when there was a drive to modernise cities, and little protection or care for heritage values. This changed with the passing of the Resource Management Act, 1991 and Nelson’s Resource Management Plan, which became operational in 2004 and extended some protection for heritage buildings and introduced guidelines to protect streetscape and landscape values. Since that time the Street also has been beautified with trees, particularly at the Cathedral end, and a number of artworks.

Historic and iconic structures

trafalgar Nelson State CinemaState Cinema, Nelson
Click image to enlarge

State Cinema building
This building, on the corner of Trafalgar and Halifax Streets, is an example of Art deco, Art Moderne, style, with its streamlined, stripped lines. It was designed by H. Francis Willis and built by James Baird, opening in February 1936 as the State Chambers.  It has a Heritage B Historic Places Trust listing. Initially leased to Amalgamated Theatres, and later a part of Hoyts Empire owned by the Moodabe Family, it then passed to Mike Schaab, former projectionist, and is now owned by a Nelson based partnership. It was redeveloped in 1992, and refurbished in 2012, but the original exterior has been retained.

Civic House and the State Advances Building
Civic House, with its feature clock tower, is an example of 1970’s architecture. Never very popular with Nelsonians, it is, nevertheless, iconic. It replaced the 1906 Post Office, which was a heritage building. The replacement building was designed by John Rowe for the Ministry of Works and Development, and Athfield Architects provided the working drawings.1

Trafalgar Nelson Post OfficeNelson Post Office, opening. View of a large crowd gathered outside the Nelson Post Office building on the corner of Trafalgar and Halifax Streets, 1906. Nelson Provincial Museum
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The State Advances Building, 106-110 Trafalgar Street, which is also occupied by Nelson City Council is more widely admired. It was built to house Government Life Insurance in 1938 and designed by J.T. Mair, Government Architect. Plans indicate that the proposed building would have two stories and be positioned on the corner of Trafalgar Street and Victoria Avenue (now Achilles Avenue - renamed after the New Zealand  Battleship which fought at the Battle of the River Plate during World War II).  Government Life Insurance became the State Advances Corporation, established by the Reform Government in 1894 to provide loans to encourage public ownership of housing. They were major lenders in the housing market and enabled many people to build and purchase their own house. Ownership of the building only changed in 1990, when it became the Post Office, and the following year the title was transferred to Nelson City Council.

J.T. Mair was Government Architect from 1922-1942. His building design was informed by function. The State Advances Building has a Stripped Classical style with Classical detailing to create a delicate yet strong building, which is one of the most handsome in Nelson. It points to the Modern, Art Deco, movement principles of simple geometry, good proportions, bands of windows and few materials. It is rendered to imitate sandstone, as was common at the time, and the base of the building has a slightly redder colour providing definition. The building was designed at the same time as the much larger Wellington Government Life headquarters building and has many similarities in overall style, façade treatment and Art Deco decoration.

The PSIS building, 194-196 Trafalgar Street, is a Category 2 listed heritage building completed around 1880. This building is notable for its timber rusticated weatherboards.

Trafalgar Trathens buildingTrathen's Building. View of the shop front of Trathen & Co on Trafalgar Street. A large crowd lines the footpath in front of the building. A large curved stained glass window spans the upper two floors. Several men are on the parapet. Nelson Provincial Museum. F.N. Jones.
Click image to enlarge

The Trathens building, or Trathens, once stood at 191 Trafalgar Street, an iconic facade with a beautiful roofline window. The c.1920 building was constructed in the Neo Mannerist style and had a Category 2 Heritage listing. The building was demolished, controversially, in 2016.

The building known as Kitts for Shoes, 240 Trafalgar Street, also has a Category 2 Heritage listing. It was built in 1929 in the Edwardian Baroque style, by Houlker and Duke architects. Kitts shoes was founded in September 1924 in Hardy Street by L.F. Kitt, and was operating in the Trafalgar Street premises from 1994, until economic pressures forced it to close in September 2014. 

Trafalgar Street Bridge and ford. 327427

The original Trafalgar Street Bridge and ford. Nelson Provincial Museum. Misc Coll. 327427

The Trafalgar Street Bridge
The current Trafalgar Street Bridge was constructed in 1927, replacing a narrow wooden bridge and ford, 550m upstream of the mouth of the Maitai River. It was dedicated to the memory of the city’s pioneers and although it is not registered as an historic structure, it has been a landmark of lower Trafalgar Street since 1927, and it is the gateway to the city centre from the north. It is a three-span cast in-situ concrete structure, approximately 40m in length, of a ‘tee beam’ design, i.e. with the concrete deck slab cast integrally with the main beams, and this superstructure is supported by reinforced concrete wall abutments and mass concrete piers founded upon submerged piles. Marine gravels from the Boulder Bank were used as a coarse aggregate. The carriageway is supported with six main beams per span, with two elevated edge beams supporting integral raised footpaths on each side of the bridge.2 

Trafalgar Street Bridge construction. F.N. Jones 321417

Trafalgar Street Bridge construction. Nelson Provincial Museum. F.N. Jones 321417

The bridge was refurbished in 1997 to allow a better view of the river. The original solid parapets were 1.4 metres high and obscured this view when driving or walking over the bridge, so these were replaced with see-through handrails, designed to optimise identification with the original period but maximise the view. The pillars on both ends of the bridge were left intact to minimise changes to the original structure.3 

Trafalgar Street Bridge. 321286. FN Jones

Trafalgar Street Bridge, shortly after opening. Nelson Provincial Museum, FN Jones. 321286

In 2011 the lighting was improved on the bridge, with alternating blue and white LED lights illuminating the footpath, and playing with the vertical bars in the handrail to create a strong visual display. In May 2019, when the bridge was nearly 100 years old, Nelson City Council commissioned a detailed assessment of its structure and condition of the concrete. Although there was a reasonable amount of concrete carbonation, which happens naturally over time, the report concluded that the bridge had a long life ahead of it if well maintained. It was closed for a week, while the road surface was replaced, drainage improved and the concrete deck  repaired and waterproofed. Coloured lighting continues to be a feature of the bridge, which remains an iconic entrance to the CBD.


Jeff Thomson’s Cabbage Trees grace the Achilles Avenue walkway, outside the State Advances building. These were erected in April 2005. The trunks of the trees have the corrugations curved horizontally.  The leaves have been cut to emphasise the corrugations in profile, with others made with corrugations running lengthways. The cabbage tree was important to Māori; its leaves were used by the guide Kehu to make sandals in the epic exploration of the Buller, made with Thomas Brunner. John F. Perry, in the foreword of the book Jeff Thomson - Any Old Iron says "Simply by working with a new material he (Thomson) has enlarged our world." He has almost single-handedly taken corrugated iron off the roof and put in on the wall and the pedestal. “

Trafalgar Southern cross sculptureSouthern Cross Sculpture, Nelson City Council
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The Southern Cross Stone sculpture, located on Trafalgar Street halfway between Hardy and Bridge Streets, was created by Bruce Mitchell from seven tonnes of Golden Bay black marble, and installed in October 1992. It is loosely based on a natural crystal formation known as the cross stone and linked to the Southern Cross, which helped guide Māori and Europeans to New Zealand.  The sculpture has been aligned north-south and east-west to form a rough compass, and to create an x-shaped shadow in the afternoon sun.

A friend and gallery owner who displayed Mitchell’s work told me: “Bruce died nearly 2 years ago in 2010. Had a massive heart attack at his house on Takaka Hill after partying up for his mate's 50th. He was a lovable rogue - lived hard and partied hard. Don't know if he ever did formal training with his sculpting, probably not. I imagine he just picked up the skills and strength along the way. Not many people can carve and move massive pieces of marble like he could. I think Bruce had lived on the Takaka Hill for nearly 30 years. I know he was born and brought up in Ashburton.” Bruce used to travel all around the top of the South to source marble - not just from Takaka Hill. He also set up a sculpture park called "Rock & Stone" near his property on Takaka hill, with the hopes of bringing fellow sculptors together to work side by side. Unfortunately nothing ever came of that, but his legacy lives on. Bruce was commissioned to do the "Kaka Beak" sculpture in Motueka for Tasman District Council; he died before the work was completed, however, and it was finished, following his design, by Glen Davis.

Art of the Nelson Provincial Museum
The Nelson Provincial Museum is on the corner of Trafalgar and Hardy Streets, also in Town Acre 445.  Here in 1872 stood the first Museum, which has art in its collections, as well as a wealth of historical objects and images which relate to the history of the region.  The building, opened in 2005, was adapted by Irving Smith Architects from an existing building designed by Athfield Architects. That building replaced the Nelson Hotel with eight ground floor shops and a bottle store with corner garden bar and a first floor tavern.4

The Nelson Provincial Museum building features a number of artworks or iconic objects. The exterior of the building features an Anchor Stone, referencing the land. The stone is argillite, or pakohe, which was quarried by early Māori in the Maitai Valley.  The markings on the stone show that it was used to anchor waka close to shore.  It was found in the Maitai in the 1970s.

The interior of the building, facing onto Trafalgar Street, houses  a number of artworks.

  • Weave, the window above the stairwell, was designed by Jo Ogier and executed by Robyn Hall, at Vitrific Glass at Nelson Craft Studio and Gallery, and dedicated on 17 May 2006. She describes the work as follows: ”This work is based on a weaving design and brings together strands of pattern and texture in a form that connects the flora with the fauna, focusing the interconnected and interwoven qualities of ecology within the Nelson region.  This fragile balance in nature is what all life depends on.   The work also seeks to bring in strands of Maori and European ancestry, with the inclusion of the local iwi kowhaiwhai design  and tukutuku panels,  also the reef knot representing all those immigrants who sailed on the early sailing ships and settled in the Nelson region.”
    Her "etched scenes", a window above the roof garden,  portray what Nelson would have looked like before settlement.
    Jo Ogier’s work reflects her strong conservation and ecological ties with the land. She has received a number of scholarships and awards, including the Margaret Senior Wildlife Scholarship and the William Fletcher Trust Scholarship in 1995. In 1999 she was awarded a Southland Art Foundation Artist in Residence and in 2000 was the inaugural William Hodges Fellow. Since 1992 she has exhibited extensively throughout New Zealand and in group shows in Australia, France and Japan.   Jo currently works full time on her art at the Blue Shed Studio in Omarama.
    Robyn Hall began lead lighting ten years ago, after being made redundant from her former working life. Robyn’s professional training started at Glasscraft, who she worked with for 5 years. During this time Robyn worked on windows for the Wakapuaka cemetery chapel and the Suburban Club. Most of Robyn’s commissions have been for private residences and private collections. This was the first time that Robyn worked on a project using someone else’s design. There were no preconceived ideas about what could and couldn’t be done with leadlighting.and viewed as “ an opportunity to make something way, way beyond the ordinary”.
  • Silent Witness 2005  - Ceramic mural Christopher Vine
    This mural was donated by the Nelson Literary, Scientific and Philosophical Institute to celebrate the opening of the new museum. Established in 1841, the Society was responsible for the establishment of the first library and museum in Nelson. The work constitutes 45 ceramic images of historical Nelson Buildings, many no longer in existence.
  • Sally Burton  “talking Posts” (lower gallery)
    Located in the gallery, these pieces, painted in acrylic on Jarrah operate as transmission posts, telling the stories of historical personalities. Sally’s works are held in many public and private collections worldwide. She has a studio on the Waimea Plains and is a graduate of the School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University and is now a full time painter.
  • Jim Mackay Contemporary Pou whenua (lower gallery)
    Mackay is a versatile artist, known for his work on Wakefield Quay and glassworks.
Trafalgar Street historic precinct

This precinct has a Historic Places registration. The area comprises numbers 276-300 Trafalgar Street (east and west), plus 315 and 324 Trafalgar Square, and the Cathedral area. This is the historic centre of Nelson. Arthur Wakefield pitched his tent on Pikimai and erected a pole to use as a marker to lay out Nelson’s main thoroughfares – Trafalgar and Nile Streets. The area’s remaining heritage buildings testify to the importance of Nelson in Victorian and Edwardian times.

The major historic buildings are listed below, the stories of several of these are covered elsewhere on the Prow.

  • Church Steps
  • Cathedral
  • Cathedral Hill (Pikimai)
  • 1903 site5 - the Municipal Building, which was built for Nelson City Council in 1903, was originally sited on the eastern corner of Trafalgar Street and Trafalgar Square and was demolished in 1990.   In October 1992 a donation from the trustees of H. C. Cock Charitable Trust enabled the Council to make the site a reserve and develop it as an enhanced open space.  It is an important site for public performances. The Phoenix palms were chosen as the four main trees because of the proximity of the large palm in the grounds of the Nelson Club, immediately behind the 1903 site, and the four on the adjacent Church Hill.
    Trafalgar Municipal buildingMunicipal building. View of a large crowd gathered in front of the Municipal Building at the intersection of Trafalgar Street and Selwyn Place. Horses and carriages, and motor vehicles, are also in the street. Nelson Provincial Museum, FN Jones
    Click image to enlarge
  • Dalgetty & Company, 284 Trafalgar Street
  • Development House – 280 Trafalgar Street
  • Glasgow Building, former 281 Trafalgar Street. Now known as the Vics Mac’s Brewbar, this is a good example of adaptive reuse of a heritage building. Built in 1889 for the New Zealand Insurance Company, it was taken over in 1916 by solicitors and used as legal offices until 1979 then as Council offices. It was converted into a public bar and restaurant in 1992.
  • Nelson Club, 61-65 Selwyn Place 
  • Plunket and Rest Rooms, 324 Trafalgar Street
  • Nelson Women's Club, 294-296 Trafalgar Street. The site of Nelson’s first Institute at Town Acre 445, as displayed on the plaque  on the footpath outside the front door.  The present building was built in 1902 by the Vining family.
  • Smythe Building -  300 Trafalgar Street
  • Symons Memorial
  • 320 Trafalgar Square, a classic 1960's building which has retained its integity. It is part of the Modern Movement, designed in the Brutalist style and built by Alex Bowman to house his architectural office. Alex Bowman is a key figure in the development of Nelson’s architecture in the second half of the 20th century, and the building gains added significance as the place where he designed a number of Nelson’s significant buildings through the second half of his career.
  • The White House, 349 Trafalgar Square. This house, built around 1900  is a rare and excellent  representative of the two storeyed Villa style, common throughout New Zealand in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries  The house, with its delicate detailing, has all the requisite elements of that style. Of particular significance in examples of villas, such as this, is the use of very good quality, mechanically turned and sawn details.

Art on the precinct

  • Bust of Eelco Boswijk – this was created by Siene de Vries and installed in 2008 by the ‘Friends of Eelco Boswijk’ in recognition of Eelco’s ‘tremendous social and cultural contribution’.  It sits adjacent to the site of his iconic coffee shop, reputed to be the first in New Zealand. The sculpture was modelled in clay and then cast in bronze at Artworks in Auckland.
  • Nature outgrows the urban jungle – Chris Finlayson mural
  • “Victory” sculpture –  commissioned by City of Nelson Civic Trust. A three dimensional sculpture in stone on the 1903 site created by Bruce Mitchell in 2005.  It commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar. The inscription on the plaque reads
    "VICTORY / This sculpture was gifted to the city by the City of Nelson Civic Trust to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar and the death of Horatio Lord Nelson on 21st October 1805. / Sculpted in Takaka marble by Bruce Mitchell."
  • Cathedral steps – site of the glorious PikiMai light show of 2011. 

 2014 (updated Sep 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Gatley, J. (2012) Athfield Architects. Auckland: Auckland University Press, p.111
  2. Trafalgar Street Bridge – Concrete Durability Assessment Opus June 2019, for Nelson City Council
  3. Nelson City Council, Report No. 3561 File No:  D19-15 8 April 1997
  4. Gatley, p. 170
  5. 1903 building comes down (1990, 25 July?) Nelson Mail.

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  • I had my first job after leaving college with Alex Bowman's office as a draughtsman in Nelson NZ. I began work in 1958 and worked for two years before my family moved to Wellington where I worked for approximately two years the office of Gabites and Beard before i moved to Australia, working and living for the following 30+ years, the first four of which were spent in the Snowy Mountaind Hydro Electric Authority before moving to Perth WA.I became a qualified architect in Perth. I became a known as a very good design architect and put that ability down to my experience and training to both Alex Bowman and James Beard.

    Posted by Lance Jones, 29/06/2020 11:44pm (4 years ago)

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