A Photographic history of Cuba Street

The Settlement of Cuba Street

In the 1830s Maori, sealers and missionaries mostly inhabited the settlement of Port Nicholson although it was in this decade that the New Zealand Company was established. It was in 1839 that the company sold prospective British settlers one town acre and 100 country acres in section bundles – a total of 1100 acres were sold by ballot.

Not all of those who sailed into Port Nicholson on the company’s ships to establish the township of Brittania bought land as many, attracted by the prospect of work, had come to the colony to start a better life.

The company’s first ship the Tory, captained by Colonel William Wakefield, arrived in the harbour in the spring of 1839. Wakefield chose Thorndon and its surrounding hills as the area to establish the township. With help from Dicky Barret, a sealer already established at Port Nicholson, he bought land from chief Te Wharepuri of Ngharanga. The purchase led to a meeting of sixteen Māori chiefs and New Zealand Company representatives, led by Colonel Wakefield, at which the Port Nicholson Purchase deed was agreed. Not all the area’s inhabitants were in favour – Te Aro Pa denounced and opposed the sale.

Soon after, on 2 January 1840, the company’s ship Cuba arrived at Port Nicholson bringing with it a survey party of 26 men led by head surveyor Captain William Main Smith. The group was charged with surveying and planning the new settlement. Company directors in England had instructed Captain Smith to make the settlement larger than Colonel Wakefield had originally been instructed. Thorndon was now considered too small an area and land was bought from Te Puni the chief from the Pito-one tribe and the survey party moved to lower Hutt valley and started pegging out the new township Britannia. The company’s ships continued to arrive and unload immigrants onto Petone foreshore

New settlers were met with an immediate problem; the Hutt River flooded frequently in the first weeks of European settlement and surveying the valley floor was difficult.

Colonel Wakefield was said to have been convinced that he had bought all the land encircling Port Nicholson but this is in dispute as Te Aro Pa boycotted the sale from the beginning. Surveyor Captain Smith and his team moved onto the flats of Te Aro to Thorndon and once again began to peg out a township designed by the company’s owners back in England.

Te Aro Pa Maori, angered by the occupation of their land but fearing the surveyors’ pistols and swords, sneaked out at night and pulled out the survey pegs but the surveyors achieved their goal and pegged out the township. Te Aro Pa Maori where slowly forced out. It was not until 1847 that Governor George Grey negotiated a settlement with the tribe who received 526 country acres and some horses.

From 1840 to the early 1880s, by then it was known as Wellington, the township had grown and encompassed all the Te Aro flats.

In Wellington’s early days of settlement most homes were built of wood harvested from local timber while shops and workplaces were built of mud bricks. In 1848 however, a severe earthquake killed three settlers and demolished many mud brick buildings. Many settlers fled to Wairarapa and those left decided to rebuild the town in wood. But in 1855 another earthquake, possibly an 8 on the Richter scale, killed many more settlers and destroyed even the wooden houses.

The resilient settlers rebuilt the township and by the 1870s new buildings were being constructed out of stone, brick and un-reinforced masonry. Many of these now heritage buildings, because of their construction and age, are now considered earthquake prone – 44 in Cuba Street is an example.

Transport in Cuba Street

Cuba Street has been a main thoroughfare from the beginning and has always been used as an access way from the harbour almost to Mount Cook and has been thronged constantly by people, horse and cart, wagons, trucks trams, buses, cars, bicycles and the street’s “trademark” skateboards.

The long dirt street, not sealed until the late 1800s, often turned in wet weather to mud and through this townspeople mostly walked, cycled or rode horses – only more well off folk could afford horse-drawn carts. Gas street lamps were introduced in the 1860s.

Cuba Street quickly became the place to get fabric from the draper and supplies for the farm and bullock teams took the purchases away. Steam trams, introduced in 1878, were the first public transport in Cuba Street; they were noisy and the trip was said to be most unpleasant. Then more popular horse-drawn trams appeared in 1880 and became the transport townspeople used to get home to the growing township’s early suburbs. Electric trams were installed in 1904 and Cuba Street became a major intersection with tram tracks the entire length of the street. The trams would stay in service until 1964 when buses took over public transport, the tram tracks where pulled up, the street resurfaced.

When cars arrived in the early 1900s horses still used the street and it wasn’t until the 1930s that their familiar clip, clop faded into history. Bicycles were common in Cuba Street until the 1940s but are not seen as much now – the carriage way is now packed with motor traffic and there isn’t much room for the two-wheeler.

Dining in Cuba Street

Today Cuba Street is a foodie’s Mecca – wherever you look, on corners, up lanes and upstairs – there’s a place to eat. But the street’s reputation as a gourmet’s Nirvana isn’t new; it’s been a popular place to eat since the early days. In the early years Te Aro residents knew they would find a decent meal and fresh food in Cuba Street, in the 1800s oyster bars were plentiful “on Cuba”. They were dining rooms that sold oysters in the shell, raw, tinned, bottled, cooked, in soup, stewed, escalloped and fried.  Oysters were cheap and plentiful and they came from the Marlborough Sounds, brought by boat straight to the Wellington fishmongers’ market. In the early 1900s before refrigerators where invented the owners of one Cuba Street oyster saloon kept their stock of fresh oysters in sacks in the harbour near Thorndon. Every day the sacks would be barrowed up from the water and the still live oysters would be shucked and sold.

The Greek community initially ran the oyster bars and early newspaper stories report that oyster bar operators had to contend with drunken male customers in for a feed before heading home. The Greek community also later set up  milk bars and until the 1960s Cuba Street produced its share of milkshakes and white bread sandwiches.

Dinning out of an evening in post war Wellington was not something many Wellingtonians did, preferring to entertain at home. There was Hotel dinning when formal and special occasions were celebrated – dinner was in the dining room between 6pm and 7pm and if you were any later, sorry but you would miss out, the kitchen was closed. The Royal Oak Hotel, on the corner of Cuba and Manners streets, boasted a formal dining room with white starched napery and listed politicians among the diners.

Established in 1958 by Mr and Mrs Littlejohn and later owned by Phillip Temple, Orsini’s at 201 Cuba Street was one of the first fine dining restaurants in the city. French immigrant Madame Louise established her restaurant, Le Normandie, in Cubacade in1961. Drago Kovac later owned Le Normandie.

Initially the licensing laws did not allow wine to be served in these restaurants but bottles would find their way to the tables after being smuggled in under coats and between the papers of the local newspaper. By 1962 the law changed and wine lists in these establishments included mostly fine French Boudreaux wines. These restaurants offered diners a cosmopolitan experience; they could arrive later in the evening to dine in an environment that was much more pleasant than stuffy hotels, they could dance, The food offered was different in both of these establishments. Le Normandie offered flambé meats and desserts, French onion soup, and pate de foie gras all fine European dishes. Orsini’s offered, soups, fish and meat dishes and their desserts where more of a NZ origin such as Pavlova cake and fruit salads, a three course meal would cost between $7 and $10

By the late 1950s the coffee culture began, coffee bars offered office workers something special at lunch and after work with friends. In the 1960s A Swiss German couple opened the Matterhorn coffee lounge in Cuba Street. The menu was sophisticated and Friday night shoppers made the Matterhorn a popular place for a Friday meal – mince on white toast was popular followed by a cona coffee or iced chocolate served with lashings of cream.

In the 1980s Ali Barbers was set up by the Turkish Kavas brothers they offered the new exciting fast food of kebabs.


Fashion in the street

“To be clothed is a necessity; to spend on fashion is a desire.”

Cuba Street has been a fashion follower’s street of choice from the beginning when an enterprising Captain Rhodes and his wife set up shop on the corner of Cuba and Manners streets. Elsewhere in the street clothing was manufactured and sold by several drapery businesses and factories such as Hallenstein Brothers factory on the corner of Ghuznee and Cuba streets. Textile and fashion stores that set up in Cuba Street and run by generations of families continued in business for many decades – James Smiths, Vance Vivian’s, Evans’s, Farmers and Hallenstein Bros to name a few.

During the 1970s and early 1980s a group of young men set up a hair salon in the Cubacade called Bananas and later Guava. These men and their fashion designer friends such as the girls at Svelte fashion design store further up Cuba Street became the leaders of fashion in the city. Presenting fashion shows that shocked, photographing models in new and exciting ways and running a music club called Billys around the corner at the Trade’s hall, they were the style setting leaders in Wellington’s New Wave and early Punk scenes.

Today the street is still home to designers who offer clothing that is more individualist or “funky” than that on offer in the High street. Retro clothing stores selling clothing from the 1900s up to today are many, making it a street still connected to its past.


William Williams, a young bachelor living at the top of Cuba Street in 1883, was a keen amateur photographer who used a large format camera with glass plate negatives. His experimental photographs recorded his friends dressed as Maori, their housing and the wild country around Wellington. Later his son Edgar ensured his father’s important photographic collection was bequeathed to the Alexander Turnbull Library where it is on-line.

The Crown Studio on the corner of Cuba and Dixon streets and established by a Mr Thompson in the early 1920s specialised in group shots. Crown studios were the official photographers for the All Blacks rugby team in the 1920s and 1930s and took many photos for the Evening Post in the 1930s. Their photographs were bequeathed to the Turnbull Library in 2001 by the Thompson family and are an impressive impression of Wellington’s past. The studio also photographed Cuba Street and produced clear photographic documentation of the changes in the street.

Mr Thompson senior funded and built the first wooden two-storey building in Cuba Street and engaged Hope Brothers Menswear as the building’s main tenant. When both businesses grew another bigger four-storey building of unreinforced brick was built. Hope Bros continued as the main ground floor tenant until the building was demolished in the early 1980s. The corner was known as the Hope Bros corner.

James Smiths

James Smith, a draper from England, arrived in Wellington in 1865 when the population of the town was 6000 and the government was still based in Auckland. With his wife Annie he bought a small wooden shop and house on the corner of Cuba and Dixon streets that had once belonged to Mary Taylor.

The couple expanded and then rebuilt the shop in the 1870s and from it sold imported home wares and drapery and named it James Smiths Te Aro House. James Smith expanded the business and by 1886 employed 100 workers. Unfortunately one evening in April 1885 a worker lit an oil lamp in the window of the Cuba Street store’s carpet department, It exploded and the flames quickly spread through the wooden building. It is reported that staff escaped though the fire, whipped up by strong winds, needed six hoses to put out. A large crowd of local residents watched the drama unfold. A deeply religious man James Smith was to suffer greatly after the fire as the fully stocked store was underinsured.  Another shop owner leased him a store further up the street while a new larger brick store was built.

James Smith’s sons and grandson’s continued to develop the James Smiths business.  The store was moved twice and by the 1920’s James Smiths was located in a large four story building on the corner of Manners St.  The business closed in 1993 but we still refer to the corner as James Smiths corner.

The Mall

When Wellington City Council closed parts of Cuba Street in the 1960s to remove tramlines the public liked a street where they could walk freely   without worrying about cars and trams. A public campaign to have part of Cuba Street permanently closed off to vehicles eventually put enough pressure on the council to design a “mall” – a place with no vehicular traffic where shoppers could walk at will. The mall became Cuba Mall and is now probably the most used “people place” in inner city Wellington.  The block from Dixon Street to Ghuznee Street is a dedicated pedestrian precinct – a city facility possibly inspired years ago when it was dressed with an archway and overhead flags for the 1901Royal visit to Wellington by the Duke and Duchess of York. The mall, designed by the council’s architects and urban planning team, still features the “Bucket Fountain” – a colourful and playful water feature designed by planning consultants Burren and Keen and opened in 1969 by Sir Francis Kitts, Wellington’s Mayor at the time.

The Bucket fountain has been a talking point from the day it was installed. The amount of water flowing into the buckets has always been too much to be contained inside the pool area surrounding it and large splashes of water drench the uneducated bystander. When the fountain was refurbished in the early 2000s the buckets were reconfigured so that excess water would no longer be a problem though still allowing some water to splash onto any unsuspecting tourist watching the now famous kinetic artwork.

The Creative Community

Cuba Street is described today as the heart of Wellington’s creative quarter. It is a joy to walk up the street and watch the city’s creative characters strut their  eye-catching fashion and hair statements. Extreme fashion statements aside, Cuba Street is home to the artistic soul and there are many studios throughout the street where they show their work and reveal a wealth of creative activity.

There have been theatre and dance studios in the street since the 1920s. Nola Millar, credited with being Wellington’s mother of modern theatre, taught many young budding actors and established the New Zealand Drama School that brought cutting edge theatre to 127 Cuba Street. At 125 Cuba Street Dorothy Daniels, one of dancer instructor Kathleen O’Brien’s students, taught ballet students for nearly 40 years in her studio. In 1976 dancer Deirdre Tarrant, bought the school and added more generations of talented Wellingtonian dancers.

Two art dealers who championed modern New Zealand art, Peter Mcleavey and Elva Bett established Cuba Street galleries in the 1970s and today their inspiration is followed through with several galleries in the street and surrounding area selling works from emerging artists to renowned artists.

Many musicians have lived in the street and performed in the hotels, clubs and halls for decades, Including Jonathan Crayford and the late Bruno Lawrence. In the 1970s Thistle Hall, the community hall at the top of Cuba Street was the home of the city’s Punk Bands and it was in 2012 that photographer John Lake curated a photographic and Punk show reflecting these years. This show invited the Punk community to contribute images and commentary.

The Cuba Street Carnival that ran from 1999 until 2009 was a bi annual event directed by Chris Morley-Hall. The event is sorely missed and it is hoped that a new carnival or something just as exciting will be back on Cuba Street before long.

Several circuses have been performed in Cuba Street including one in the 1920s when the Perry Brothers brought to upper Cuba Street the “Greatest ring show on earth” – pride of place was held by aerialists the famous Five Lorenzos. Vaudeville acts and tight ropewalkers entertained the adults and a travelling zoo drew crowds of children. Captain Wizard, the wild animal trainer, kept the animals in line with his whip. Performing artists with fabulous names and entertainment options drew in the local crowds.

The Flying Dunbars, the Jingling Jumpers, Miss La La Selbinie the contortionists, Mulldoon Ramp; Freddie the clown, the Henry Arco Troupe with their balancing act, Miss Doreen the trapeze artist, Alva Zalva did somersaults and Ridiculous Gordon, the cycling comedian, entertained.

A throng of colourful street performers in Cuba Mall today are enthusiastically encouraged and supported.


The Future

The listing of 44 Cuba Street buildings as earthquake prone casts a cloud of doubt on this colourful and cosmopolitan street – what is to become of our “funky” heart? Questions are being asked if this creative community with its retro stores can continue renting cheap space in unsafe buildings and will they be able to afford the higher rents that will be a consequence of redevelopment. Will Cuba St end up looking like Lambton Quay architecturally and socially?

In 2012 Victoria University Architectural School lecturers set their fourth year students a challenging and forward thinking project by asking them to come up with designs for specific Cuba Street buildings. The students worked with building owners and architects to develop ideas on how to re strengthen and combine commercial and residential activity in the street. Two students have contributed images and commentary on their work to this project.

Thomas Seear-Budd’s project explored how a craft-brewing hub at the core of Cuba Street might enhance and promote Wellington’s craft brewing culture while fostering an interaction and engagement between the brewing process, the brewers, the breweries and the public.

His project proposes a design that concentrates Wellington craft brewing into an intensified hub of breweries that through their monolithic stature and vertical brewing process reflects the brew tower typology. Returning to the brew tower typology (a brewery design rarely seen in contemporary times) means a greater number of breweries could be located on the site to form a more active and engaging place. With individual breweries their connection and engagement with each other and the public would be a pivotal aspect to the project.

Harriet Eberlein has created designs for low rise and community focused residential units.

Disclaimer; I am not a historian and this is not an academic paper. During my research I have read numerous books and web sites. Including; Pat Lawlor’s Wellington; The Streets of my City by F.L Irvine-Smith; Wellington the firtst years of Settlement 1840-1850 by Gavin McLean; Wellington a biography of a city by Redmar Yska, Wellington a capital century by David McGill; Early Wellington by Louis Ward; Alexander  Turnbull Library; http://www.teara.govt.nz  www.kete.wcl.govt.nz

If you would like to share your thoughts about Cuba Street, its past and its possible future, please join the blog and comment.

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