Category Archives: The Settlement of Cuba St

The early history of Cuba St

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.

22857465 milk bar Cuba-55

Milk Bar Cuba St ref ATL 22857465

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.

Royal Oak Dinning room

Royal Oak Dining room ref ATL 22705474

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

22334021 Orsinis -58

Orsinis 1958 ref ATL 22334021

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.

Ali Barbas Photo by Barry Thomas

Ali Baba’s ref Photo by Barry Thomas

In the 1980s Ali Babas was set up by the Turkish Kavas brothers they offered the new exciting fast food of kebabs. From  exotic food to weekly stable in twenty years.

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Royal Oak site Market to infamous Hotel

Where the not so desirable 1980’s Royal Oak building stands today, used to stand a grand Hotel and before that a market square. In 1840 the Cuba ship surveyors marked out a town acre of land that was flanked by Manners St, which at the time was a waterfront St, Dixon St to the South and Cuba St. This piece of land was owned by the town’s council and was for the use of the locals.
The Market was a place where the early settles could sell their excess garden produce, a farmers market of sought. In the late 1800’s they built a Market Hall, probably because the Wellington weather was so inclement. Here you could by your vegetables and fresh fish.

Market Town Acre

Market Town Acre

However in 1914 the town leaders must have come under pressure by local developers to sell the prime piece of land. In 1915 the hall was demolished and a Hotel erected on the site. The Royal Oak was one of many Hotels located in Cuba St. where the local hard working laborers would meet to have cold ale and socialise at the end of the long day.

In 1937 The Royal Oak was enlarged to consist of three stories with accommodation a dining room and four bars.

Royal Oak Hotel 1926

Royal Oak Hotel 1926

Ref: 1/2-205044-F. Alexander Turnbull Library

From the 1950’s to 1979 local gays, transvestites, prostitutes and sailors frequented the Bistro and Tavern bars which ran along the Dixon Street side of the  Royal Oak .

Women were barred from most public bars but some private bars allowed “Ladies and Escorts only” this was intended to prevent prostitutes from working the bars. The Bistro Bar was one of the first to bend the strict licensing laws and offered a token meal (a bowl of rice for 2/6) and so becoming a licensed restaurant where both women and men could drink until 10pm.

In 1963 it was still illegal to be homosexual in New Zealand so gay men formed natural escorts for lesbians under the no single woman restriction in public bars. Both parties then found more interesting company once they were inside. During the 1970’s the Bistro and Tavern bars were full of this vibrant gay community who felt at home amongst their own.

These bars are also famous during this time as a place where heterosexual junkies and drug dealers could score. It is said that when the local police stepped into the bar you could hear the bottles of pills falling to the floor.

As this building was constructed of bricks and mortar it was demolished in 1979 and the rather ugly building that is here today according to the council was consented on the understanding that it was to be a temporary building, obviously not a very binding agreement.

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Oyster Saloons in Cuba St

“The world is my oyster” a quote by William Shakespeare and a good positive affirmation to start the day with.

However if I wanted a feed of these delicacies at the end of my day, I would need to forsake a good chunk of the week’s food budget to enjoy this hard-shelled delight.

I recently stood in Wellington  Sea Market at 220 Cuba St and considered buying some luscious new season Bluff oysters. I tried briefly to work out the inflation on this particular shellfish over the last 30 years. Today 1 dozen will set you back $26.95. I remembered that in the early 80’s I was able to buy a 5 dozen tin of Bluff oysters in this very shop for $25. I opted instead for some fish off cuts to make a curry and kept my food budget in check.

Oysters in NZ were first harvested and traded in the Nelson and Marlborough areas. The English settlers had a developed palate for these slippery delights, fostered in their home country where they were also plentiful and accessably priced. The settlers spotted the local Iwi collecting this particular Kai Moana in 1838 and by the 1890’s had ventured in on a large commercial scale and set up a constant supply feeding the locals in Nelson and Wellington.

Cuba St has always been a street full of eateries and Oyster Saloons were in the street from the 1880’s.  These establishments were dining rooms which offered oysters for sale in every possible form: in the shell, raw, tinned, bottled, cooked in every conceivable way from soup, stewed, escalloped and fried.

Today at 63 Cuba St stands The Body Shop, but in 1891 one of the earliest Greek immigrants from Corfu Peter Garbes opened a Fish Shop/ Oyster Saloon at the same address. Just 3 years later Mr Gallete Haralambos, also a Greek immigrant took over the saloon and shop. This gentleman became known as an enterprising shop owner through his well-remembered sales and marketing techniques.

The freshest fish could be bought at 63 Cuba St’s Fish Shop and Oyster Saloon as well as other products including Crayfish, Muttonbirds and Rabbits which were sold intact with their fur  still attached. Ice blocks were introduced in the early 1900’s and used in the window as part of the display, this drew the interest of curious passerby’s who had not seen this new form of food preservation before. Large whole fish would also be strung up in the shop window. The author Pat Lawlor’s remembers when he was young a 20 foot long Shark with a huge jaw of teeth, this gave him nightmares for days. However the biggest claim to fame for this shop must be its mascot, a tame Penguin. The Penguin was kept in the doorway and convinced to stay there with regular feeds of Spotties ( those little fish full of bones and hard for humans to eat) caught just down the road at the water’s edge. I can visualize now, a crowd of children fascinated by this pet and their mothers waiting in line for the then affordable delicacies of oysters and crayfish.

Oysters where also on the menu at another Greek immigrant’s family establishment further up the street at 138 Cuba St. Where the extended Espressoholic  is located today was The Karantze Brothers restaurant, which was established in 1905. The family owned the building until the 70’s. In the book ‘Wellington’s Hellenic Mile” family recall that before refrigeration arrived, the oysters were stored in sacks in the harbor  shallows all the way down in Thorndon! Each day one of the men would have to push a hand barrow with a sack of oysters up the street to the shop, where their customers could enjoy the freshly shucked delicacies. Ah the romance of the past, not really, the Greek fishmongers worked long hours, having to rise at 3am to meet the fishing boats coming into the wharf to get the best of the fish for their customers.

It’s great to think that after 152 years there is still fresh fish being sold to the residents and customers of Cuba St, and still members of the Greek community servicing this business.

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Heritage Buildings, are they important?

Well I think we had all been expecting it. The Bishop of the Anglican Church yesterday announced that the Christchurch cathedral will not be resurrected on the same site to the same design. It will be too costly and they are not convinced the ground underneath will ever be suitable again. It is heartening that they will deconstruct what is left of the cathedral by hand, carefully extracting the stones, wooden features and stain glass windows that are still intact within the ruin.

It is unfortunate however that a large number of other heritage buildings that have been demolished in Christchurch recently, have not been so carefully deconstructed, hundreds of architectural features have been lost forever.

Wellington has hundreds of buildings listed as earthquake prone, including the 42 buildings in Cuba St. I am not sure how many are heritage listed, but know that Cuba St has 44 buildings on the NZ Historic Places Trust register most are category 2 a few category 1. What protection do these categories give the buildings anyway? The catastrophe of Christchurch has proven that really at the end of the day it is more about the safety of the people than the consideration of bricks and mortar, which I totally agree with. However as a connoisseur of architecture and a believer that our built environment influences us consciously and subconsciously, I am concerned about what will transpire in Wellington over the next few years regarding our built heritage.

The Historic Places Trust register does not have any real legal rights over any of the buildings on its list. councils are required to inform the trust when any listed building owner applies for building consent or demolition. The trust can then communicate with the owners and council advising on funding opportunities for conservation or getting some buildings listed on the council’s register. If a building is on the council list they will assist financially in helping to retain the buildings original character. With the council now burdened by its own listed buildings requiring re strengthening, I can’t see there being to many dollars left over to assist other building owners. The council does have a built heritage incentive fund that it allocates to owners annually, however now that the quantity of buildings needing to be upgraded has increased, by the councils own regulatory bar raising, this fund may only strengthen a few bricks in the walls.

In my last blog I suggested that there was an elephant in the council chamber, earthquake prone buildings. On the same day that I posted that blog the council released a 30 page report. Follows a small section;

‘What happened in Christchurch has changed the public’s perception of risk and placed scrutiny over the current regulatory framework in dealing with human safety and building resilience. An initial assessment of areas of interest for Council’s policy and programme responses includes the following: there are around 435 URMs in Wellington City. 166 of these URMs are heritage listed, the cost to strengthen all URMs to a higher level of New Building Standard (e.g. 67% NBS) equates to about half of their current capital value.

Most major routes in and around the CBD have concentrations of earthquake prone and potentially earthquake prone buildings alongside. The economic impact of a Christchurch scale event on Wellington would be in the area of $37 billion. This is based on the quantum of known costs from Christchurch and a potentially greater scale of economic disruption for Wellington due to major infrastructure and network damage. The wider social and economic impacts of a major event on Wellington warrant taking a city resilience approach. This may extend beyond legislative requirements designed primarily to protect human life.

Immediate actions can focus on influencing government funding and legislative responses, education of the general public, addressing dangerous elements on buildings, investigating funding options, prioritising heritage buildings and advancing the current building Initial Evaluation Process (IEP).’

Thank goodness the issue is now taking centre stage. Let’s hope there will be some paying audience participation in the script writing process.

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Elephants and Acrobats in Cuba St

In 1929 the Perry Bros Circus and Zoo arrived in NZ and toured the country by train. In Wellington they set up camp at the top of Cuba St. Imagine that elephants and tigers in the CBD!

Elephants in Cuba S

The animals were kept in line by Captain Wizard the wild animal trainer and performing artists with fabulous names and entertainment options that drew in the local crowds.  The Flying Dunbars, the Jingling Jumpers, Miss La La Selbinie  the contortionists, Mulldoon & Freddie  the clowns, Henry Arco Troupe  with their balancing act, Miss Doreen  the trapeze artist, Alva Zalva and Alva did somersaults  and Ridiculous Gordon  made the crowds laugh as he was a cycling comedian.

Perry Bros Circus

It almost reads like a programme for performers who entertain in the street today, though today the options are numerous and have split out into specialist areas and venues. Magenta Diamond the burlesque and circus performer has  performed at Mighty Mighty, Comedians can be found at the San Francisco Bath House and the Fringe Bar. There is of course the man with the circus top hat who entertains with card tricks in the mall, as well as the acrobats who grab the crowd with audience participation. The music scene is another huge entertainment sector in Cuba St (another blog)

It’s great that today Cuba St still has acrobats and performing artists entertaining the locals and visitors to this creative quarter of Wellington. During summer we are lucky to have artists who use the mall as an open air stage.  Though it seems these performers have to really sing for their supper. They offer the gathered crowds entertainment and ask at the conclusion to the show for people to put some coins into their hats. I have seen the majority of these crowds not even drop a 50 cent coin. I suspect that in 1929 people had to hand over the money to the Perry Bros circus before you could see the entertainment on offer. But times change and what worked as a business model yesterday does not necessarily work today.

Acrobat busker

I am really looking forward to the International Festival opening this weekend, and of course the Fringe is happening right now. Thankfully a few free activities are on offer, I am sure they will be enjoyed by many .  If you watch someone on the street performing think of the coins you toss into their hat as support for a self-employed artist but only the price of a coffee.

Balancing act

I hope that Cuba St in 20 years’ time still has a place where performers can entertain out in the open and that the changes that we will see in the street over the next 20 years are planned enough to incorporate some spaces for obscure entertainment indoors and out.

Pogo stick Acrobat

Post script; re the elephants, I have been thinking that they have metaphorically  migrated down to the bottom of Cuba St and are now residing in the council chamber. The elephants are starting to apply some pressure and will come out from hiding for discussion this could be one of the most important issues that the council and the city will need to deal with, earthquake prone buildings.

Below ref Turnbull library for the 1929 posters

J J Miller Printing Company. Perry Bros’ huge circus & zoo. Coming by special steamer for a short season, commencing Fri[day] Feb[ruary] 1st [1929]. J J Miller Ptg Co Pty Ltd, Melb[ourne. Printed 1928 or earlier].. Ref: Eph-E-CABOT-Circus-Perry-1928-02. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Cabot, Charles Henry, 1890-1978Cabot, Beatrice, fl 1912-1978J J Miller Printing Company. Perry Bros new circus and zoo; a revelation in the amusement world! Coming by special steamer for a short season, commencing Fri[day] Feb[ruary] 1st [1929]. 1928 season. J J Miller Ptg Co Pty Ltd, Melb[ourne].. Ref: Eph-E-CABOT-Circus-Perry-1928-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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Prone to Earthquakes

Anyone living in Wellington knows about earthquakes.  I have grown up in fear of how the ground can rock ‘n’ roll making the buildings I stand in shudder. Within minutes, I am known to quote my estimation of its size, depth and location. Had I been a resident of Christchurch, I would have left town as quickly as I could.

In 1848 the new residents of Wellington where rocked by a large 7.1 quake that knocked down over 70 buildings made of brick and sod. This was the majority of the townships’ buildings. One family of 3 died, crushed by bricks. Quakes continued to rattle the city for over a week. After this quake, a number of people left the city and moved into the regions, onto the Kapiti coast and into the Wairarapa. As timber buildings had withstood this large quake, the settlers rebuilt the town in timber and it wasn’t till the 1870’s that large masonry buildings started to be constructed.

The large earthquake of 1855 estimated to be an 8.2, shook the towns wooden buildings violently; tumbling only chimneys. Most buildings withstood the shake because of their flexibility. The swamp at the Te Aro Pa and the swamp and lake in the Cambridge Terrace  and Basin area were all drained of water. This land emergence greatly affected the residents of Te Aro. The Maori from the local Pa left soon after as their garden areas had disappeared.

The land had risen by between 1 & 1.5 meters around the city shoreline. But out in Petone  land rose by up to 2 meters. As most of the buildings were constructed of wood only 1 person died in the township when his brick house fell on him. Cuba St was extended with more flat land as where other parts of the township. Wharves needed to be extended and this was the beginning of numerous reclamations that gave the locals more flat land to build on.

Today,  53 buildings in Cuba St have been identified as being potentially prone to earthquakes and 16 have had notice served from the council . This notice means that the owners have to strengthen the buildings in the next 10 years. Some of these buildings are so vulnerable that the landlords are required to strengthen or demolish the building in a shorter time frame.

With this situation the architectural fabric of the street will change radically over the next decade. Many landlords will deem it too expensive to strengthen the buildings and decide to demolish and rebuild. Let’s hope these landlords can afford good architects to design new apartments, office spaces and shops so the new look will emerge with positive modernisation. Landlords who decide to retain the original structures will incur high costs; either way it will mean rents will skyrocket.

Who will be able to afford these rents? Small boutique shops and cafes are so much a part of the current character of the street. These businesses will find it difficult to pay high rents. High St chain stores could well afford it, but Wellington does not seem large enough to have more retail outlets of this type. Lambton Quay businesses find it hard enough now.

People have the right to be safe in the buildings they rent from landlords. Will more people be moving their premises out of Cuba Street?  After the recent large quake felt in November, Weltec who have classrooms in the Old Working Mans Club in the mall, decided to end the term early and none of their students or teachers are allowed back in the building. I suspect they are on the lookout for new space before the next term starts.

Park, Robert, 1812-1870. [Park, Robert] 1812-1870. Attributed works :[Sketches showing the damage to buildings sustained in the 1848 Wellington earthquake] 1848. An account of the earthquakes in New Zealand. Extracted from the New South Wales sporting and literary magazine and racing calendar. (Sydney, Printed by D. Wall, 1848). Ref: PUBL-0050-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


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A shopping street from day one

Cuba St has been  a place to shop right from its beginning. The first trading post was built in 1841, near the corner of Manners St and Cuba St.  Captain Rhodes built a whole complex, home, shop and warehouse and the very first wharf in Te Aro. The locals could use the wharf free of charge. Well he must have been an interesting character. Being a ship’s captain he was knowledgable about getting supplies for the shop and by allowing the people to use the wharf he was a savvy shopkeeper and developed a following of loyal client’s.

By the 1870’s there where shops up the whole street, which at that time started at Manners St. The butcher the baker and the candlestick maker could all be found offering services to the hardy settlers.

Dress shops didn’t so much as sell the ready-made dresses that we require today, but they did supply the bolts of fabric, cotton and thread required for the good woman of  Wellington to make the dress they wanted. Mind you so much fabric required! just think of how many hours of labour it would take to produce that layered look of skirt.

If you didn’t have a bloke with a horse and cart, it was more than likely you owned only two or three dresses and would have to of maneuvered yourself about in the dirt of Cuba St ( that would turn to mud in a flash when it rained) being careful not to drag your hem in the mud. Oh the stress of it all, the washing took forever, and if you lived up Cuba St or near about in Te Aro you where probably working in a Thorndon household, doing the lady of the house washing.

By the 1870’s. retailers that are still with us today including Kirkaldies and Stains had opened a branch in Cuba St. The first James Smiths was located in Te Aro House so those ladies with a few extra pennies, could buy that special best dress and attend the occasional social function.

Te Aro House soon to be demolished,  this is what remains of the 3rd building built on this site called Te Aro House image below. The original drapery store built 1840 a wooden building then James Smiths constructed another store in 1888.

James Smith’s shop, Te Aro House, corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-003732-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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