Le Normandie’s Chateau Briand Cooked by Madame Louise

Tucked away at the end of a short arcade and part of the Cubacade was Le Normandie restaurant established in 1961 by Renée Louise Charlton. Also known as Madame Louise, she arrived in Wellington in the 1950’s and first worked at the Montmartre Coffee House.

Madame Louise brought top quality French cooking and fine dining to the city.  During the 1960’s and early 70’s Le Normandie was popular with politicians, diplomats and international entertainers such as the Rolling Stones and those members of the general public who could afford the high prices. People would book weeks in advance to taste her famous Chateau Briand for the costly sum of 17/6 . Many dishes on the menu involved flambéing carried out at the diners table, often by one of her imported European waiters.

La Normandy print 2     Le Normandie 1960's web

In 1961 the liquor laws changed allowing wine to be served in restaurants and it is said the wine list was French, extensive and expensive, perfect for those customers wanting to impress guests not used to such fine dining.   Madame Louise was a formidable woman, known to have fired waiters or chefs for mistakes that would not be considered admissible today. She is also known to have hit her staff with whatever was at hand .

Sir Des Britten worked for her very briefly before setting up his own fine dining establishment, the Coachman. Tony Astle of the famous Auckland restaurant Antoine’s started out here at the tender age of 15. Astle worked as a waiter and kitchen hand for Madame Louise. Tony remembers being fired for setting alight to a customer’s cloth napkin. He left and joined Des Britten at the Coachman. Madame Louise believed them to have copied some of her famous recipes and didn’t speak to either man ever again.


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Dancers and Communists in the Barber’s Buildings

The Barber Building is a fine example of the Edwardian style of architecture and is a notable feature of the Cuba Street precinct .

Originally a five roomed home built of Totara was built at 125 Cuba Street. In 1863, W.P Barber, a soldier who fought in the Maori wars put up  a single story wooden building which he used as a dye works. His company prospered so, in 1910, he replaced it,  with the  building that stands here today. There were large dye vats at the rear which used  water from a nearby stream. By the late 1920’s the business had moved out of the central township possibly because of its toxic fumes and smells.

1896 The original Barber building

1896 The original Barber building

Alexander Turnbull Library   Ref: 1/2-011651-G

Edwardian style

The Barber’s buildings 1910 Edwardian style.

The building was rented to a number of different tenants including a dance school on the second floor,which was established by Kathleen O’Brien.  This dance school was later taken over by one of her students, Dorothy Daniels. Other tenants over the years including sewing machinist’s, a photographer and a branch of the Communist party ,which was there from the mid 1940’s to the late 1950’s. Unity Theater was established by the Communist Party members.  When they left Dorothy Daniels took over the whole two floors and taught ballet students there  for nearly 40 years.  Daniels held an Advanced Teacher’s Certificate of the English Royal Academy of Dancing and was appointed an examiner for that society.

A legacy of her passion and lifelong dedication to the teaching of ballet was the establishment in 1982 of the Dorothy Daniels Dance Foundation to foster dance in New Zealand. In 1970 one of Dorothy’s tutors, Valerie Bayley, and a promising student, Anne Rowse, took over the school.

In 1976 the school was bought by Deirdre Tarrant who has tirelessly taught, danced, directed and supported dancers ever since. She is only now contemplating retirement. Deidre was a student of Dorothy Daniel’s and ,in the 1960’s worked as an actress with Nola Millar next door at 127 Cuba St.

Deirdre Tarrant  teaching in the studio. Photo c/o FishHead

Deirdre Tarrant with Footnote Dance rehearsing . Photo c/o FishHead magazine.

The two beautiful dance studios on the first and second floors of the Barber building are accessed via a character wooden staircase, Each week 300 keen dancer’s climb these stairs to attend classes run by the Tarrant dance and theatrical school or others including salsa classes, folk dance and jazz ballet.

This staircase, was nearly destroyed when the building was earthquake strengthened in 1999.

Luckily the owners fought to retain it and won.

In 1992  Deirdre Tarrant established  Footnote Dance on the 2nd floor. This small dance company of around six dancers has performed throughout the world and been an outlet for many talented dancers to express their creative energy and remains a testament to Deirdre’s skill, experience and passionate energy.


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Modern Theatre has its Roots in Cuba St

The first Bristol Hotel in Cuba St was located on the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee St’s and built in the 1920’s. There are records of the hotel being a favorite Hotel for touring theater performers to stay.

The current Bristol Hotel located on this site is made up of 2 buildings; however the hotel went through hard times and reduced in size back to one building for a number of decades.  For a time number 127 the second building was used as a clothing factory and by the 1960’s it was in poor repair.

This badly maintained building offered cheap rent and an opportunity for a group of theatrical artists .  Nola Millar is credited with being Wellington’s mother of modern theatre. In 1968 Nola Millar created the New Theate and established rehearsal rooms and a small 60 seated performance space on the second floor of 127 Cuba St.

Nola Millar was born into a theatrical family in Wellington and she was a driving force in the establishment of the New Zealand Theatre Federation, which was established in 1969. Set up by number of passionate theatre practitioners, its first office was, also located at127 Cuba St.

During the day Drama school classes where held here and during the evenings classes where held for amateur theatrical members of the New Theatre and plays where performed in the private members only theatre.

Nola Miller the mother of Wellington modern Theatre

Nola Miller the mother of Wellington’s modern Theatre

Ref: 35mm-42637-26-F. Alexander Turnbull Library

NZ Arts Council appointed Nola to set up the first NZ National Drama School which was also located in 127 Cuba St. The Arts Council paid the rent for the building but other than the financial support they left Nola to run the school as she wanted. Nola set the curriculum and employed other tutors, including Grant Tilley and Ian Mune. The first intake of students in 1970 had nine students including actors such as Jennifer Ludlum and well known chef Ruth Pretty.

1978 NZ Drama school audition.

1978 NZ Drama school audition.

Ref: EP/1978/3601/6A-F. Alexander Turnbull Library

From 1944 to 1949 Unity Theatre also had there theatre in Cuba St.  They shared a space with the Royal Ancient Order of Buffaloes. This was also the case in the 1970’s for well known Bats theatre and the drama federation who shared a space with the Buffaloes at 1 Kent Tce.

The original Unity theatre was made up of card carrying communists who performed plays with an anti-fascists message.Like the people’s theatres Unity placed an important emphasis on training. It intended ‘to develop its own producers, script writers and technicians, as well as actors’ and emphasised that ‘the people in the group are made up of enthusiasts interested in the serious study of all aspects of drama. In 1943 their policy stated that the group was to pursue the study and practice of the art of drama which is real and sincere in its presentation of life.

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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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A Photographers Christmas

Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s being a photographer was a well-respected profession. Cuba St has had a number of photographic studios over the decades.

large to small studios  photographed our city’s leaders and citizens celebrating weddings and growing family’s and young men dressed in their uniforms before heading to the war.

At Christmas time families gather, nothing new about that and so we hope it will continue into the future. However how we celebrate Christmas together and record the festivities has changed hugely with modern technology.

The inserted photo  is actually from a Nelson studio, but  I know the  photographers in Cuba St have also photographed  many creative people dressed in costume.

I will share more stories during the Fringe Festival early next year about some of the photographers who have left  us a wonderful window into the past of Cuba St and its communities.

Girl Dressed as Christmas Tree.


Girl Dressed as Christmas Tree

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The Cuba St Project on the street for Fringe 2013

Today is a very auspicious day at 12 noon on the 12/12/2012 The Fringe Festival 2013 will launch its programme.

I am very pleased to announce that The Cuba ST Project will be participating in the Fringe and coming to the street from the 15th February to the 8th March 2013.

I have been busy researching more photographs and stories from the streets past that I shall be sharing with everyone during the Fringe.

I have also been meeting with current business owners in the street to gain their support. I am thrilled that 13 businesses throughout the street with be participating in this free event. Students from the Victoria University Architectural School are also going to be involved.

It is also fantastic that the Wellington City Council Creative Communities panel have allocated some funds to assist with bringing this project to the street and the Cuba St community.

I shall be updating this site with more information about bridging this project from cyber space to the street.

If you know anyone who could be interested in this event, please encourage them to sign up to the blog site so they can become involved.

All hail the Fringe participants for 2013.


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Cuba St a Different Perspective

Trawling through archival images of Cuba St, has got me thinking about what is there today, is it an improvement on what was there yesterday?



Well I think I prefer the canvas awning from the 19 50’s but it’s great that there is still a fruit shop in the same building.


The sixty’s sign is FAB but I can imagine that someone in urban design at the council decided that it needed to be modernised probably in the 1980’s or 90’s when the Crown studios building just to the left was demolished.


I think I prefer the 1920’s architecture to the single level building,  but I suppose at least the replacement is not earthquake prone!


Well the road and footpaths are certainly an improvement, interesting roof line, but in a big shake I wouldn’t want to be standing under that glass veranda.


The James Smiths building had yet another upgrade not sure about the paint job though. However the choice of transport and space for pedestrians in the central city is much more ecologically friendly.


Women are still window shopping from the same window. With attitude too looking at those heels, I couldn’t wear them  but each  girl to her own desires.

Reference for the National Library images

Canterbury products in shop window, James Smith Ltd., Wellington. K E Niven and Co :Commercial negatives. Ref: 1/2-209947-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23223560

James Smith Ltd, Manners Street Wellington. James Smith Ltd :Photographs of personnel, activities and shops. Ref: PAColl-3332-15-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22717353

Berry Evans Store, Cuba St. K E Niven and Co :Commercial negatives. Ref: 1/2-213953-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23058908

Crown Studios and Hope Brothers building, corner of Cuba Street and Dixon Street, Wellington. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/1-038630-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22841102

Cuba Mall entrance, Wellington. Winder, Duncan, 1919-1970 :Architectural photographs. Ref: DW-4160-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23118555

shop with canvas awning in Cuba Street. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 114/298/02-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23189161

Brick factory of Enoch Tonks, 79 Webb Street, Wellington. Tonks Collection :Negatives of the Tonks Family.. Ref: 1/4-015511-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22857250


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