This year Cumberland College celebrates 25 years of existence. It is now a well-established home for over 300 students, but it didn’t get off to a very auspicious start – it was set up at the last minute in a building about to be demolished!
The building which is now Cumberland was originally the Dunedin Hospital Nurses’ Home. Designed by old Dunedin architectural firm Mason and Wales and built by Fletcher Brothers, it opened in 1916 to cater for the growing staff of the growing Dunedin Hospital. This was an era when all nurses lived on the premises and, as many had come originally from out of town, the hospital board wanted to make this a real “home” for them. The nursing journal, Kai Tiaki, gave the new building a rave review. It had “bedrooms of a sufficient size and healthy and comfortably furnished for each nurse, a large, well-lighted and ventilated dining-room, delightful sitting-room for the nurses in training, for the sisters and for the Home sister, a lecture room and library. There is a fine kitchen and its various adjuncts and rooms for the maids at the Home.” Particular features included the “handsome doors with stained-glass” and the “beautiful New Zealand wood with which the Home is panelled throughout.” The windows were “very large and let in all the sunshine which, especially in winter, is so much appreciated in Dunedin.” The wide balcony would overlook “a nice lawn and garden,” yet to be finished, and tennis courts and a croquet lawn were planned.
For decades the building served its original purpose as nurses’ home, with extensions in the 1940s to cater for the still expanding Dunedin Hospital staff. By the 1980s, though, the hospital’s need for staff accommodation had greatly reduced as most nurses lived out. The 1916 building was becoming decrepit, and the Otago Hospital Board decided in April 1988 to demolish it and use the space as a car park, rather than spend the millions of dollars required for upgrading and converting the building for another use.
Meanwhile, the University of Otago, with its rapidly expanding roll, was desperate to find more residential accommodation for students. It was already leasing the old Wakari Hospital nurses’ home from the Hospital Board (this served as Helensburgh House residential college from 1984 to 1991) and had bought the former Aquinas Hall, re-opened as Dalmore House in 1988. It now offered to lease the old Dunedin Nurses’ Home from the board and pay for its upgrade to meet current fire and seismic standards. As the Helensburgh experiment had shown, a former nurses’ home was ideal for student accommodation, requiring no alterations to the existing floor plan. The board, which would receive more income from this than a car park, agreed in September 1988 to the lease of the old part of the building, initially for five years. The board’s chair Michael Cooper, who also happened to be Professor of Economics at the university, noted that “it means one institution helping another to both bodies’ advantage.”
After some very quick work and scrambling around for furniture, Cumberland House opened its doors to its first 145 residents and staff in February 1989. Warden Joy Bennett commented in her first annual report that it “started its year under extreme difficulties with building work incomplete, no kitchenette facilities and rooms requiring some or all furniture.” During the year snow brought down guttering and fascia boards, leading to urgent repairs, and residents sometimes ended up with cold showers as the old water heating system struggled to cope with demand.
Despite these difficulties, she noted that student morale was high in 1989. The residents may have been selected from the accommodation office’s “pool” of those not accepted by other colleges, and were generally of “average” academic ability, but they weren’t short of energy. Their student council was “extremely enthusiastic which led to a very successful social calendar for Cumberland House,” reported Bennett. The old tennis courts and lawn provided a great venue for ball games, and sports of all sorts became an important part of Cumberland life. Perhaps the best known former resident is Jamie Joseph, who played for the All Blacks in the 1990s and is now coach of the Highlanders.
In its early years, Cumberland was well down the popularity list for residential colleges. It didn’t have the history and reputation of the older colleges, and its facilities were rundown. But as renovations and improvements continued, its reputation grew better. The university purchased the building from the Otago Area Health Board, also taking over the newer wings. Cumberland was “considered quite presentable” by the late 1990s, noted a 2009 review! The turn of the century brought a new dining room and kitchen (meals had been produced off-site before that), leading to more satisfied residents. In 2005 the college took on responsibility for some of the university flats further along Cumberland Street, even closer to the main Dunedin campus. These became Cumberland Court.
The historic building has created its fair share of headaches for Cumberland over the years. Though it was strengthened just before the college opened in 1989, a careful review of university buildings in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes revealed it to be the most vulnerable major building on campus, at just 19% of new building standards. It was first priority for further strengthening, carried out over the summer of 2011/2012. But an old building also has character, and Cumberland College is not short of that. In 2011 its dining room was transformed into Hogwarts to celebrate the opening of the final Harry Potter film. The college also boasts its own ghost, though not everybody welcomes that – the university chaplain and a kaumatua were called on to calm residents after sightings of the “Grey Lady” in 2012.
Do you have any memories to share of Cumberland’s action-packed first 25 years?