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Union Court

Union Court from Union Place, photographed by Ali Clarke, August 2014.

From refined apartments to student flats to university offices, the building now known as Union Court has seen many changes. There are few university buildings dating from the 1930s – others are the former Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in Cumberland Street (now home to the School of Surveying and Department of Marine Science) and one wing of Cumberland College (formerly the Dunedin Hospital Nurses Home) – so the art deco style of the period is rare around campus. This two-storey brick building presents a dramatic contrast to the adjacent large wooden villas and the multi-storey concrete 1970s Science I Building opposite.

The building dates from 1930 and was a project of some innovative property developers, Castle Buildings Ltd. The company included builders Frank Lawrence and George Lawrence, who carried out the construction, and various Dunedin businessmen, including a quarry owner, a tannery manager, an accountant and two butchers. They set up with a capital of £8000, apparently with the sole purpose of financing this project. The Evening Star commended the project because it had, among other things, “helped considerably to keep a large staff of men in constant work”: this was, of course, a time of economic depression. The architect, William Henry Dunning, had designed various well-regarded Dunedin buildings; the Star suggested that his involvement was “sufficient in itself to guarantee the Dunedin public something of no mean order”. (There is an interesting piece about another of his designs, Barton’s Buildings, on the Built in Dunedin blog).

The building was originally named Castle Flats and included 14 self-contained flats, mostly with 2 bedrooms, built around a courtyard. Two separate blocks were connected by “well-fitted washhouses and archways.” Purpose-built flats were rare in Dunedin at the time, but the Star believed that the “demand for residential flats planned on modern lines is increasing daily in view of the great difficulty in obtaining a dwelling at a moderate price within the city.” These were no cheap or poky apartments, being “artistically designed, and beautifully finished,” with rooms spacious and well lit and tiled fireplaces in living rooms. The target market was “Varsity graduates and professional men whose near abode to the University class rooms is so necessary.”

The front entrance of Union Court, looking through to the courtyard. Photographed by Ali Clarke, August 2014.

The front entrance of Union Court, looking through to the courtyard. Photographed by Ali Clarke, August 2014.

At least one early resident worked at the university: Dr Morris Watt, who lived in Flat 6 for a few years, lectured in bacteriology at the medical school. But most of the flats were occupied by people with no obvious link to the university: 1932 residents included a police sergeant, a warehouseman, a clerk, an insurance manager, a couple of railway employees, and various single and widowed women (street directories of the day assigned them no occupation). In 1950 Flat 6 was the home of Sister Mary Ewart, a former deaconess of Knox Church. Other residents at that time included musician Rodney Pankhurst, teacher Rae Familton, Victor Castleton, who was manager of the Octagon Theatre, civil servant Augustine McAlevey, driver Alex Borrell, and various people without occupations listed. Elizabeth Noble lived in Flat 12 for at least 20 years.

By the 1970s, the Castle Flats building was becoming rather run-down. In 1977 it was purchased by the Otago University Development Society, founded in 1948 for “the rendering of assistance and support to the University of Otago”. Until it wound up in 2002, the society raised money for various university projects. It also invested in buildings – including student accommodation – which would help the university. As an extensive renovation programme to Castle Flats began, society president Maurice Joel suggested that they would “provide pleasant and comfortable accommodation, primarily for staff, and are ideally situated at the centre of the complex.” But by 1978 the society was finding that there was great demand for all its properties from students; the 1979 report commented that Castle Flats were “particularly valuable as accommodation for married post-graduate students from overseas.”

Soon most of the flats were occupied by international students. Some lived there with their families, while others shared with fellow students. OUSA president Jon Doig noted in 1988 that this was a “supportive environment” for students from overseas, who were “often under great financial hardship” and had “trouble finding other flats of suitable standard and price.” A list of 1988 tenants is dominated by Indian, Arabic and Chinese names; most of the residents were undergrads at the university or polytech. Doig was acting as an advocate for those students, who were about to lose this accommodation option. By the late 1980s the rapidly-growing university was desperate for space. In early 1988 the university asked the development society for use of one of the flats for “a university related business venture,” but by the end of the year wanted the entire building for the mushrooming Commerce Division, whose new building was not completed until 1992.

Since the Otago University Development Society’s sole object was to assist the university, it was not about to turn down such a request. Accordingly, late in 1988 the university purchased the building for around $365,000, a price determined by an official valuation. It was converted into offices, and later the university added an extension at the back (facing the University Union), designed to blend seamlessly in style with the original building. These days the building, now known as Union Court, is occupied by the Department of Human Nutrition, the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, and the administrative offices of the Division of Sciences. Meanwhile, there were plenty of international students looking for accommodation. In 1996 the university opened a new place for them in upgraded blocks of flats in Queen Street. Toroa International House, as it was known, provided self-catering flats in a supportive environment complete with communal areas and computer facilities (it is now Toroa College).

Do you have any stories to share of Castle Flats/Union Court? I’d especially love to hear from anybody who lived there when it was an international student community. I’m also on the lookout for earlier photographs of the building!

Looking from the west towards Union Court. Photographed by Ali Clarke, August 2014.

Looking from the west towards Union Court. Photographed by Ali Clarke, August 2014.