A Work of Art: Constructing the Asylum at the Whau
by Sasha Finer*
It has been said that the new Supreme Court House will be the first real public building erected in the Province of Auckland, but this is undoubtably not correct; for in point of both time, extent, and utility the New Lunatic Asylum is unquestionably the first public building.
New Zealander, 1 December 1865.
It is no wonder that after the well-publicised failure of the hospital asylum the Auckland Provincial Council jumped at the opportunity for redemption provided by the proposed new asylum. Until this new asylum was completed, patients would have to remain at the hospital asylum – and despite additions that attempted to alleviate the strain of overcrowding and the overall conditions, that facility was dead in the water as far as public opinion was concerned. No number of additions or renovations could save face now, and the only way forward for the council was a fresh start – a brand new building on a brand new site. This evidently couldn’t happen fast enough, and during the course of a single Provincial Council meeting in early 1863 a vote was passed to grant NZ£16,000 (approximately NZ$2M today) towards the building of the new asylum.
Many aspects had to be taken into consideration when choosing an appropriate site for an asylum; a list provided by the Colonist noted criteria most important for consideration including soil type, elevation, land size, centrality, and water supply. Not eager to repeat the mistakes made regarding the hospital asylum site, the Provincial Council nominated a select committee of high-profile community members to carry out the considerable task of choosing the most appropriate site for the new asylum. In April 1863 the committee announced they had decided on the site at the Whau for “its cheerful aspect, nature of the soil, supply of water, and easy distance from town”. They estimated that the cost of the construction should not exceed NZ£20,000 (about NZ$2.6M) overall.
The plans for the asylum, drawn up in England (a point of such note it was tacked on to almost every report of them) by a Mr Barrett, had arrived via the Alice Cameron earlier that year and had been provided to local architect James Wrigley to look over. He found them sorely wanting, describing the plans as he received them as “simply designs and not working drawings… they are also not complete”. Taking issue also with the lack of drainage capacity or planned spaces for airing yards – “two of the most important things for consideration in the erection of a new asylum” – Wrigley adapted the original plans to address these faults., This adaptation was seen as a necessity for producing the best possible asylum; the Daily Southern Cross noted that Wrigley’s deviations from the original plan would mean “more room… secured for the inmates, and nothing sacrificed in the style of the building”. Tenders for the build were advertised in early 1864, with the estimated final cost of the construction at this point anticipated to be only around NZ£14,000 (about NZ$1.8M).
Delays in construction began early on. The contract for the manufacturing of bricks for the build had been given to John Thomas of Oakley Creek construction, with the commissioned bricks specified to be “the best new hard burnt yellow stock, all the bricks to be… of a uniform size and colour”. Also commissioned were bricks in red, white and black, and deep blue, with the total number of bricks to be produced and supplied in just a 7-month span numbering 900,000. With the contract commencing in early January 1864, Thomas – who had absolutely no prior experience in brick supply and owned none of the equipment required to produce them – was unable to provide samples of the bricks in advance for the inspection of the Superintendent and requested an extra two months before deliveries commenced. Taking into account these factors it was no surprise that Thomas was unable to maintain a sufficient quantity of bricks per delivery. Although the laying of the foundations commenced in May 1864, by October of that year the contract for brick supply had fallen through completely and work on the asylum site had been at a complete standstill for at least a month. The brick manufacturing was taken up by Dr Pollen, a member of the Provincial Council whose estate was close by the new asylum site, and a year later reports on the progress of the build anticipated its completion in early 1866.
Like the bricks, all materials used in the construction were produced and sourced locally. Scoria was sourced from a local quarry, wood sourced from the Titirangi Ranges, and other materials sourced from across the colony. This was clearly a point of contention, with the New Zealander boasting that “for the information of those persons who contend that if we want to raise a structure of any pretensions either to strength or beauty we must go abroad for the materials, as we cannot get them at home… everything connected with this asylum is indigenous to New Zealand, and was all formed and moulded by Auckland men”. The construction of the building itself too was carried out by local men; under the supervision of contractor Henry White a team of as many as 60 men worked tirelessly on the build.
In July 1865, with progress well underway, the total cost of the build once completed had risen – no thanks to the delay and supply issues that had resulted from the brick tender. The cost was now estimated to be a not insignificant NZ£23,000 – the equivalent of about NZ$3M today, and well over the special committee’s initial ‘should not exceed’ estimation of NZ£20,000. Nevertheless, by the 8th March 1867 the new asylum was finished, and patients were moved from the old hospital asylum across to the new.
Laying out the facts of the construction process for the new asylum reveals an interesting cultural tension that characterises this period of time in New Zealand – a constant push and pull between the dominant British influence and the emergence of an independent national identity. The asylum was modelled after the great lunatic asylums of Victorian England, an architecturally imposing statement upon the landscape; it was even designed in England by an English architect. Yet this English design was criticised and reworked by an “architect of this town” whose plans were ultimately those carried out in the construction of the building, despite a disparaging comment about ‘colonial architects’ apparently being made by the Daily Southern Cross. In imitating the style of those English asylums, the materials were obtained and manufactured to meet an English standard – down to the specific colour of the bricks – yet all the materials, as the New Zealander so proudly reported, were sourced and produced locally; they were also all formed and used in construction by local workers. Each of these separate truths – of the British influence, and of the local practice – are noted as points of pride.
The completed asylum was a physical conduit for that pride. A writer from the New Zealander, one of a group taken on a tour of the facility not long before its completion, compiled an extensive, glowing review of the building, emphasising the striking visual spectacle the building made upon the landscape. He wrote: “At the present time it is the largest brick building in the colony, and so far as pretensions go, as a work of art, it is sui generis, second to none, either brick, stone, or wood… we were struck with the beauty of the structure”. The fact that Auckland now had a proper asylum was also a point of significant moral pride, providing to the community “feelings of satisfaction… on witnessing the ameliorated circumstances by which the mentally inflicted are now surrounded, and the comparative happiness which they evidently enjoy”. This was in pointed comparison to the much-maligned hospital asylum, which couldn’t have elicited any emotions from the public other than outrage, guilt, or shame. The sentiment seemed to be that, with the authority of having a proper asylum, Auckland could prove its status as a civilised settlement in its own right – not just as some morally dubious outpost of the British Empire. The shame of the hospital asylum – the existence of which was described as “disgraceful to a professedly Christian community” – was surely far from the mind of the effusive reporter from the New Zealander who so proudly proclaimed of the new asylum that it “must ever rank as one of the most charitable and necessary institutions which has ever been founded in the colony of New Zealand”.
But the image of moral benevolence provided by the construction of the new asylum was only as good as the moral benevolence of the society it represented. Although at first glance a long way from the gaol that was used at first to confine lunatics, elements of the physical building still revealed the contemporary undercurrents of internal cultural struggle regarding the treatment of the insane. Asylum residents were now referred to as ‘patients’ – but features of the asylum served as reminders that not too long ago those same residents were more likely to be prisoners.