As one of the Global Model Confucius Institutes, Confucius Institute in Auckland is now relocated to the historical building on Princes Street, Pembridge House, which is opposite to the clock tower of the University of Auckland.
Pembridge is one of the best-preserved examples of an elite urban residence erected in colonial Auckland, and is one of a significant group of houses on the western side of Princes Street linked with the creation of a well-to-do neighbourhood in the 1870s.
Located on the Symonds Street ridge, the two-storey brick residence was constructed in 1876 on top of the remains of the Albert Barracks. The Barracks had formed the largest military installation in early colonial New Zealand, capable of housing approximately 1000 soldiers in the 1840s and 1850s. Possibly itself erected on the site of an earlier Maori settlement known as Horotiu, the fortification was decommissioned following the final withdrawal of British troops in 1870, after which much of the land was subdivided for private lease. The choicest allotments lay on the western side of Princes Street, next to the planned location of Albert Park. The redevelopment was consciously planned as an elite neighbourhood, being located next to places of high social status such as the Colonial Governor’s Auckland residence (Old Government House), the Supreme Court (now the High Court) and one of the main cultural venues in the city (Old Choral Hall). Conditions were placed on the construction of all new residences, requiring that they should be at least two storeys tall and cost a minimum of £700.
Initially known as Park House, the residence was erected by a wealthy merchant, John Smith (1833?-1882). Smith had worked on the Australian and South Island goldfields before establishing a profitable drapery business in Auckland. In 1875 he erected new retail premises in Queen Street, Auckland’s main commercial thoroughfare, and purchased the lease for a residential site on Princes Street. The latter was considered to have been the most desirable of the choice allotments available. Directly overlooking the Queen Street gully, Smith’s house was built in an ornate, Italianate style that had also been employed for his business premises. Italianate architecture was often used for mercantile premises and residences in Auckland during the late Victorian period, being modelled on the designs of Italian Renaissance buildings erected from the proceeds of commercial wealth.
The striking, symmetrically-fronted house incorporated a grand two-storey portico, several large rooms and service spaces on the ground floor, and bedrooms and a library at first floor level. Lavish detailing included decorative tiled floors, ceiling roses and an elegant main staircase. Its architect was William Hammond, an English-trained professional who had recently won a competition for the design of Western Park in Ponsonby. He may have been employed by Smith in the knowledge that Albert Park would be laid out as the city’s premier open space immediately to the south and west of the residence. The building’s rear garden incorporated outhouses, including a possible corrugated iron stables accessed from a service lane.
Following Smith’s death in 1882, the house continued in residential use until the mid twentieth century. Successive leaseholders and occupants included other prominent businessmen, such as Arthur Nathan (1856-1905), the founder of A.H. Nathan and a prominent member of the local Jewish community.
It is possible that it was during his family’s tenure from 1894 to circa 1916 that extensions of similar design to the original structure were added to the rear of the building to improve its service facilities. Elegant front steps and railings were also in place by this time. Nathan renamed the residence as Pembridge.
From the First World War (1914-18) to the Second World War (1939-45), the place was successively occupied by Edward Russell (1869-1939), of the law firm Russell McVeigh Macky and Barrowclough, and Sir Arthur Fair (1885?-1970), a Judge of the nearby Supreme Court and a recipient of the Military Cross. The residence has since been in institutional use by the University of Auckland and other bodies. In the 1970s, awareness of the heritage significance of the place helped to save it from demolition.
Pembridge has considerable aesthetic significance for its street and park setting, its striking external appearance and ornate detailing. It has archaeological value for incorporating remains of the Albert Barracks and later deposits linked to residential urban occupation. The main residence is architecturally significant as one of Auckland’s best-preserved elite urban dwellings, and as an impressive example of an Italianate residence designed by the architect William Hammond. It is of historical value for demonstrating the transformation of a major urban area into an exclusive residential neighbourhood for Auckland’s commercial and professional elite in the late nineteenth century, and for reflecting the wealth and lifestyle of such groups and their prominent position in Auckland society. It is a significant part of an outstandingly important cultural and historical landscape on the Symonds Street ridge that retains numerous archaeological sites, historic buildings and other places linked to its role as the epicentre of early British colonial power in New Zealand, and as a subsequent residential neighbourhood of note.