Cuba Street has time on its side

We all know - and mostly love - Cuba Street, but not many of us are familiar with the street name's origin. Despite having popular local haunts like Havana Bar and Fidel’s Café related to the country of Cuba, it’s actually named after an early settler ship called Cuba, which arrived on our fair shores in 1840.

Cuba Street, Wellington, circa 1870s, showing Anderson & Janson's store and a branch of Kirkcaldie & Stains.

Cuba Street circa 1870

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In 1842, the Tonks were one of the first families to settle around what was to become Cuba Street. They bought up a lot of the property in the area and established successful brickyards. Eventually, local streets including Tonks Grove, Arthur Street, and Frederick Street were named after members of the family. 

Even in the early days of the mid-1800s, Cuba Street was a busy neck of the woods with a local market for country folk to sell their produce, a violin maker, two grocers, a butcher, a bell hanger and locksmith, a painter and glazier, a boot shop, a draper, and of course a pub – the Nag’s Head Inn. 

Many of the stores that first opened on Cuba Street are still recognisable today, with James Smith opening the Te Aro House in 1868 and Nees opening circa 1874. Hannah’s footwear was launched in 1868 and opened a store on the street a few years later, Hope Bros was a menswear clothing store before the brand moniker was adopted by today’s bar of the same name, and Kirkcaldie & Stains temporarily opened a branch in the neighbourhood in 1871. 

Cuba Street circa 1910 with the Dixon Street intersection in the middle ground. Photograph taken by Sydney Charles Smith.

Cuba Street 1910

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The area has seen many changes, but some other businesses have seen the test of time, like The Matterhorn. Originally established by two pioneering Swiss brothers in 1963, it quickly became the talk of the town as one of the first continental coffee lounges around. Staff dressed in full Swiss maid regalia and served strong filter coffee, and the menu included unusual delicacies like asparagus rolls, stroganoff, and Swiss pastries.

Public demand led to part of Cuba Street (between Ghuznee and Dixon Streets) being permanently closed to traffic, and so Cuba Mall was born in 1969 – and the famous Bucket Fountain followed shortly.

Cuba Mall entrance, Cuba Street circa 1960s: Photographed by Duncan Winder.

Cuba Mall circa 1960

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The history of the street is reflected in the over 40 heritage buildings on the street, many of which have either been earthquake strengthened or are in the process of it.

Images courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.