216 Cuba Street

As with many of the heritage buildings on Cuba Street, number 216 has an interesting past, a busy present, and now thanks to its owners and the Council, a promising future.

Photo of a man in a blue suit leaning against the front of a shop premises on Cuba St that has been newly renovated and painted white and grey.

216 Cuba Street received funding from the Built Heritage Incentive Fund.

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Designed by Young and Fearn architects and built in 1920, this two-storey stripped classical masonry building is a good representative example of its kind.  

Robert Douglas and Sarah Harrow bought the Heritage New Zealand classified building in June 2013. They purchased the building knowing that it was earthquake prone and needed seismic strengthening or faced demolition. 

The applicant received an initial grant of $20,000 in 2013 to develop a detailed seismic strengthening scheme. This was followed by a grant of $60,000 in 2015 to complete the strengthening works.

“It’s important to do this work because it retains the history of the city, Cuba Street in particular has some great old buildings, and if I had the money I would have a few more,” says Robert.     

Upper Cuba Street circa 1927 with 126 Cuba Street in the background on the left - a billboard advertising pies is on its side (photograph by Crown Studios).

Upper Cuba Street circa 1927 with 216 in the background on the left - and a pie shop billboard on the side!

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The project 

The building is one of the southern-most masonry shop/residences constructed on Cuba Street, and is notable for its well-proportioned façade and restrained palette of classical ornamentation. 

It has a Heritage New Zealand classification due to its streetscape value, but also because of its engineering and architectural value by having concrete exterior walls and steel frame construction. 

Robert and Sarah were keen to ensure the long term viability of the building by increasing its seismic performance to above 70% by introducing new internal concrete frame ties to ground anchors, which are designed to maintain the exterior of the building – which is supported by Heritage New Zealand.

“We loved the building, we could afford it and it had a good return with a tenant that wanted to stay – but now we need to strengthen the concrete supports more using concrete and steel.

“Once the plans are completed and signed off by the Council we will approach a builder to look at options, and hopefully we can do this without vacating our tenant.

Having already earthquake strengthened a building in Christchurch, Robert knows that this type of renovation will take from 4-6 months, isn’t cheap, and that every little bit of support really helps.

“The Built Heritage Incentive Funds have been great. I have had some bad experiences in the past and this was the complete opposite – the team were open, proactive and helped a lot. They have been full of advice and support, and always available to talk too.”

Gray Young was also the architect of the Wellington railway station (under construction 1936).

Gray Young also designed Wellington Railway Station.

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The history

The building was one of the earlier works by one of New Zealand’s most renowned architects, Gray Young, whose most notable Wellington works include the Railway Station, Weir House, the Wellesley Club, and Turnbull House.

Unfortunately, unlike these more famous buildings, not much is known about 216 Cuba Street except it was home to a Jet Dry Cleaners then the building fell into disrepair and apparently became a “burnt out old shell and a haven to alcoholics and a playground for vandals and small children” according to a letter to the Council from an irate neighbour in 1967.

More salubrious tenants have included a pastry maker and Atkinson Electrical Company in the 1950s, Arctech Studios were based there in the 1980s, and current ground floor dwellers Flowers Manuela celebrated their 16th birthday this year.

Being a Scot living in New Zealand it always amuses Robert when Kiwis talk about buildings or things being old, but that hasn’t stopped him embracing the importance of our heritage.

“The Douglas clan goes back 1,000 years – but I suppose it’s all relative!” he laughs.

“I do have a love for old commercial buildings though and I think we should retain them if we can make it cost effective. The challenge is that if they are commercial then they need to make a return, and because of the rocketing costs for building material and compliance this is getting harder every year.”

The Built Heritage Incentive Fund 

The fund helps with conserving, restoring, protecting and caring for Wellington's heritage-listed buildings and objects. Our current focus is on earthquake strengthening. Find out if your project is eligible for funding.

Images courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library.