Recently there has been considerable interest and debate over the future of the substantial brick and masonry building at 1 Victoria Avenue in central Whanganui. The decision to prevent its demolition has been hailed by heritage campaigners as an important step in the preservation of the remaining elements of Whanganui’s Victorian and Edwardian streetscapes.
Aside from its widely discussed architectural merits, the Avenue building has important links to the commercial history of the city courtesy of its builder and original owner James Thain. He started his trading days a few blocks away in a building which is just as well known, although with a different role these days.
In 1888 Thain and his business partner William Clapham bought a small-scale hardware operation in St Hill St which they rapidly developed into a highly successful enterprise with customers all around the region. The company sold a wide range of ironmongery and hardware, including building supplies, household goods, firearms and domestic grocery items. They were agents for famous brands such as Cooper’s Sheep Dipping Powder and Shacklock Ranges – household names in their day and for years afterwards.
As they expanded to service an area from Foxton to New Plymouth and up the main trunk line, it was important for the store to be sited very near the wharf and bulk storage depots and within easy haulage distance of the railway station. The original Thain’s Warehouse was designed by Alfred Atkins and built by local contractor Nicholas Meuli on reclaimed river bank land on Taupō Quay, near the foot of Victoria Avenue.
The Wanganui Chronicle of 12 December 1895 hailed the opening of one of “the most imposing mercantile buildings in Wanganui… of an exceptionally striking appearance”. The article contained a remarkably detailed description of the building’s design, construction and contents. The reporter describes the shell-patterned pediment, panelled pilasters, cornices, parapet with pedestals and gold lettering. Another paragraph or two is devoted to the wooden floor, “solid as a rock” to bear the weight of “a large stock of cement, horse shoes, fencing wires, oils, felt, ridging and bulk packages of hardware”. At the rear there was a long storeroom for “an immense quantity of bar, sheet, corrugated and plate iron, steel in bars and sheets, gas and water pipes etc.” alongside an iron-clad kerosene store.
As business continued to boom, Thain needed more space. His modest retail premises on the prime corner site at the bottom of Victoria Avenue provided the answer. In 1908, he commissioned his favourite builder, Nicholas Meuli, to erect a new, three-storey emporium to a design by local architect T H James. The shop quickly became a Whanganui landmark universally known as Thain’s Corner.
These days the Taupō Quay site is occupied by the Whanganui Visitor Information Centre, rebuilt by the District Council in 2009, incorporating many components of the original structure, including columns, beams and floors.
Images and objects from Thain’s shop will feature in the opening exhibition at the Whanganui Regional Museum.
Frank Start is the Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.