More about George O'Brien

R.D.G. Collins's article about George O'Brien in your December/January issue has added much to our knowledge of this painter but, as Mr Collins remarks, there is still much to discover.

It may be of interest that O'Brien's cousin Lucius O'Brien, born at Shanty Bay, Ontario, in 1832, was the first president of the Royal Canadian Academy. He too was an architect and engineer. He took up painting about 1872 and, when chosen by the Canadian Governor-General to head the Academy, deposited a diploma painting, Sunrise on the Saguenay, painted in the romantic manner of Albert Bierstadt. Lucius O'Brien has been described as an urbane and diplomatic president with the well-bred ease of his father's family.

Interest of a different kind attaches to another of George's cousins, William Smith O'Brien M.P., the Irish patriot sentenced in 1848 to be hanged, drawn and quartered but transported instead to Tasmania. Did George, one wonders, already established in Melbourne, cross the strait to visit his older relative?

While George O'Brien was one of a large family - his parents, who were themselves cousins, were both dead by the time he was seventeen - he apparently had no nieces and only one nephew. This was Robert O'Brien Studdert, his sister Catherine's son, who lived at Cullane near Kilkishen, co. Clare, married a sister of the Marquess of Ely and had two sons both of whom died without issue.

Outrage in Princes Street

Latest, but alas, neither last nor least of the victims on the butchers chain is 25a, Princes Street, Auckland. At the moment of writing this letter (February 10), it is under notice, expiring February 28, to be removed to some other place or the junkyard by tender. The ostensible reason for such a sentence is, of course, bad state of repair. Other reasons, officially or unofficially stated, are: (1) need for extra access to Albert Park (2) the desire expressed by the recently established northern neighbour, a body called the University Club, to have it removed, and (3) historic and aesthetic insignificance.

The rear of the property abuts, not on to Albert Park but on to Bowen Lane, with the northernmost shrubbery-filled narrow point of the park across the tar-seal. There is an acute drop in levels of about 4 metres. Somebody must be joking.

Not much clearer is the wish of the adjacent owners. The area to be vacated is on the bleaker side of their building, would not improve their outlook in any significant way; nor would it provide a pleasant Paris-café-style outdoor sitting area, even if the property questions could be solved (it is not their land!). So why? Tidy and well-kept as the next door building may be, it is no great asset vista-wise (one shudders to assume that the club has its eyes on it as a possible parking lot, but there is no evidence of such a desire).v

Historically, it must be admitted that no important events or personalities can be connected with this structure. Its history goes back to 1876, when it was built. Sharing a fate which befell many interesting early wooden buildings in New Zealand it had undergone bodily transfer from the neighbouring site where it originally stood, at least in part: the old house was cut in half, the front part moved over and amplified in the rear, the old part which remained in situ was also substantially reconstructed - a procedure in its way as interesting and tell-tale in the history of technology of this town as many another historic association, though the operation occurred as late as 1934 (my information is from the records of the Property Office of the A.C.C.). But the aesthetic angle requires more comment.


Entrance hall and
staircase at 25a Princes Street, Auckland

The house is in the tradition of a sober but sensitive Classicism, of the sort brilliantly represented by the Bank of New Zealand in Queen Street. Being of timber (and decrepit to a degree) 25a has of course less impact: but the quality of the architectural mind that conceived it is no less respectable than that of the bank. Inside, it has a really noble staircase, which was added to very sensitively during the alterations. The external aspect is well-nigh unique with its quiet and convincingly correct proportions. With its more florid neighbours, it forms a piece of historic environment which is all the more attractive for the difference in styles. The house is a show-place, not a mere specimen, of social-architectural history with few equals in the country.

Latest reports say that the University Club denies having been intransigent about the conservation of 25a. If so, where are the real enemies of the venerable building? For reasons not very clear, the Historic Places Trust has taken precious little interest in its preservation - and the brunt of the fighting was borne by the Auckland Civic Trust. In fact, the Mayor, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, now holds out hopes that the latter body will have six months to mobilize the public or interested organisations to finance a reconstruction which would provide very fitting accommodation for professional bodies. But the uncomfortable question still remains; why did the owner of the building, the City Council itself, let things slide from a repair job worth $12,000 five years ago to a reconstruction job nearly ten times as much today?

I think the law requiring organ of Government, local and national, to take the initiative and exercise constant vigilance over conservation matters, needs urgent strengthening. How can one expect private interests to respect conservation issues, if Government itself does not?