Barton Vernon Gillespie

(born: November 1st 1922. Takaka Cottage Hospital; Golden Bay. Died: 8th Nov 2011 Auckland)

Known mostly for their commercial work related to Stadium and racecourse design, the firm also did a number of ‘modern’ influenced houses including Bartons own from 1953 (pictured below – in need of servere restoration:2010) The practice also has connections to Maurice K Smith, who designed and executed murals at the Pukekohe branch of Alfred Buckland’s store and N. Manchester who painted the interior mural for the Ellerslie grandstands ‘Turf  Room’. The firms records go back at least to 1919 and they were often instrumental in developing new technology for the buildings they designed.Their own building at 100 Anzac Ave was one of the first lift slab concrete buildings in the city and featured in a ‘Home & Building’ article about the technology.

As the son of a watchmaker and beekeeper, Barton Gillespie was probably bound to have some interest in mechanics and structure. Early in his school career Bart’s drawing ability was noticed, and after New Plymouth Boys High and time working on farms and for the Post Office he enrolled in the Architecture course at Auckland University College in 1942, prior to the arrival of influential and popular tutor Vernon Brown in August.

Initially staying at the YMCA in Albert Street, and attending classes in the recently completed Roy Lippencott’s  ‘wedding cake’ University Art’s building with Arnold Neal, Barton sought extra-mural income above the two pounds a week his parents scraped to provide, by working as a ‘seagull’ on the wharf’s and as a freehand and mechanical drawing instructor at the school.

Previously Lettering and Design instructor at Elam (now at the School of Architecture) James Turkington, also a man of immense passion and talent recognised Barton’s skill, and quickly arranged for him to help with the various classes while continuing his studies under the tutelage of other notable influences including Professor Knight, Dick Toy, Irwin Crookes (Structural and Concrete) and Vernon Brown.

In his 3rd year while working on his joint thesis for a ‘neighbourhood unit’ with Arnold Neal, Bart started working part-time at Wilson & Moodie architects after Frank Moodie had approached Prof Knight, on the lookout for a talented newcomer. During graduation year he also worked as a studio instructor before officially joining Wilson Moodie as a partner in 1946 and the practice became Wilson Moodie & Gillespie; even though A P Wilson had passed away some years prior. Wilson had designed the first ‘New Zealand Herald’ building for Wilson and Horton in 1893, and had a number of other prestigious contracts which the firm continued to produce work for over several decades, including the Auckland Racing Club. Frank Moodie had also designed the first AMP Building on the corner of Victoria and Queen Street in which their offices were housed until its demolition.

Barton also had interests in the wider arts, and in 1945 had become a member of the Auckland Operatic Society singing in that years production of Carmen. He also continued to paint, mostly in watercolours and would later become president of the Auckland Society of Arts (1967 – 69. Painting, singing, performing and community involvement has been a large part of Barton’s life up until recent years when failing health has precluded most of these activities). For many, who were able to attend university in those years, clubs and society’s offered a wealth of opportunities and acted as a social mixer, but also were places where new ideas were incubated, and often where one made contacts with future clients – and as a new partner in what was at the time a small practice, Barton was aware of the need to generate work and build the firms profile. The post war period was a mix of positives and negatives, as a feeling of liberation and possibility butted up against material shortages and in some case violent repression – the deregulation of Auckland Carpenters Union and ensuing Watersiders Strike 1951 being a major reaction and impediment to a stable work and construction environment.

“A house that hugs the ground” in ‘House and Building’ (June/July 1950) for solicitor Graham Speight in View Rd, Mount Eden is essentially a refined traditional house in a style similar to those being produced for clients by many architects of the time. Linda Tyler notes in her Architecture Archive text, Vernon Brown was still designing Georgian style houses for those that wanted them between his more adventurous mono-pitch outings in rough-sawn timber and Stockholm tar. Interestingly, Barton’s next domestic outing to appear in ‘Home and Building’ (August 1951) was a model of another house for Graham Speight, this time in Paratai Drive; Speight was to become Crown Prosecutor a few years later. The house was completed by late 1952, reappearing in its finished form in the June 1953 issue of ‘Home and Building’ with plans, photos and descriptions of the layout and colour schemes. The second Speight house was decidedly more ‘modern’; split-level and vertical cedar exterior and large amounts of glazing to maximise view and light.

As well as the commercial work, Wilson Moodie and Gillespie were involved with developing a design which, had it been implemented would have provided huge benefits to the city. The ‘Super Stadium’ scheme for Western Springs was a plan to build a massive circular sports arena, seating 86,000 people in the natural amphitheatre. Designed to be built in sections over a period of years, the design presented in the Town Hall council chambers to councillors and sports representatives failed to gain approval; Tom Pearce (Auckland Rugby Union) said he could not commit his association to supporting the scheme as they were pledged to the development of Eden Park. At a cost of 1,094,500 pounds ($2,189,000) it was, like the Light Rail scheme proposed by Mayor Dove Myer Robinson a number of years later, considered too expensive at the time.

It seems likely the design-work for the 1952 Super Stadium may have come about through A P Wilson’s long term association with the Auckland Racing Club, and this would later translate to a series of interesting buildings across the country for various racing venues, the first and most spectacular being Wilson Moodie & Gillespie’s design for the members stand at Ellerslie – initially drawn up in 1956 and built by Fletchers 1958/59. Developed using what is called ‘space frame construction’ the six story high building with its massive cantilever upper deck and roof was unique, without columns or supports to obstruct the view. The ‘space frame’ was constructed of steel tubes, varying in diameter from two and  a half inches (60mm) to 18 and a half inches (450mm) triangulated and welded or bolted to obtain strength and rigidity without mass. Over 300 feet long and 80 feet high, the double level stand provided seating for 4000, as well as lounges, trainers rooms, kitchens, bars, a film developing room for press photographers and a control room for the broadcast system. Other amenities included jockey weigh-in area, full totalisator facilities, judicial inquiry room and administration offices.

The concept had been developed after Barton had found a company in Europe which produced high tensile metal tube, previously used in gun barrels during the last war. Fletcher Steel and Fletcher Construction were the main contractors and Grey, Watts and Beca the consulting engineers for the stand, of which a model was made and presented in Auckland’s first engineering exhibition, held at the Art Gallery.

Although designing and developing large buildings for the practice, Barton’s family home was considerably more modest in the early 1950’s. Before their marriage in 1949 he and Mary (Weadon) had purchased a section across the road from his parents in Westmere’s William Denny Ave, a long gently sloping piece of land in mostly empty lots. The initial construction (built during the era of ‘the Building Controller’ ) starting in 1950 was little more than a box, mostly open plan with dining/kitchen and bedrooms separated from the bathroom, laundry and toilet by built-in cupboards and a ‘hotdog’ stove – all built for for under a thousand pounds from the State Advances government loan scheme which required you live there for at least seven years.

Bart’s design for the William Denny house was in line with much of what other architects were having to do, under the material and legislative constraints of the time, though William Denny would evolve to be somewhat different to many of those buildings – more an idea of living than a polished object or showpiece.

Many of the innovative elements incorporated into the house  came from the work he was dealing with on a day to day basis. The house’s large glass atrium is reminiscent of the glass curtain walls Bart used in the Press and Shell buildings a few years later. Bart had extended the the building with a bedroom wing behind the central living area as well as building the imposing and intriguing double height entrance with floating mezzanine lounge and plant filled atrium in the early part of the decade (1953- 54: Arthur Smith, builder).

Stepping through the wooden panel front door, into the 22 ft high room  (6.75m) one is surprised not only by the height but also the the dirt floor, though this seems natural when surrounded by the huge banana palms and tropical fruit plants that overhang the entrance. The full height windows supply warmth and light to the plants and interior, which leads further into the house or up across the suspended ramp and stairway to the upper mezzanine lounge level with of views of post-abattoir Cox’s Bay. Paneled in knotty pine (which runs up the walls and along the ceiling) rather than book-matched ply, the upper lounge area to the west is dappled in light falling through the verdant growth of the Wistera vine which covers the upper north facing windows; Bart’s subtle use of nature as shelter and provider. A set of six Jon Jansen parachute webbing chairs surround Bart’s design for a 6 sided dining table, while against the far wall above a cabinet displaying a selection of cups and trophy’s for the various family pursuits is a large brooding landscape Bart bought from Society of Arts member and friend Ron Stenberg.

The angled winter light penetrates deep into the kitchen and original house behind the mezzanine, which is also lit and open to the large sheltered east facing glass doors and deck which runs to the back of the house and the gardens; each of the children having there own to grow plants as well as a lawn and family vegetable patch, the back section surrounded by fruit trees. Like other children of some architects and artists of the era, there was a slight feeling of being different, or apart. Helen and Jan as the oldest were aware that their house wasn’t like many of their school friends. Other than the obvious physical elements such as the suspended stair and floating mezzanine, Mondrian like exterior colour panels and huge windows, the house was an interesting social experiment offering an alternative version of the family home in suburbia. This ‘opening in’ or experimenting with ideas around the use solar heating and of planting as shading directly in the house, was in the mid 1950’s, ‘on the cutting edge’ of technology – and much of it would not be utilized or become popular until at least twenty years later.!

Barton’s interest, observation and interaction with nature would span most of his years, and be manifested in the many different area’s he chose to investigate. As a young man he had worked outdoors on farms, and this connection to the land was kept through regular excursions deerstalking in the Kaimanawa and Urewera ranges, as well as trips to the Southern Alps and Steward Island. It is likely part of this awareness came through his own mothers interest in fresh and healthy produce, Barton’s parents having pursued an alternative life as bee-keepers after the war. The Gillespie house at William Denny Ave represents in many ways an ongoing engagement and experiment with ideas that Barton was processing as part of his desire to extend /build knowledge and find practical solutions to living in the new world of suburban New Zealand…

As the decade came to a close, associate and friend Arnold Neal and Bart designed probably one of the countries only remaining Hyperbolic Paraboloid roofed buildings. The Mt Albert War Memorial Hall (1961) structure is an indication of the new ideas surfacing across the globe; partly a reaction to standardization of building design from Mies copyists and the interest in what was to be called ‘the poetic building’ – structures that seemed to embody some special quality or idea: The Ronchamp Chapel, Wright’s Guggenheim museum, the Sagrada Familia and Felix Candela in Mexico..

Like the Shell building, and his own house, the War Memorial was crucial and evolutionary; and would lead to the yet further milestones, that of the AEI building in Hobson Street and the Gillespie Building in Anzac Ave. Set back in what is now called Rocket Park, the Memorial Hall is almost unnoticed in its present setting, though in the early 60’s it was strikingly different, garnering a large amount of publicity and interest due to the nature of its unusual look and construction – sometimes alluded to be locals as “the Whare”! The ‘Hyper’ – or 5,500 sq ft saddle roof is integral to the strength and overall design of the building, allowing large open areas inside without the need for pillars or columns, the exterior walls only serving as support and a barrier to the elements. The roof is constructed of four timber ‘shells’, each of layered one inch tongue & groove pine on a 2″x 2″ grid at two foot centres which are then joined by four steel ridge beams; the four corners tied to triangular concrete buttresses mounted on solid rock. The exterior walls although not generally load-bearing were cavity concrete block and covered with Roskill Stone, while the large window areas were aluminum and steel framed. No acoustical lining was required as the shape of the auditorium resulted in an excellent sound quality.

The AEI building in Hobson St (1963: now being refurbished 2011) was designed for the international cable and electronics company of Associated Electrical Industries Ltd, which had grown from a small English cable sheathing company to merge with Thorn electronics in 1950 and subsequently purchase Siemens in the mid 1950’s, becoming one of the larger electronics companies in Europe – and expanding internationally. Wilson Moodie and Gillespie’s design was suitably advanced and cutting edge to match the companies international standing as the NZIA Planing and Excellence award would attest. In fact, some of the ideas relating to heating and cooling (the building being the first in the country to employ exterior louvres to control climatic conditions) have since been reintroduced, with the Smaile’s Farm complex recently gaining awards for the application of similar technology.

Also during 1962/63 the practice had started the design for 100 Anzac  Avenue which would become the address of several architects and engineers over the next few decades, including not only Wilson Moodie and Gillespie on the top floor, but Noel Bierre and Frank O Jones, and later Jones & Coupland. The unique design and construction, it’s interlaced roster of architectural and engineering tenants and it’s appealing site close to the city and view overlooking the Parnell Basin and harbour made for a interesting and active social address. The building is also a testament to Barton’s foresight and planning ability; taking an almost (at the time) unusable steep site, finding investors and a unique solution to make it a success. (Barton would later form several investment groups to propel specific projects, including the ‘Stanley Court’ apartments in 1969.) 100 Anzac Ave’s ‘lift slab’ construction was heralded as the first major commercial structure in Auckland of its kind, ‘Home & Building’ and ‘Building Progress’ magazines both publishing multiple page articles on the building and technology, soon to become commonplace for the erection of multistory towers throughout the rest of the country.

These same years had also seen Buckmaster Fuller and Aldo van Eyck venture to these distant shore through the efforts of the unique Ivan Tarulevicz, architectural student and catalyst. The national economy was still buoyant although periodically affected by the three year boom and bust election cycle. So at age 43, a partner in a successful architectural practice for nearly twenty years, Barton and family left for a 6 month trip to Europe in which they would cover several continents and he would attend the 1965 Architecture Conference in Paris, meeting many architects of note including Le Corbusier. Barton also used the trip to visit and study buildings and racecourses in many of the countries they visited.

This list of known buildings (Auckland Racing Club building, Shortland St, Printer’s Building for Wilson & Horton, Albert St; NZ Fabrics Ltd, Carbine Rd; P&M Plaza shopping centre, Hamilton; Winter Show Building, Hamilton; Pacific Islands Church, Otara,) were all designed and constructed within a three year period up to 1968, in the time  associated with New Zealand’s “Boom & Bust” economic cycle of the ‘Holyoake years’. To try and manage some of the fallout from these swings in turnover and keep his staff in work Barton designed the Stanley Court apartments on the narrow isthmus of Stanley Point, with its magnificent views of the city and harbour.

A group of friends and investors were assembled and the building began, with the nine apartments being offered for sale by Barfoot & Thompson in early 1969.

The five storey cubic structure was startlingly modem compared to most of the residences of the area, with its white concrete walls and large full length glass windows and protruding balconies rising above the neighboring houses and trees. Although not considered large by todays standards, the building had only two flats on each floor and a penthouse of 1580 sq ft which Barton tried to get Mary and the family to move too when the other apartments were slow in selling. Mary had no desire to move in, and neither did many others initially. The slow uptake of sales meant the investment group didn’t profit as hoped but the practice remained productive.

Barton’s interests in other areas such as the Society of Arts had grown since becoming president on return from the world trip in 1965, and he was involved with the preservation of the Western Springs Pump House at the Museum of Transport and Technology, later being made a life member for his efforts and input.

Also a foundation member of the Auckland Vintage Car Club, his open top Model T taking pride of place in the garage at William Denny Ave for some years, before he loaned the car to Motat for part of the Transport Collection display.

By 1970 the practice had become Wilson Moodie Gillespie and Partners  and would soon become Gillespie, Newman and Pearce  and then Gillespie, Newman, West and Pearce. Many years before, Barton had become a registered valuer and this provided additional income to the business at times when architectural work was slow in appearing. With the change in the practices name came a change in roles, with Barton being less involved with design process and the new partners taking up some of the business side as well.

Over the last few years of Bart’s involvement, the practice designed a number of buildings: Augustus Terrace, Parnell (1970) Kolmar Rd, Post Office (1971) the Vineyard Restaurant for Montana (1971) and the St Lukes Community Library in Mount Albert (1973) and the Te Kauwhata Winery for Cooks (1974).

Barton left the practice towards the end of the 1970’s to work as an independent valuer and peruse his multiple interests in art, music and sports. His contribution to these areas is probably as important for him as his contribution to architecture, but architecture and building can have a permanence not available to arts fleeting moment – and hopefully some of his architectural work will become better recognized and acknowledged as important within the narrative of this countries architectural history.


Due to the limitations of space many people, events and buildings are unable to be included in this initial article on Barton Gillespie and the practice of Wilson Moodie & Gillespie.

Please contact either Gregory Smith or Helen Gillespie if you have further information, contact with people involved or can correct the above information. or