Winstone Houses.

Owners often relate that visitors enquire whether its “a Chapman Taylor” (which is perhaps analogous to the calling any 1950’s modernist house “a Group house” in Auckland..!) such is the impression gained upon encountering these modest, cosy and desirable houses.

By the late 1920’s the Winstone company had diversified into building supplies after originally starting as a transport company, moving materials, coal, etc, from wharf to sites around Auckland. After securing a contract to remove Point Britomart the company acquired further quarries on Auckland’s volcanoes, providing rock and metal for the growing infrastructure and construction industry. O’Reilly Brothers of Taumarunui, an earlier acquisition which produced bricks and clay products began producing a ‘Marseilles’ terracotta tile, to compete with the highly popular imported product from Briscoe’s. The company then began further expansion into the house construction business buying up several lots of reclaimed and marginal land.

Winstone’s employed the services of then key architects, including Basil Hooper, whose design for 38 Eldon Rd is less than exemplary but in keeping with the times. “Hooper designed a building completely of its day, while still managing to make meaningful references to the English Vernacular (the roof shape), and to his own tradition through his continued use of motif” (“Motif and Beauty” by Ralph Allen; Harptree Press, 2000). In Rose Road and around the corner in Millais Street, Grey Lynn, the Late George Winstone’s houses occupy roughly an acre site while in Eldon and Cambourne Roads in ‘Cabbage Tree Swamp’, or Balmoral as it was later named, the houses are indispersed amongst what would later become State houses and bungalows, and a few years hence, flat roof modern units.

The Winstone houses are appropriations of Art and Crafts buildings popular in the country at the time, such as Winstones own house in Claude Rd, Epsom, designed by William Gummer shortly after his return from working with Edwin Lutyen’s office in England. Other New Zealand architects of the time such as Roy Binney and Gerald Jones produced works heavily reflecting their English preference and experience. The influence of Voysey, Lutyen’s, Baillie Scott and in some instances the Chicago School of Sullivan and Lloyd Wright is seen throughout New Zealand in the years between the wars; along with the bungalows of California and the ‘moderne’ streamline style. In fact, these could be seen as panacea to the deeply unnerving Modernist constructions of Van Der Rohe and Corbusier gaining ground in Europe. James Chapman Taylor, also having travelled to England (in 1909) was a well known architect and craftsman producing hand made Arts and Crafts houses of some note throughout New Zealand. It is these influences and possibilities which saw the production of the ‘Winstone Royal’ in Balmoral and Grey Lynn.

In 1912 George Winstone Jnr had become a partner in the Dominion Portland Cement Company with W J Wilson, son of Nathanial Wilson who had started cement production from the banks of the Mahurangi River near Warkworth in 1867. Wilson’s became a major player in the concrete business supplying cement for much of the Auckland and North. The Firth flour mills in lower Queen Street and many other buildings were constructed using their product. In the mid 1880’s Wilson had also set about constructing a number of houses some of which are in Grey Lynn, around the corner of Richmond Rd and Peel Street, but these proved financially disastrous and nearly sent the company bankrupt.

Through the mid to late 1920’s Auckland was unlike other parts of the country, experiencing a small scale building boom which was probably an indicator for Winstone’s entry into the housing market. As a company they had become successful over a relatively short period, and had begun a program of acquisition with interests in many areas of the building trade. The Great Depression set off by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was followed in New Zealand by the Napier Earthquake of 1931. These events shook a country already troubled, with many out of work; public service salaries had been cut by 10 per cent, shortly to be followed by the industrial awards. Unemployment was at 40,000 and would nearly double within the year and this was only men, as women couldn’t register as unemployed. Maori weren’t entered into the statistics as it was generally assumed they could, as a rural community, survive from the land!

April 1932 saw the eruption of hostilities between authorities and unemployed in the Queen Street riots. Almost 15,000 demonstrators were involved, the unrest causing the cancellation of University classes. Like most recessions, those with money were still able to operate and many opportunities were available for the making.

Winstone’s wide interests and adept management, along with reinforced concrete being stipulated as almost mandatory for construction after the Napier earthquake meant the company would survive the economic depression. Industries not so affected by the economic downturn including tobacco, cinemas, and transport had new buildings commissioned, some in the streamlined Art Deco manner befitting their use. The rebuilding of Napier in a modernist style was also highly pivotal as it gave architects and industry a much needed stimuli and provided ongoing work for some parts of the construction industry. Infrastructure work such as bridge and rail building had also provided much needed experience and relief work.

The house at what was 69 Rose Road had been designed for one of the Winstone daughters; and the plans drawn up by R B Hammond in 1933 (later to design Eden Hall) for the estate of the late George Winstone are of a small two bedroom cottage with many of the standard features from the ‘Shelter’ booklet, put out by the company. Planning was still very reminiscent of an earlier era with a short hallway dissecting the house and the kitchen at the back of the house just connected to the dining area, behind the north facing laundry.! The rough-cast exterior concealed what Winstone’s promoted as ‘SteelTex Permanent Re-inforced Concrete – a sturdy network of rust-proof steel wires, electrically welded with waterproof backing fixed to studs with special spring nails is embedded with cement Stucco and produces lasting walls of reinforced concrete.’ Steeltex is also ‘as cheap as wood’ and ‘withstood the Napier Earthquake’ !! The promotion and construction alluded to solidity and protection, the sharply pointed gable roof almost without eaves reminiscent of (English) country houses and cottages, mixed with round top ‘Crittal’ steel windows, dark stained beams and wooden floors helped to provide the concept with marketable appeal in difference to the encroaching modern. At a cost of just a thousand pounds (without a fireplace and chimney) the ‘Winstone’ houses were aimed at a market that aspired to those being built in Upland and Claude Roads. ‘Distinctive Touches Remove This from the Commonplace’ underlines the No. 150 cottage image – the capitals pointing out the story just in case.

After the 1935 elections, the First Labour Government acquired a country starting to emerge from the economic doldrums but desperately in need of housing. The resulting housing programme was intended to further stimulate the sluggish economy and the Government sought co-operation and guidance from the industrial and corporate sectors including James Fletcher, head of the Fletcher Construction company which had also been involved in the rebuilding of Napier. This alignment may have proved an impediment to Winstone’s aspirations for expanding its concrete housing schemes, though the demise may have been more to do with a shift in attitudes. In the Winstone’s Centenary publication there is amble evidence of a company willing to experiment and invest in ventures which have potential but require careful shepherding to reach maturation – often one of the sons would take on a project with an initial input of funds.

With the prospect of constructing multiple buildings for the government’s state house scheme, it may have been deemed economic to wind up producing the not largely popular Winstone houses and concentrate on higher turnover operations such as the recently acquired New Zealand Wallboards company. Though the State House explosion (14,619 in less than eight years) was the likely death knell for the Winstone ‘Royal’ in all of its varieties, it remains a unique step on the path to modern concrete house construction.

Fletchers would eventually absorb Winstone’s in the corporate takeovers of the late 1980’s.