14 Apr 2014

Heritage Auckland Celebrating 100 Years

The Heritage Auckland’s Hobson St building has a long and fascinating history. Often associated with the Farmers Big Store, many may not know this landmark building was originally commissioned as a mail-order warehouse by entrepreneur Robert Laidlaw for his mail-order company, ‘Laidlaw Leeds.’

In the early 1900s, Laidlaw’s business was already the fastest growing business enterprise in New Zealand history and he was under pressure to secure more floor space especially after a fire had destroyed one of his Fort St warehouses.

In 1912, after an exhaustive search he selected the Hobson Street site, visible from the harbour and close to the port and railway links. The cost of the land and building was £38,000 and the new building was to be 80,000 square feet in size, to house a staff of over 200 and enough stock for a business turning over £20,000 per month.

Conscious of his staff wellbeing, the new warehouse was especially designed to create a light and airy working environment, in a building equipped with the most modern office equipment of the day.

The building opened in April 1914, just months before World War One broke out.  Laidlaw’s brother, Jack, left the firm and signed up for the Royal Air Force and was killed in 1916. As Laidlaw’s second brother Arthur left for the frontline, Laidlaw himself was called upon to enlist forcing him to sell the business.

On the eve of the deal to divest the largest mail order business in New Zealand to a small Farmers co-operative trading business, Laidlaw’s second brother was reported killed at the front, automatically barring any other family member from serving.

A man of his word, Laidlaw, went through with the deal.  He sold his company in April 1918 to the Farmers Union Trading Company for £175,725 in a mix of shares and cash. Weeks after the sale, the new owners knew managing such a sizeable concern required his expertise. Laidlaw was asked to return as general manager of the merged company. He did, and the Hobson Street legacy began.

Retail patterns changed post WW1 and the Hobson St site was converted in to a retail store in 1920. The following year, the famous children’s playground and tearooms were opened to lure lunchtime shoppers. Hobson Street was now ‘the Big Store,’ with departments covering seven floors and five acres of floor space.

In a masterstroke, Laidlaw introduced New Zealand’s first free bus service in 1922, to entice Queen Street shoppers to the Hobson Street location.

Laidlaw, a committed Christian, was deeply involved in philanthropic activities around New Zealand and internationally. He was the author of The Reason Why, the world’s most published Gospel tract and saw his religious beliefs compatible with sound commercial practice, penning one of the world’s first mission statements, that included the powerful axiom: ‘to simplify every detail of every transaction, to absolutely satisfy every customer with every purchase…’

In 1930, to coincide with the firm’s 21st birthday celebrations, a bold deco façade was installed on the building and the stunning roof-top tearooms created.  Known today as the hotel’s Grand Tearoom, the room still boasts an ornate vaulted ceiling and detailed stonework that delighted shoppers dining there for over half a century.

Around that time, Hector ‘the parrot’ actually a sulphur crested cockatoo (and a female), was gifted to the store by an old lady who could no longer care for the bird. Hector lived on to the ripe old age of 131 years old and had less than a benign temperament, snipping at many staff members given the chance.  Hector’s memory continues in Heritage Auckland’s aptly named Hector’s restaurant, located in a seven-storey atrium, once the home of the store’s escalators.

Whilst Christmas store parades were not unique, Robert Laidlaw was to create the biggest and most enduring annual event. From its inception in 1934 the parade was to become a spectacular highlight for generations of Auckland children.

Robert Laidlaw remained involved in Farmers until his death in 1971 aged 85.

The Farmers Hobson St store closed in late 1992 but the story of the building did not end there. An ambitious transformation into a luxury hotel was completed in July 1998 to become today’s Heritage Auckland. Alongside its modern hotel facilities, the building retained many of its early features.  Polished wooden floors, exposed beams, and timber pillars all point to the building’s hard-working pedigree. A contemporary Tower wing adjoining the Hobson St wing was completed in 1999.

Heritage Hotel Management Ltd has a reputation for custodianship of unique properties offering ‘somewhere special’ for guests. The hotel group was applauded last year for the loving restoration and reopening of the Heritage Christchurch’s Old Government Building in its 100th year. The chain nurtures several other treasured historic buildings in its collection for the enjoyment of locals and visitors alike.

A 100 Year's Celebration Mother's Day Tea will be held in the Grand Tea Room on Sunday 11 May.  To book click here.