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Historic Heritage

Relief detail. The University of Otago has a long and diverse history associated with its physical location, and its staff and students. As the oldest university in New Zealand it naturally possesses a large number of heritage buildings, some of which are among the most well-known buildings in the country.

Sustainable management of historic heritage through the restoration and repair and active use of heritage buildings is important to the University, and its iconic buildings are highly valued, whether they possess the Neo-Gothic splendour of the Registry Building or the utilitarian Modernism of the Dental School. The social and cultural value of well-preserved heritage buildings is important to the sustainable growth of the Dunedin campus.

Extensive research on the history of Dunedin and the University was carried out as part of assembling material for the Campus Master Plan. The following extracts from the Master Plan Sustainability Analysis Report provide an overview of the Maori and European cultural heritage of the Dunedin campus:

Māori Heritage

A settlement in Central Dunedin named Ōtepoti is believed to have been in existence as late as 1785. Ōtepoti was located close to the Exchange area and where Māori landed at the mouth of the stream Toitu. There were also fortified pa sites including those at Huriawa, Mapoutahi, Pukekura and Puketahi.

Kaik (semi–permanent settlements) also occurred at Purakaunui and Papanui. At least two kaik have been recorded as close to the existing University Campus.

The traditional name for the Water of Leith, Owheo is associated with a kaik once at the junction of Leith and Howe streets. Owheo was named for the Waitaha Māori chief Wheo.

Opoho was also named for chief Poho and a kaik was thought to be on the banks of Opoho Stream roughly where Logan Park High School now is.

The mouth of Owheo was once located between Harbour Terrace and Eden Streets and may have been a significant place as it gave access to inland locations including flax nurseries reputedly located along the banks.

The Leith and Campus area were also significant to Māori as a source of kai and plants for weaving and medicinal purposes. Later, much of the work constructing seawalls in the harbour and channelling the Leith was done by Māori who were brought to Otago as prison labour from Taranaki.

Māori traditions are embodied in the naming of landscape features, plants and animals and there is a link between the spiritual world and the present. An understanding of those traditions enhances an awareness of place.

European Settlement and the Founding of the University

In 1842 George Rennie proposed a settlement scheme in New Zealand for Scottish migrants named ‘New Edinburgh’. His proposal was taken up by the Free Church of Scotland. The plan was led by Thomas Burns, John McGlashan and William Cargill.

The search for a suitable settlement site was led by the New Zealand Company surveyor, Frederick Tuckett. He organized the purchase of the Otago Block in June 1844 and the agreement to sell 161,877 hectares was signed at Koputai (Port Chalmers) in July 1844.

Disputes over boundaries followed and the Crown failed to provide a promised hospital and school for Kai Tahu children. Kai Tahu gradually lost Mahinga kai and access to sacred places such as Urupa. A case was brought to court and by the time of the final Treaty of Waitangi ruling in 1991 the claims were found to be justified. The Ngāi Tahu Claim Settlement Act was passed September 1998.

Settlement organizers had requested the Dunedin settlement plan reflect features of Edinburgh, a requirement that the survey party headed by Charles Kettle strove to meet by laying out a grid that was roughly similar to James Craig’s New Town development of 1767. Kettle was to draw down Edinburgh’s Moray Place and make this a central feature of the Dunedin plan.

To the west of the main area of town is 184 hectares of native bush named The Town Belt. This runs along the hill contours and links up with the Dunedin Botanic Gardens to the north. Kettle made some allowances for the Water of the Leith. He drew Castle Street to skirt a fan of boulders at this point but otherwise sections were surveyed to stream banks.

A block to the east side of the Leith was initially the Botanic Gardens Reserve with “Tanna Hill”, a volcanic spur running parallel to Castle Street, behind. That reserve is now the site of the present Campus.

In 1868 the Leith flooded wrecking the lower Botanic Gardens and this was followed by an even more destructive flood in 1877. Subsequent floods have required a reduction in height of the Leith bed and channelization to manage flood waters.

The University of Otago was established by the Otago Provincial Council in 1869 and occupied Mason and Clayton’s Post Office building in the Exchange. Degrees were available in arts, law, music and medicine.

The building was shared with the Museum and quickly became too small. Significant arcades were added but there was little scope for expansion and there were suggestions that the location was not ideal. The site of the present Campus, then the Botanical Gardens Reserve, was purchased and a building design competition was won by Maxwell Bury.

The first stage of the new buildings was officially opened on 5 July 1871. The pair of Professorial houses were added to the north of the site and were completed by Bury in 1878.

The buildings were extended by Louis Salmond and Edmund Anscombe in stages until 1922. By 1922 Anscombe had developed the group into an asymmetric quadrangle with an additional building forming an archway entrance to Union Street.

The University established a medical school in 1885 and this was housed in the bluestone building alongside the Leith. The school expanded and was then relocated to a new building in Great King Street adjacent to Dunedin Public Hospital. This was designed by Mason and Wales in 1915. The Scott Building was joined by Anscombe’s new medical school in 1925 and these were completed by the South Block or Hercus Building.

The first Dental School was located in what is now the University Staff Club on the banks of the Leith. Plans dated 1906 were by Louis Salmond but the building was later enlarged by Anscombe. The school was relocated to be closer to the Medical School and in turn replaced by the current building designed by Ian Reynolds of the Government Architects Department and opened in 1960.

From the 1960’s Campus expansion has been influenced by the polarity of the Health Science and Leith hubs and the street systems. In 1964, John Blake-Kelly was Assistant Government Architect. His plan proposed an extension of the Campus to the west and south with a system of grid plan slab form buildings connected by aerial walkways over the street system. Some of the plan was realized in the late 1960’s with the construction of the Burns Building, the Science blocks and the Richardson Building in 1980.

Recent major additions include the Information Services Building replacing the Central Library and a group of buildings at the St David Street entrance. 

Preserving the Architectural Heritage of Otago

The Campus Master Plan identifies proactive management of the University’s historic heritage and productive use of heritage buildings as priorities for the growth and development of the campus.

The University has a large number of buildings under formal protection for their architectural and historic significance from different periods of our history, including the bluestone buildings of the campus historic core to the red brick Medical School buildings of the early 20th century, and even post-World War II buildings such as the Dental School.

The University works closely with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) to ensure appropriate renovations and alterations to all campus buildings included on the national Historic Register of protected buildings and structures. Property Services staff are currently working on a programme of seismic strengthening works to protect buildings against possible earthquake damage, and the preparation of a Campus Heritage Strategy to more effectively manage heritage buildings and features into the future.

Details of the seismic programme and the Campus Heritage Strategy will be included on this page when available. For a full list of the University’s protected heritage buildings refer to the link below:

For more information on campus heritage, contact

Sue Larkins
Strategy and Planning Manager
Email sue.larkins@otago.ac.nz


Katrina Roos
Resource Planner/Policy Adviser
Email katrina.roos@otago.ac.nz


© Environmental Sustainability Committee
University of Otago
PO Box 56
Dunedin 9054
New Zealand

Tel 64 3 479 7986
Fax 64 3 479 7584
Email ps.sustainability@otago.ac.nz