New Zealand Home & Building, October-November 1985
The Band Rotunda
Nobody notices a band rotunda until someone wants to remove it. Trees are treated with similar negligence. But Wellington's Band Rotunda, now the site of Nicholson's Restaurant, was originally sited in Thorndon in the 1920's and not rebuilt in Oriental Bay until 1933. Although still affectionately known as the Band Rotunda, many residents are perhaps unaware that the true Band Rotunda with props for the musicians was whipped away years ago to a more sheltered site in Wellington, away from the capital's indefatigable winds. Be that as it may, Oriental Bay's Band Rotunda remained in shape for years as a landmark on the foreshore where one could go to eat ice-cream, spit across the harbour or fish watch.
Nothing has changed, although when the idea of a restaurant on the site was first mooted, the cries of protest were loud and sustained. Local residents became as involved as the City Council, who released the land, and the Harbour Board who owned it.
When Peter Andrews applied in 1979 for a lease to build a restaurant, these stumbling blocks made his task a daunting one. The Wellington City Council put the lease up for tender. Andrews lost it as this stage, but subsequently bought it off the original winner in 1983.
Chris Johns, an Auckland based architect of Sinclair Johns partnership, reworked the original plans making modifications at the behest of the City Council who did not want the public to lose their access to the top.
The task was not simple. It was not to be too high, too ugly, overhang its original boundaries, be at odds with the area's architecture, or display the merest suggestion of transience. The local ratepayers feared their view might be interrupted and worse — that Oriental Bay might become an area teeming with bovver boys, honking horns and dissolutes. All the supposed horrors of a licensed premises opening up in a Bay hitherto so tranquil and becalmed.
Andrews and Johns kept the objectors informed throughout the design and planning stages. "We had meetings in their homes with solicitors to explain why we had to have a liquor license. They didn't like the idea of a restaurant being open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. They saw it as a cafe affair. On the other hand, one needed to have a licensed restaurant in order to build the type of restaurant required for an area that attracts locals as well as overseas tourists. We also pointed out that the new design was lower and actually enhanced their outlook, rather than detracted from it. We could not be all things to all people, but after lengthy proceedings — a space of a year — we were granted a liquor license for limited hours 12-3 and 5-11.
"I reworked the original plans approved by the Wellington City Council and Wellington Harbour Board", said Johns, "because there was concern that the interior use of the building and the exterior form must be related. The result is a semicircular plan on two levels which corresponds to the change in roof levels. The building is low at the front and steps up to form the conch shell profile.
"Another important design consideration was that the addition of a 1985 storey was in sympathy with the original 1933 building, neither stating the present nor forgetting the past."
Finally, construction started in November 1984 and the restaurant opened its doors in March 1985. The semi-circular base of the Band Rotunda was aesthetically pleasing whatever angle one viewed it from, but it did pose designing problems for the architect. For instance, the interior being of reinforced concrete had to have various levels top and bottom to dispel the feeling of being in a concrete warehouse. To get round this, Johns stepped up the concrete ceiling in sympathy with the floor levels which takes diners from the ground level up three steps to another floor.
Thus, everyone in the restaurant is afforded a sweeping view of the harbour and there can be no pique in being seated at the rear of the dining room — a constant niggle of Wellington diners who so often choose a restaurant advertising a harbour view to find the best tables nobbled.
Concrete pillars support the structure and radiate out from a central point. For a restaurant so large and curvaceous there page 121 page 122are a surprising number of cellar nestles under the outside staircase and the bar in front of it is tucked away from the foyer but itself commands a magnificent view of the water tucked into the corner. Easy chairs in front of th bar provide an excellent spot for a pre-dinner drink or postprandial coffee, and the grand piano beside makes the easy transition from the bar to the dining tables.
McCadden Construction Company was formed by Peter Andrews and his brother David Andrews to build restaurants such as this, the Fisherman's Table at Pae-kakariki and several more in Nelson and Christchurch.
Roger Cole, an interior designer, worked with Johns on the development of the interior. His decor of the Antoines Restaurant in Parnell is already well known. The inspiration for the colours came from the original building. Spanish white was chosen as the basic colour on the walls and ceilings which acted as a pivot to the pastel green and soft mauve in other areas. The easy chairs are a sea green and the carpet is a subtle blend of green and blue with small dashes of mauve acting as a go-between. The use of indirect and sphere lighting combined with bevelled glass screens all enhance the reference to the art deco period.
One of the more striking aspects of the interior of Nicholson's is the frieze adorning the outer wall. Hand painted in the three colours — Spanish white, green and mauve — it proclaims its art deco origin and brings much comment.
It has a history of its own. Johns and Cole were looking for something decidedly different with the emphasis on the bizarre and so spent many hours searching around an old ceiling company in Newton for an appropriate moulding. A special run was made of the chosen frieze and few visitors to the restaurant fail to notice its presence, accentuated at night by dimmer lights.
Another flourish is the balustrade atop the steps on the second level dining room. A reminder of yesteryear, it sports an antique miniature street lamp the fathers of which still adorn the top of the restaurant outside. Double glazing prevents misting up of the windows and a green awning was recently attached to the outside so patrons at lunchtime on sunny days could dispense with their sunglasses.
Outside is a series of differing levels, steps and ramps, handrails and old fashioned street lamps and colours of cream that mesh nicely into the Bay. For contrast, the main entrance takes one up over beige and cream Takaka marble tiles and the awning at the top of the steps lends a rakish air to the restaurant not unlike the street walk cafes of Paris. The ramps leading to the front door have been designed with paraplegics in mind.
On top is still the platform as it was before the construction of Nicholson's only the view is elevated. No amount of foot stomping here will disturb the patrons below and vice versa. The Band Rotunda is more than what you see, however.
Wellingtonians remember the murky depths — a whole semi-circle of changing rooms and loos below ground level, hung over with gloom and disrepair which gave sport to peeping toms and other city loiterers. Johns has used a third of this area and converted it into the preparation kitchen, staff facilities and storeroom. The rest is leased back to the Council and Andrews is presently revamping the other two-thirds, putting in new loos and a locker room that the Council will rent to sports clubs.
The success of Nicholson's in the few short months it has been operating in Oriental Bay must be put down, in part, to the changing trends of Wellingtonians. Many are coming back into the city to live and Oriental Bay and Mount Victoria behind it are being chosen for their proximity to the city and the beauty of the Bay and surrounds. Property prices in the area bear testimony to this.
A local resident proffers two reasons why the Bay has become so popular. Firstly, it is cheaper than going to Waikanae for the weekend, and secondly, many European and Island people settling in the city retain their love of walking by the sea as a welcome palliative to the hustle of the city. And in so doing, want a restaurant that will provide them with food and wine. Eating Saturday and Sunday lunch out is just becoming an acceptable practice.
Who knows? With the current mild weather this winter, perhaps more Wellingtonians will be willing to be flushed out from their domestic chores to enjoy the superb waterfront and the accoutrements that go with it. Overseas travellers have been clamouring for this change in attitude for a long time.page 123
Nicholson's Restaurant combines the old with the new and it is with begrudging praise the once vociferous protestors are allowing that perhaps it should have been rebuilt years ago — 52 years, to be exact. How many flying hats were lost by bandsmen in former days playing a fiddle on the Band Rotunda for Sunday strollers?page 125 page break