Written by Alana Boyd
It is entwined with the burgeoning history of New Zealand and Auckland - from its humble days as a prominent walking ridge for local Maori to being home of Government House, it was a bustling shopping mecca, gained a risqué reputation and today is an entrepreneurial hub of creativity and local ideas. Even the name alone drips with history and folklore, and all revolve around a mysterious guy named Hape….
In one version the name denotes the route to call upon Chief Hape in the Manukau Harbour. But I prefer the more fantastical version involving Maori’s discovery of New Zealand. Imagine this - the crew are leaving Hawaiki to charter new land, when Hape is rejected from the boat by his fellow men on account of his deformed foot. Rather than let this get the better of him, he takes matters into his own hands and catches a ride to New Zealand on a stingray. This stroke of entrepreneurial genius turns out to be the faster option as next time his buddies see him he’s doing a karanga, or call, to Tane Mahuta on top of the ridge we’ve been discussing. Therefore naming it the karanga a¯ Hape.
A few hundred years later and the name wasn’t popular with the newly immigrated Europeans, who petitioned the council to change it to something easier on the tongue. The request was particularly fervent before the Royal Tour of 1953; aghast as to how the royals would cope with such rich cultural heritage Elizabeth Street was fiercely promoted.
...now the country just fondly refers to it as K Road.
The council remained stoic and Karangahape stuck, a modest nod to the significance it played in the Maori way of life in pre-European times.
The ridge of Karangahape road was a significant walking track for local Maori and local historian Edward Bennet dates its role as far back as the 16th century. The road was sold as a parcel of land from Maori to the government in 1841, and Karangahape Ridge was the formal southern edge of Auckland City in the 19th century.
The site was then home to the Nathan family and their sprawling mansion built in 1845. At the time Karangahape Road was still a country road, with about 40 houses and 2-3 pubs - a respectable number for any country town! The estate played a significant role in New Zealand history, rented by Sir George Grey for three years to act as Government House when the original burnt down in 1848. Over time Karangahape Road changed, going from country ridge to shopping village, and before long tailors, tea rooms and department stores surrounded the Nathan’s home.
It was the days of horse and carriage, and a combination of position and wind meant Queen Street suffered from the smell of horse manure more so than K Road.
With the country dream but a flicker, the Nathans' departed for a new estate in 1918. Before the family departed they gifted a strip of land to serve as a passage from K’ Road through to Myers Park. The mansion was deserted for four years before it was demolished in 1922. This made way for 6 stores on the site including the crowning jewel that is St Kevins Arcade.
Walter Arthur Cumming designed St Kevins in 1924, the architecture style now of increasing rarity and a unique Auckland experience. The sweeping staircase brings arcade and park life together with effortless elegance, a stately precursor to modern day indoor-outdoor flow if you will. St Kevins had everything a genteel woman of upper middle class could ask for – 2 beauty salons, furriers, florists, tea rooms, gloves, millinery, as well as photo studios for wedding portraits and the like. K Road arguably reigned as Auckland’s busiest premier shopping street from the 1900’s right up to 1960’s.
The bustling Karangahape Road kept getting better with the installation of electric street lamps under shop awnings, fondly referred to as the “Great White Way”and was often compared to Oxford Street in London. Night time shopping was THE glamorous thing to do, and K Road was quite the attraction in the new city – a night out included seeing a movie at one the five movie theatres, having a meal and promenading amongst the crowds. Looking through history, a surprising number of current nationally known brands and stores started on Karangahape Road or had a branch there, including Pascoes, Stevens, Hannahs, Hallensteins, Levenes paints, and many names of stores are still visible in the facades. The street was home to the first wine bar in New Zealand and notable residents of the area included artists Charles Goldie and Colin McCahon.
A Sunday at Smith and Caughey’s nowadays gives me a delightful glimpse of what K Road may have been like back in the day - ladies in their Sunday best making a trip into town to see and be seen.
While the depression and war made some buildings redundant, St Kevins maintained a respectable patronage, including during the suburban sprawl of the 1940’s and 50’s when other shopping destinations lost out. Historian Edward Bennet suggests the arcade’s appeal was and still is its unique position in relation to Myers Park. It majestically serves as an inner city oasis whose views always guarantee to compliment ones’ tea.
The late 1960’s was a significant chapter in the K road story. A thriving street depends on a thriving local community, and this was put to the test in 1965 when Newton Gully was transformed into a motorway. About 50,000 people were displaced, gutting the street of its main customer base and shop owners packing up from the resulting downturn. Since then, K road slowly but surely adapted. Its distance from the CBD meant it had to be entrepreneurial in order to create a unique offering, which was the beginnings of the creative, locally minded hub we see today.
Another part of the K Road story is adult entertainment, which relocated to the Ponsonby-end of K Road in the 70’s from the area near modern day Britomart. The industry’s dominance of the street is a slight perception, as it has never made up more than about 4% of the street’s businesses. Regardless, it is an important part of history and society to be told.
Coming back to today, St Kevins’ website invites submissions of interest from “authentic, small brands who have big ideas” to join the arcade community. To me this perfectly epitomises the cultural and creative reputation that precedes St Kevins Arcade and Karangahape Road. The arcade is currently undergoing restoration work sympathetic to it's historical nature; this carefully considered schedule of work will ensure this beautiful building is here for generations to come and will make it an enjoyable space for all walks of life.
A vibrant place where artists create, boutique businesses find their feet, and big ideas find their voice – from entrepreneurs, the LGBT community, artists, musicians, thinkers and stingray-riders alike.
Karangahape Road today is what I would call a melting pot, something that is a common situation in other parts of New Zealand, but one I dare say is unique to Auckland. It’s a humbling part of the genuine Kiwi experience where all walks of life mingle, sharing the heave of the commute or the dance of the lunchtime dash. It’s about sharing space and doing life, acknowledging disparate stories and respecting truths. That’s the entrepreneurial heart of the ridge, where creative minds are at ease amongst friends and rich stories including Hape’s continue to be traded and be made.
To see what's happening on K-Road check out http://www.kroad.com
For great walks that take in many of the cities historical spots http://walksinauckland.com/karangahape-road-parks/
Vixen Vintage Boutique https://www.facebook.com/Vixen-Vintage-Boutique-155374541168016/