News, Events and Culture

4-11 The Square - PNCC Library (CM Ross & Co Building)

CM Ross And Co Building

Building Details

Building Name: PNCC Library (former CM Ross & Co Building)
Address: 4-11 The Square 
Construction date: 1927-1928
Architect: Stage 1: unknown, Stage 2: AR Allen & HL Hickson
Builder: Stage 1: unknown, Stage 2: McMillan Bros
District Plan Category: 1
Building number: 8
Heritage NZ Category: 2
Building number: 1256

Physical and Social History

Lesley Courtney's book, The House that Quality and Value Built: The CM Ross Co Ltd Story (PN, 2008), provides an overview of the lifetime of this building and those it replaced.  From small beginnings in 1883, the firm grew to take over much of its end of its block, before spending time as Milne & Choyce (1959), DIC (1966) and Arthur Barnett (1987, renamed Arthur Barnett in 1989), after which was purchased by the Palmerston North City Council in 1992 for redevelopment as the city's new Central Library.  The new library opened after significant upgrading on 25 May 1996.

Prior History
Scottish-born Charles Macintosh Ross (aged 31) arrived in Palmerston North with his wife and first child in 1883.  He had earlier undertaken a drapery apprenticeship, before working in the industry for four years in London.  He then migrated to New Zealand in 1878, duly settling in Wellington.  He married Mary Isabella Dowdswell there in 1882, and they were to have six children.

In June 1883, he purchased the Bon Marche, John Fowler's drapery and clothing business in The Square. The leased premises concerned belonged to Mrs Annie Venn, and CM Ross then purchased this property in 1889.

The historic Certificates of Titles relating to this block indicate that much of the block bounded by The Square, Main Street, George Street and Coleman Place has in the past belonged to either the Coombs Estate (Main Street end - probably around half the block) or to CM Ross & Co Ltd. One exception was the Union Bank, but CM Ross & Co Ltd bought up every spare part of that property it could also. The new library took over a significant chunk of the former Coombs Estate land - that fronting George Street - and all the library land was amalgamated onto a single block in 1996 (WN45D/111). The 1915-16 former tearooms building on the corner of Coleman Place and George Street, was then subdivided off in 1997, and that left the current CT (WN48B/603). This amalgamation left many historically interesting, but redundant, CTs, and unscrambling them is complex.

Those fronting The Square are covered here - and in the interests of improving ease of understanding, they are covered starting from the Coleman Place side of the façade (or alternatively, at the present alleyway).

Alleyway land
In 1914, CM Ross & Co Ltd began the process of building the three-storey building on the corner of Coleman Place and George Street, and also the new building on this site in The Square. This property (CT WN229/246) had been a strip of land it had just bought from the Union Bank of Australia. This development is also covered in the separate studies on the Union Bank and the three-storey building. Then in 1925, the firm built what became Norfolk House between the Union Bank and the three-storey building, and that building is also covered separately.

Original CM Ross & Co shop
CT WN34/110 (issued in 1883 and replaced 1993) records CM Ross leasing this part of Section 255 in the Square from Annie Venn, wife of Frederick William Venn, a local cabinet maker, for a period of five years starting 3 February 1884. In 1889 he purchased the property from her.

First Expansion
WN54/111 (also issued in 1883 and replaced 1993) records that a few days before Ross 'bought'[2] his original shop site, he had also purchased from the Official Assignee, this neighbouring part of Section 255 from the bankrupt estate of Caleb Whitehead, a local baker. The two 1883 CTs derived from WN28/256, which had been issued to James Linton, in 1882. A new wooden two-storied 'Bon Marche' was built on these two properties in around 1890, and that building lasted until c1927 - despite the Union Bank of Australia's fire in 1910 (see that study).[3]

Cummings Property
Another CT, WN377/259, covering the balance of Section 255, and also a party wall on both sides of the neighbouring Section 254 (the bulk of Sec 254 is not part of this CT)[4], was issued to CM Ross & Co Ltd in 1927. This CT was also applicable until 1993, and its prior CT was WN28/258. The CT for the balance of Section 254 was not sighted for this study. The Cummings property was leased by CM Ross from 1905, and was purchased prior to the construction of the present building in 1927-28.[5]

The little acorn from which the library complex grew - the first CM Ross & Co shop in The Square, from the company's advert in the 1937 book From Swamp to City.[6] This little shop, with its distinctive upper façade and (obscure) flagpole that is seemingly repeated twice in the present building, also appears in the 1877 panorama photo of The Square, shown in TL Buick's Old Manawatu (PN, 1903, opp. p225)

The development from 1925 onward is attributed to a suggestion from the ailing CM Ross in a memo to the Director's meeting of August 1924, that the firm should purchase adjoining properties and undertake a further rebuilding programme. Part of the project resulted in the purchase of the leased Cummings building in The Square, and also the appointment of architects AR Allen and HL Hickson in anticipation of the projects ahead.[7] However, CM Ross himself did not get to see even the first of his suggestions completed. He died on 8 September 1924, aged 72.

The Building

Architects AR Allen and HL Hickson published the tender notice for this building in the Manawatu Evening Standard of 8 January 1927. The job was described as business premises in structural steel and reinforced concrete for CM Ross & Co Ltd[8] Building Permit Register, Vol 3, records that the permit to erect the building was issued in the first half of 1927 (that year the entries were undated until July), with the value of the new building being £27,700, and the builder McMillan Bros.[9]

However, the contract (valued at £27,746) was let to McMillan Bros of Wellington in February 1927, and as the construction work went on, the store continued trading throughout by moving departments around the building. The various departments had finally moved to their permanent locations in August 1928, and on 13 September 1928, finally opened their new Rosco Luncheon and Tea Rooms on the second floor overlooking The Square.[10]

The Allen-Hickson plans show the total replacement of the previously rented Cummings building and the c1890 two-storied wooden Bon Marche building. The familiar arched windows of the latter are seen in one photo in the book on the firm (p13), disappearing beneath the scaffolding of the partly built new building - which is already at full height on the site previously occupied by the Cummings building.

Meanwhile, the 1915-16 building on the land formerly owned by the Union Bank of Australia, is also behind the scaffolding and in the process of being transformed into what it was until the site became an alleyway in the 1990s. Notes on the plans state that its three first floor windows (a large one with smaller ones on either side) were to be taken to the other end of the property to become the main first floor windows in the new George Street façade.  The George Street end of the building (built c1905) was also receiving a second storey as part of this job. Two more of the smaller windows were then to be obtained for installation to the outside of each of the smaller 1915-16 windows. This created the present (pre-library) George Street façade, although the main window at least has since been replaced.

The narrow 1915-16 building was largely gutted in the course of the work, with its inner wall also going, although whatever could be recycled was to be reused. This included removing the walls of the offices, strongroom and engine room that had been about half way along the block between the two streets. Like so many other businesses and even some private homes, the building had had its own gas-powered electricity generating plant (beneath the ladies lounge!), and with the very belated (compared to the rest of NZ) coming of electricity to Palmerston North in 1924, this generator set was one of the many such sets in the district that were now redundant.[11]

Rosco, as it was popularly known, in 1937 (alongside the Union Bank of Australia) from the company's advert in the 1937 book From Swamp to City.

Lesley Courtney's book on the CM Ross & Co Ltd business, provides an invaluable social history of the firm and its premises, changing technology and methods, changing owners and changing property uses. Therefore it is not proposed here to replicate much of that.

Possibly the highest of the highlights in the history of this building, was the Civic Banquet held in the firm's tearooms during the 1953 Royal Visit to the city. Two chairs and a table were especially made for the Queen and Prince Philip. Some two hundred invited guests were also present. The Queen later went out to the balcony to wave to the excited crowd gathered below.[12]

After starting as CM Ross & Co in 1883, the firm was incorporated as CM Ross & Co Ltd, on 4 September 1914. Although there were plans in 1937 to turn the firm into a public company, this did not happen. The firm celebrated its 75 Anniversary in 1958, and then on 22 July 1959, all shares were transferred to the firm Milne & Choyce. The various certificates of title recorded this event as a change of name of the registered proprietor to Milne and Choyce (Palmerston North) Ltd.

After the arrival of Milne & Choyce, the popular Luncheon and Tea Rooms closed down and were replaced with a coffee bar accessed from the George Street end of the building. The second floor then became the furnishing department. The landmark Rosco sign also vanished and was replaced with a Milne & Choyce sign. The name also changed on the front of the building.

In 1964, the CTs record that the various properties were transferred to the Australian Mutual Provident Society (AMP), and then these were leased to Milne & Choyce, starting 1 August 1964. However, Milne & Choyce then changed its focus and the firm was sold to the DIC group. The firm took over on 3 October 1966, and so again the roof sign and the façade were changed.

The AMP owned the building until 1987, when the CTs record its transfer to The DIC Properties Ltd. Then in 1990, the name of the registered proprietor was changed on the CTs to The AH Properties Ltd.

The firm Arthur Barnett had purchased the DIC group in 1987, but did not start trading under its own name until July 1989. The DIC sign then vanished from the roof and was not replaced. However, the huge department store was becoming a dinosaur in the wrong part of town. The CTs duly recorded the surrender of the Arthur Barnett lease on 15 October 1992.[13] The CTs record the property's transfer to the Palmerston North City Council on the same date.[14]

The Legacy
CM Ross, both the company and the man, have left some significant legacies to the city. The old Ross house, Rangimarie, is one of the surviving Featherston Street big houses, albeit now sandwiched between Rangiora and Moheke Avenues. This area was once know as the Ross Block, after the family property that became the site of the city's second State Housing subdivision. The wave of nappies that rolled northward toward Tremaine Avenue then became the Roslyn State Housing suburb, as a result of the Ross Block identity. Roslyn Kindergarten and Roslyn and Ross Intermediate Schools quickly followed on, and then Rossmont Shopping Centre was so christened because another post office in the South Island already had the preferred name. Meanwhile, the city's main library remains as the most visible built monument to the man and his dream. However, the building still has The DIC Ltd on its upper façade as a legacy to the Rosco firm's successors.

In addition to the library, the Public Trust office also occupies a shop in the building, which has the address No 7, The Square.

Additional information may be found in the records of CM Ross & Co Ltd, held by the Te Manawa Museums Trust.

A bird's eye view of most of the library complex, from the PNCC website.

Architectual Description

The style of the building is Chicagoesque.  This was a style that came from the steel framed buildings of Chicago of the early 20 century which were faced with a façade using the architectural language of Classical architecture.  Consistent with the style, the Library exterior design is characterised by the exuberant use of Classical elements such as large cornices, and giant orders, but with a horizontal and vertical emphasis and large areas of glass, allowed for by the use of a steel frame.

The interior of the building was largely removed in the 1997 redevelopment of the library, leaving only the exterior walls.

Statement of Significance

This entire library building has high regional significance for historical and design values, representivity of building style and level of external authenticity.

This entire library building has high historic and emotional values in its historic association with the CM Ross and Co department store and its successor, Milne and Choyce.  The store was regarded as an institution in the city.  The 1927 building was the firm's crowning achievement and at the time the grandest department store yet erected in Palmerston North.  The building has successfully been redeveloped as the city library, which retains the focus it once had as the premier department store.

The building also has high historic values in its association with the architect of the 1928 alterations, AR Allen, a Palmerston North architect of the mid twentieth century who designed buildings in Napier, Gisborne, and Palmerston North.  HL Hickson, with whom Allen designed the building, practised for a period up until 1935 with Rotorua architect HE Goodwin.  It is also associated with the architectural firm, Athfield Architects Ltd, who designed the redevelopment and whose design was awarded a NZIA National award.

The building is one of a number of buildings in the Cuba Street, George Street, Coleman Place and The Square area which, when considered collectively, form a coherent group of buildings of a similar age, general style, form, use, and scale.

The building's above verandah street façade design is largely authentic.

[1] PNCC Schedule of Buildings and Objects of Cultural Heritage Value

[2] Note that these dates are those shown on the certificates of title and there is therefore a time lag between the purchases and when someone actually wrote the change onto the title.

[3] Lesley Courtney, The House that Quality and Value Built, pp3-4

[4] The same Party wall appears on the Commercial Building's CT WN328/291 for part Section 254.

[5] Lesley Courtney, The House that Quality and Value Built, pp4, 7

[6] Robert H Billens & H Leslie Verry, From Swamp to City, 1887-1937 (PN, 1937). The pages are unnumbered.

[7] Lesley Courtney, The House that Quality and Value Built, p12

[8] Pam Phillips Papers, PN Architects 1900-1950, 'Plans held by PN Architects', Vol 3, p21, and 'Tenders published in the Manawatu Evening Standard', Vol 5, p58. Ian Matheson City Archives, PN City Library

[9] Building Permit Register, Vol 3, p389, PNCC Archives 4/13/1, Ian Matheson City Archives, PN City Library. This entry has no date given, but pre-dated July 1927.

[10] Lesley Courtney, The House that Quality and Value Built: The CM Ross Co Ltd Story (PN, 2008) pp12-14.

[11] Allen-Hickson plans 9 to 11, PNCC 4/13/6, Ian Matheson city Archives, PN City Library; Lesley Courtney, The House that Quality and Value Built, pp8, 13-14. Also Bruce Burr of the PN Electric Power Station Inc and PNEPS Inc. records.

[12] Lesley Courtney, The House that Quality and Value Built, pp30-31

[13] The various CTs also state that the name of the lessee was changed to Huttons Kiwi Ltd in 1992, but this aspect has not been researched further. Lesley Courtney's book (p. 34) also states that the building was owned at one stage by Apparel Holdings (AH Properties Ltd) and Brierley Cromwell, and as these firms are not clearly shown on the CTs, they are assumed to be owners of the companies that are listed on the CTs, and the relationships have not been further researched.

[14] The above cites as examples CTs WN229/246, 377/259, 34/110, 34/111. These were all replaced on 18 August 1993 with WN43B/123, as the titles were amalgamated.