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Keith Street - Electric Power Station

Building Details

Building Name: Electric Power Station
Address: Keith Street 
Construction date: 
Architect: Joseph McClatchie Dawson 
Builder: Trevor Bros Ltd
District Plan Category: 1
Building number: 7
Heritage NZ Category: Nil

Heritage Values

The building retains an emotional value to the residents of Palmerston North as a symbol of an independent local power supply. 

Having a power supply has allowed the city and its residents to take advantage of the benefits of supply. Initially streets were lit by the power generated from the generators enhancing safety and visibility at night. At the beginning of generation, 1071 domestic and consumers signed up to power from the PNEPS and within a year this number had more than doubled. Existing buildings were retrofitted and new buildings were built to allow for supply of electricity.  While the benefits are now taken for granted and an electrical power supply is deemed essential for domestic and commercial needs, at first it would have been a novelty and used only by those who could afford it. New Zealanders are innovative people who adapt quickly to new technology and it is likely that the potential for the use of electricity was soon exploited giving economic and social benefits.

At the official opening of the Palmerston North Power Station, on 12 November 1924, Mr EF Hollands, manager of the electrical contractor Messrs Turnbull & Jones, described the new Palmerston North facility as the largest scheme of its kind ever undertaken (to that time at least) by any borough in New Zealand.  Preliminary research indicates that some other boroughs that became cities, such as Napier and Hastings, started smaller and earlier, and grew, whereas Palmerston North started large by comparison - and also grew in 1936.

The power station is one of the few surviving power stations of its type that survives in New Zealand in a relatively unmodified form, and one of only two where the engines are still operational.  The other is the power station at Springlands, in Blenheim.

Neil Rennie's book Power to the People includes a list of the many power stations built around New Zealand between 1888 and 1988. This indicates that Palmerston North was the last sizeable town in New Zealand to transfer to electricity[2].

The architectural design of the building is a simple, functional design housing the engines and backup facilities.  The only expressions of style suggest a simple classicism.  The building is highly visible on the brow of the hill and there is visual interest in the juxtaposition of the large volume of the station and the intimate scale of the neighbouring cemetery.

Architectural Design

The building is constructed of exposed brick panels in a reinforced concrete frame.  The building is clearly designed in an industrial idiom with little architectural detail to enable a style to be ascribed to it.  What architectural detail there is, other than an expression of structure is the gable shoulder and brackets under the residual cornice.  These few detail suggest a classical style, with the brackets a form of Edwardian Baroque ornament popular in buildings such as Parliament and Government House, designed by John Campbell.  Dawson used this style in the Manthel Motos Building.  He used the Chicagoesque classical style for the Hope Gibbons building.

The interior detail is similarly industrial and functional.  Even elements where architectural style could have been explored, such as staircases, are functional and plain. 

The planning of the building is as simple as the exterior style.  The engine room is a large double height volume off which are the service and office rooms on the two levels. 

Today the building is a landmark in the area, being a large volume on the brow of the hill.  The scale of the building is contrasted with the neighbouring cemetery where most elements are of a small and intricate scale.  Historically the building would have been one of a number of similar sized, or larger structures.


Joseph McClatchie Dawson was born in the Wairarapa. His father was an engineering contractor and Dawson's education included a background in construction work. In 1890 he left New Zealand and travelled to South Africa, England and Australia, returning in 1906 to establish his own architectural practice in Wellington. 

His buildings include the TG McCarthy Building, Willis Street (1913); Hatricks Motor Garage (now Manthel Motors); corner Taranaki and Wakefield Streets (1913); and the Hope Gibbons Building, Dixon Street (1925).

Dawson was an inaugural member of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, formed in 1905, and became a Fellow of the Institute in 1913. He was its president from 1938-1940. Having appointed Jack Ian King (1900-1972) as his first partner in 1929 Dawson entered semi-retirement in 1946, retiring in 1948. The firm he founded continues as King and Dawson. Dawson left for England after retirement, where he died.


Trevor Bros Ltd, were company that built the power station, originated with the contracting firm of a prominent Wellingtonian James Trevor. Work the firm undertook included a railway tunnel on the Wellington & Manawatu Railway Company. When his sons joined him in the business, it became Messrs Trevor & Sons, and the many large buildings it built there included the (Wellington) Corporation powerhouse.

In 1904, his son, George Edgar Trevor, came to Palmerston North on business for the firm - and remained here. At least one other son, Harold, also came to Palmerston North at some point. When James Trevor retired in about 1911 (he died in 1915), his sons took over the business and carried on under the name Trevor Bros. By this time it had branches in both Wellington and Palmerston North. The company's brickworks and clay pit were on the eastern side of present-day Vautier Park, in a portion of the pit/park that has more recently served as a BMX bicycle track.

The company built some very significant buildings around Palmerston North, with surviving ones including the former Central Post Office (1905), the Grand Hotel (1906) and St Patrick's Cathedral (1925). They also built Feilding's St Brigid's Catholic Church (1925). Others now demolished included the Clarendon Hotel, the main BNZ (1914), the Convent of Mercy in Fitchett Street (1925-1984), the Opera House (1904), the new main portion of the Public Hospital as described in 1940, and Palmerston North Girl's High School (actual building status uncertain). Others whose current status is unknown were the New Plymouth and Wanganui Hospitals.[3]

GE Trevor was subsequently managing director of building firm Messrs Bodell & Co Ltd, until his death in Palmerston North in 1940.[4] The Trevor Bros pit was bought at some point by the Ministry of Works, and in the 1940s it supplied metal for street construction in the surrounding Roslyn state housing area.[5]

Statement of Significance 

The Palmerston North Electric Power Station is a nationally rare, intact and working power station with fittings, which are rare internationally.  The building is a local physical landmark and a symbol of the wish for early independence of the Palmerston North City Council from the national supply of electricity.


[1]place means any land, including land covered by water and the airspace forming the spatial context to such land, including any landscape, traditional site or sacred place and anything fixed to the land including any archaeological site, garden, building or structure and any body of water, whether fresh or seawater, that forms part of the historical and cultural heritage of New Zealand

[2] Neil Rennie, Power to the People: 100 years of Public Electricity Supply in New Zealand (Electricity Supply Association of New Zealand, Wellington, 1989): Appendix 2, Table 11.

[3] ED Hounsell, 'Palmerston North City Electrical Department', in LB Hutton & FN Stace (eds.), The Engineering History of Electricity Supply in New Zealand, Vol 1 (New Zealand, 1958). No page numbers. Originally published in the NZ Electrical Journal in 1957.

[4] The Reyrolle Heritage Trust's website is and two of their newsletters are available on the website.

[5] John Gibson (UK) to Val Burr, personal email dated 24 April 2001.

[1] Report of DR Layton, City Electrical Engineer, to the Trading Committee, PNCC 4 August 1975 (PNCC City Archives, PNCC Series 1/5/5 file 81/19/1)

[2] Interview with Dick Ball, 6 January 2002

[3] Interview with Joan Roberts, 30 December 2001

[4] 'Structural Alterations to Power Station' Plan 517. Power Station plan collection, PNEPS Inc Archive

[5] 'Transformer Installation Details', Plan X239, approved 24/2/1989; Oil Supply Tank Installation Details, Plan W98, Approved 13/9/1989; 'New Water Supply to Power Station, Plan W96, approved 18/9/1989. Power Station plan collection, PNEPS Inc. Archive

[6] ED Hounsell, 'Palmerston North City Electrical Department' in LB Hutton & FN Stace, The Engineering History of Electrical Supply in New Zealand, Vol 1, 1958: (no page numbers).                                  

[7] Report of RG McInnes, City Electrical Engineer, to the Energy Committee, 19/4/1985. (PNCC City Archives, PNCC Series 1/5/5 file 81/19/1). Reports of the explosion are in the Evening Standard 16 April 1985 1(1-2) and 17 April 1985 3(2).

[1] The following biography is copied from the Wellington City Council's online Heritage Building Inventory for the houses located at '30 and 30a Roxburgh Street'

[2] Morgan, pp14, 27-30.

[3]Evening Standard 19 April 1940 8(6) 'Obituary: Mr George Edgar Trevor.' Evening Post 13 May 1915 8(5) 'Obituary: Mr James Trevor'. Also Jo Kellaway & Mike Maryan, A Century of Care: Palmerston North Hospital 1893-1993 (Focus Books, Australia, 1993): p. 47; BGR Saunders, Manawatu's Old Buildings (Massey University, Palmerston North, 1987): pp.  74, 83, 109, 129, 147; RH Billens & H.. Verry, From Swamp to City: commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of the city 1877-1977 (Palmerston North, 1937): p45.

[4]Evening Standard 19 April 1940 8(6) 'Obituary: Mr George Edgar Trevor;' 20 April 1940 8(6) 'Late Mr GE Trevor'.

[5] Dorothy Pilkington, Heritage Trails: Palmerston North City Heritage Trail (PN Heritage Trails Working Party, 1993): pp59-60.

[6] Interview with Joan Roberts, daughter of an original employee, Fred Stidolph. 30 December 2001.

[7] Les Boyles, Turnbull & Jones 1899-1984: First in the Industry (Cory-Wright & Salmon Ltd, Wellington, 1988) Note: Cory-Wright & Salmon Ltd bought the company in 1984.

[8]Evening Standard, 13 November 1924, 7(6) 'Electrical Energy'