The Moorings and Michael Fowler Centre

I went to two very different performances in the weekend, held in very different venues. On Saturday evening UK pianist Freddy Kempf played – and conducted! – Beethoven’s Piano Concertos 1, 2 and 3 with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the Wellington concert venue called the Michael Fowler Centre (MFC). On Sunday evening I went to a private house called “The Moorings” where Tayo Aluko performed his one-man show about Black American singer and political activist Paul Robeson (1898–1976). Tayo Aluko is a Nigerian born, UK-based actor and baritone singer. He was interviewed on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning show. I enjoyed both performances, but this isn’t a review, rather I intend to talk about the venues.

If you’d like to read more about Tayo’s performance see Giovanni Tiso’s blog post.

The Michael Fowler Centre (named after a former Wellington mayor who was also an architect) was designed by the architectural firm of Warren and Mahoney. The plans were drawn up in 1975 but the building was only finished in 1983 as there was a delay due to the Wellington City Council needing to find more money. The acoustics are rather fine; if you want to read more about that click the Warren and Mahoney link above.

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

The MFC was supposed to replace the old Wellington Town Hall (completed in November 1904, designed by Joshua Charlesworth) which was going to be demolished, but it was saved and so the two buildings are jammed rather closely together. The Town Hall, which is a Category 1 listed historic place, is currently undergoing earthquake strengthening.

Wellington Town Hall

Wellington Town Hall

The Moorings is a private house designed by architect John Swan as his own home. It is located in one of Wellington’s older suburbs, Thorndon, where the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace also is, and many other nineteenth-century houses. John Swan designed a number of prominent Wellington buildings, including St Gerard’s Church and Erskine College, both of which I mentioned in my recent post on Wellington buildings.

The house was built in 1905 and given Swan’s passion for the sea it has a number of nautical features, as well as its name. Swan was Commodore of the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club (1906-7) and owned one of the world’s largest collections of photographs of ships.[1] Following his death in 1936 the house was leased as a boarding house and then in the late 1960s the urban motorway was going to be built right through Thorndon. As a result ten nearby houses were bought and demolished by the Ministry of Works. Had the owners of ‘The Moorings’ given way under pressure to sell, the building would be gone now, as was the fate of many Thorndon houses at this time. It has a Historic Place Category 1 listing. I did visit it some years ago with a group on a walking tour of historic Thorndon houses, but any photos I took at that time will be ‘lost’ in my archive of old print and negative photographs.

Tayo’s Robeson performance was held in the old ballroom, which has a balcony overlooking it that chaperones could sit on in former days. To get to the ballroom you have to go through a large double-hung window! (I can’t imagine Swan designed it like that – this was probably a change made during its years as a boarding house.) The ballroom still has old peeling scrim-lined wallpaper and some porthole style windows with rope around them, contributing to the nautical theme.

I guess it could seat about 50 people per performance, and each one was sold out. It was a suitable venue for a one-man performance with one keyboard accompanist, so that it didn’t need too much space. A trades union venue might have been more appropriate given Robeson’s socialist views, but I suppose Fringe Festival events take the venues offered. I certainly enjoyed seeing some of the house again, as well as the performance. Robeson had visited New Zealand in 1960 and one woman in our audience brought along a photo which included her sister and other children with Robeson at Wellington airport.

Footnote:

[1] Heritage New Zealand List entry for The Moorings: http://www.heritage.org.nz/the-list/details/1437

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