Within 25 years of the first European dwelling of cabbage trees and clay being built in 1853, Ōamaru had risen to become not only the country’s ninth largest town, but also reputedly “the best built in New Zealand”.
The discovery of an excellent building material, limestone, contributed to the young town’s early appearance of permanence and stability. Because the stone was easily carved, architects and stonemasons revelled in the creation of the then fashionable classic forms of architecture. Their skills, aided by the general prosperity of the time, have given Ōamaru some of the finest 19th century streetscapes one could hope to find in New Zealand today.
Ōamaru has traditionally been a servicing centre for the farms and estates of the interior. At Totara, just south of Ōamaru, sheep for New Zealand’s first shipment of frozen mutton to the United Kingdom were killed and processed.
Because the port played an important role in the handling of imports and exports, the harbour area was understandably developed first. Here, creamy white limestone hotels, banks and offices rose alongside equally well-designed and well-proportioned grain and wool stores and warehouses.
The widening of the Thames Street bridge over the Ōamaru Creek then enabled the commercial area to spread along Thames Street. With the development of the northern end of the town, “The Whitestone City”, as Ōamaru soon became known, continued to expand.
This shift of commerce, together with the closure of the Port of Ōamaru in the l970s, has been fortuitous for the town’s 19th century heritage. It has allowed the area to remain largely intact…poised, if you like, to greet an era of renewed appreciation.