Warner's Hotel

Built in 1901 to replace an earlier hotel building, Warner's Hotel was an iconic feature of Cathedral Square until its demolition after the Canterbury earthquakes.

Warners Hotel and The Press building
Warners Hotel and The Press building. Photographer (pht): Doc Ross. © Doc Ross

Warner’s Hotel stood in the north east corner of Cathedral Square, on land that was formerly Town Section 700 and Town Section 702. Town Section 700 was purchased by Henry Phillips in 1851 and Town Section 702 was purchased by John Phillips a few years after. In his history of Warner’s Hotel, Stephen Symons offers evidence that there may have been a hotel or grog shop on Town Section 700 prior to 1863.

In 1863, Alfred Creyke purchased Town Section 702. On 7 July 1863, John Coker, who had resigned from his position as Inspector of Public Nuisances for the Christchurch City, opened a hotel, Coker’s Commercial Rooms, on Town Section 702. The hotel consisted of a commercial room, for which subscribers paid for its use, and a dining room. There were also bedrooms. However, by December 1863 Coker was bankrupt and the hotel was put up for auction.

William White was operating the hotel by April 1864 and it became known as White’s Commercial Hotel. John Coker returned to run the hotel in 1872, having been granted a license. However by 1873 financial problems once more forced him to sell. He transferred the license to Charles Allison in March 1873.

In June 1873 Charles Allison applied to transfer the license to William Francis Warner. Under Warner the hotel was renovated and further additions were made in 1875 which saw the extension of the hotel further along Cathedral Square. During this time the hotel became known as Warner’s Hotel.

Warners Hotel Cathedral Square
Warners Hotel Cathedral Square. Christchurch Star - no known copyright

The western parcel of Town Section 700 was sold to the Canterbury Music Hall Company and a concert hall was established which later became known as the Gaiety Theatre. In 1887 the former Gaiety Theatre building, which had become Warner’s Assembly Rooms, was incorporated into the hotel. The rooms on the ground floor continued to be used as sample rooms for commercial travellers while the upper floor was converted into seventeen bedrooms.

In May 1891, architect W.F. Strouts advertised for tenders to construct a brick addition to the hotel. Consisting of three floors, the building was set behind the original hotel and faced onto Worcester Street.  The ground floor offered an additional dining room, lit by three windows. Beyond this was a plate room, and a drying room. The first floor of the new addition offered seven double bedrooms with bathrooms, and a sitting room. The second floor was reserved for bachelors and provided ten bedrooms.

William Francis Warner drowned in the Heathcote Estuary in February 1896. Following his death, his widow Alice went into a partnership with her father, James Keen Little and a brewer, Sidney Brice. In May, Alice applied for the license to the hotel.

On 24 March 1900, the hotel building was partially destroyed by fire. Although some of the business was able to continue operating from a surviving portion, by May, architect J.C. Maddison had designed a new building and was advertising for tenders. In June, Alice applied to transfer the license to Henry Allen. In September, he transferred the license to Francis Ernest Wolseley.

In February 1901, Wolseley applied to transfer the license to Percy Herman, who in that month also became the proprietor. On 1 March 1901, the foundation stone of the new hotel building was laid by five year old William Francis Warner. The contract for the hotel construction had been awarded to W.H. Bowen. By December 1901, the building was finished and the hotel was open to receive visitors.

Three storeys high, the building had a frontage on both Cathedral Square and Worcester Street. The entrance, situated under a portico, opened into a vestibule, and from there, an entrance hall. Directly opposite the vestibule, was an office and telephone room. A staircase in the entrance hall provided access to the upper floors. South of the vestibule, accessible from the entrance hall, were two private sitting rooms with windows facing onto Cathedral Square. The southernmost end of the building, with a façade facing onto Worcester Street, contained a ladies dining room with access to the dining room of the 1891 addition.

From the entrance hall, a corridor proceeded northward before turning west and opening into a porch accessible from Cathedral Square. West of the corridor, was a commercial room, with a waiting room to the south and a sitting room to the north. In the north east, accessible from the corridor, was a private bar. Another door opened from the corridor, providing access to a staircase, a billiards room, and lavatories.

Both sets of staircases led to landings that opened onto a north-south corridor. Directly above the ground floor vestibule was another vestibule that provided access to a balcony over the main entrance. To either side of the vestibule were sitting rooms. Bedrooms opened off the corridor, and at the northern end were two bathrooms and two water closets. At the southernmost end, the corridor opened into a sitting room that looked out over both Worcester Street and Cathedral Square.

In September 1902, Alice, Little and Brice formed the company, Warner’s Limited.

After opening, it was realised that the noise made by the printing press of the adjacent Lyttelton Times building was a disturbance for guests. To resolve the issue, the hotel approached the architectural firm, Luttrell Brothers, which suggested that the northern end of the hotel be demolished and an intermediary building constructed. It was decided that the Lyttelton Times would construct the building and the hotel would lease rooms within which could be used as additional accommodation. Although this building was completed by February 1904, the dispute between Warner’s Limited and the Lyttelton Times continued.

Postcard from the 1906 New Zealand International Exhibition
Postcard from the 1906 New Zealand International Exhibition. No known copyright

In February 1904, the license for the hotel was transferred from Herman to George W. Fraser. Fraser applied to transfer it to Ealey Ebenezer Daniels in May 1905. When he left to run the Dominion Hotel on Gloucester Street in 1908, Daniels applied to transfer the license to John Neill in August. In May 1909, Neill applied to transfer it to James Baring Gould. In April 1910, Gould applied to transfer the license to Ernest Cresswell Meredith. In May 1911, Meredith applied to transfer the license to Alexander Palmer. Palmer applied to transfer the license to James Alfred Duncan in July 1912. In September 1914, the application for the hotel license to be transferred from Duncan to Benjamin Price was granted.

The legal dispute between Warner’s Limited and the Lyttelton Times was resolved in 1915 when Warner’s agreed to demolish part of its building. In place of the demolished section, the Liberty Theatre was erected. The cinema building was completed in 1917. This caused the hotel building to lose its symmetry on the western façade facing Cathedral Square.

The former Gaiety Theatre building was demolished in September 1915 and a new addition to Warner’s Hotel was erected in its place. At some point a fourth storey was also added to the section designed in 1901 by Maddison.

After the death of his wife, Sarah Annie, who died at the hotel in June 1923, Price transferred the license to Thomas Arthur Cloudsley.

Warner’s Hotel briefly became a royal residence in March 1927 when the Duke of York George VI stayed at the hotel. In December 1927, Cloudsley transferred the license to George Payne. Payne transferred the license to Edmond John Kiely in September 1929. In January 1930, Kiely applied to transfer the license to John Lowbridge Bennett. Bennett transferred applied to transfer the license to George Simpson in February 1933. Simpson applied to transfer the license to Benjamin Henry Price in May 1934, who held the license with Bertram Reginald Collins. They retained the license until July 1939 when Collins applied to transfer the license to Charles Robert Williamson. Cloudsley returned to run the hotel in 1941.

In 1950 the hotel was purchased by Square Freeholds Limited of the MacFarlane Family Trust. The daily operations of the hotel were overseen by various managers on behalf of Duncan MacFarlane before he eventually took up the lease himself in 1957. MacFarlane then entered into a five year lease with New Zealand Breweries. The company made changes to the interior of the building including the conversion of the lounge bar into a public bar

The lease was renewed by New Zealand Breweries again in 1962 for another five years. When this lease expired in 1967, hotel occupancy in the central city was on the decline. The doors were closed on 19 January 1967.

Following this closure, the building was remodelled. The ground floor tavern of the hotel was converted into a cocktail bar, a lounge bar, and a public bar with a dance floor, and a bottle store. The ground floor of the Worcester Street façade was renovated to include shops. The refurbished building opened on 20 December 1967. Despite this renewal, the reputation of Warner’s decreased in the 1970s. Brawls became common and the manager, Douglas Alleyne, was often found intoxicated by the police.

In 1977 the balustrade on the parapet was removed. Rather than being discarded, it was taken home by one of the tradesmen who performed the task and converted into a garden fence.

In October 1978 Warner’s Victualling Company, under the management of Peter John Sullivan and Earnest Christopher Hunter, took up a three year lease of the bar. Once again, refurbishment was carried out. The company renewed their lease for another three years in 1981.

In 1986 the lease was taken up by Stan and Lynn O’Keefe. In 1987 they refurbished the building to operate as a hotel once again, with the aim of improving its reputation. The ground floor featured a bar, Bailies Bar. During this time the hotel and bar was frequented by Americans working in Antarctica.

In 1996 the building was registered as a Category 2 site by the Historic Places Trust. The neighbouring Savoy Theatre building was demolished in 1997.

In 1998 a Christchurch City Council subcommittee proposed to redevelop Warner’s Hotel, along with surrounding heritage buildings, despite the owner, Angus McFarlane, wanting to demolish it. However, independent planning commissioner, Bob Batty declined the application for the demolition. In August 1998 the McFarlane Family Trust then sought a resource consent with the Environment Court to demolish the building. This was granted in December 1999. Before demolition could commence, an agreement was made with the Christchurch City Council in 2000, whereby the council agreed to commit $150,000 a year for a five year term. As part of this agreement, the O’Keefes were required to purchase the building from the McFarlane Trust and then extend the Cathedral Square façade across the space left by the demolition of the Savoy. By 2003, the space left by the demolition of the Savoy was used as a beer garden.

In 2007, under the ownership of Gordon Chamberlain, construction of a new Novotel Hotel started on the site of the beer garden. The western façade of Warner’s Hotel was extended, incorporating the former Warner’s Hotel building into the new hotel. The former Warner’s Hotel building, however, was damaged in the Canterbury earthquakes and subsequently demolished.