Auckland Council Archives presents… Flushed out - the secrets of the public toilet
Auckland Council logo - a stylised pōhutukawa flower over water.
Photograph of the Beach Haven public toilet building - a concrete block building with a mural of a tūī painted on the side and a red roof. The building has trees and shrubs around it.
Caption: Photo taken by Vicky Spalding.
The convenience of conveniences
The establishment of public toilets and the changing ways in which they have been needed and used tell interesting stories about aspects of our social history. For something as seemingly mundane as a toilet, we really can infer a lot about what was going on in our city, who was here and what their needs were.
Auckland has been New Zealand’s largest city since 1891. Early on there was recognition from locals and governing bodies that certain needs were to be met if Auckland was to be considered a modern city.
One of the major issues facing the authorities was the growing need for public toilets. On 18 August 1863, it was passed by the City Board of Commissioners "that the work be forthwith proceeded with" to build the first men’s public toilet in Auckland.
This first toilet was a urinal and water closet located at the beginning of Queen Street Wharf on Custom House Street (now Customs Street) constructed to serve the ever-busy wharf and surrounding areas. It must be said that one public toilet serving a busy port of a city with over 6000 inhabitants would not have met the high demand, but it was certainly the beginning of journey toward improving public sanitation and it set the tone for Auckland’s public toilet history.
Queen Street Wharf and shipping in 1864, with North Head and Mount Victoria in the distance by Henry Winkelmann
Image: Black and white photograph showing Waitemata Harbour with the downtown Auckland shoreline in the foreground with fences and a boat under construction. In the middle of the image is a wharf with sailing ships alongside it. In the distance is North Head and Mount Victoria on the North Shore of Auckland.
Caption: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection 1-W718.
Underground literally and metaphorically
As Auckland and demand for public conveniences grew, there were challenges regarding where the toilets could be constructed. Buildings were popping up left, right and centre and conveniences needed to be in locations where the needs were greatest. This helped drive the decision to take conveniences underground.
There were several benefits of subterranean toilets. They could be placed at busy intersections if need be. There was also no impact on architectural feature or the streetscape. Another, less literal reason conveniences went underground was partly due to social and moral attitudes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding such delicate matters as using the toilet. Authorities had the mission of erecting new facilities so they were discreet but could be found and were safe to use.
However, there was a darker side to the underground toilets. While distinctly 'there', underground toilets were subtly concealed from view and underhandedly worked to conceal the acts that took place within them. Driven by public concerns about safety, Auckland City Council made policy changes in 1942 which meant they were no longer building underground toilets.
Durham Street West men’s convenience
Thought to be the only remaining 19th century convenience.
Believed to be oldest surviving public toilets in Auckland still in use.
Was threatened with destruction by the City Rail Link project.
Image: Engineering plan of the Durham Street latrine and urinal. Shows the stone wall where the toilets are located inside and has floor plans showing layout of the toilet cubicles.
Caption: City Engineer's plan / Archives reference: ACC 015/1662-1.
Durham Street approaches - Showing the bluestone wall below Albert Street and the conveniences, 1880
Image: Engineering plan showing the road levels of Albert Street, layout of Durham Street, details of the wall, entrance to the convenience and layout of the cubicles.
Caption: City Engineer's plan / Archives reference: ACC 015/69-3.
Durham Street West men’s convenience
The toilet was refurbished in 1996.
City Design architect, Chris Thom at the entrance to the Durham Street toilets.
The lamp and wrought iron work above the doorway were new additions.
Image: Colour photograph of the entrance to the Durham Street men’s convenience with Chris Thom, the architect standing to the left of the entrance. The wall is grey stone blockwork, the entrance is an archway with white tiles and a metal screen. At the top of the arch is a wrought iron lantern.
Caption: City Scene photograph / Archives reference: AKC 428/Ifa.
Three Lamps men’s convenience
Located at the intersection of Ponsonby Road, Jervois Road, College Hill and St Mary’s Road by the old Post Office.
Had a glass brick ceiling and roof to let in light and decorative cast iron railings around the entrance for safety and street appeal.
Aside from maintenance and some modernising, the toilets are still much the same today.
Image: Engineering plan of the underground convenience on St Mary’s Road, Ponsonby. The plan shows the details for the construction of the toilet including elevations of the staircase and layout of the cubicles plus a location diagram of where the toilet is located on St Mary’s Road.
Caption: City Engineer's plan / Archives reference: ACC 015/1679-1.
The Three Lamps incident
On 27 March 1963, a two-and-a-half-ton pavement roller broke through the roof of the convenience.
City Council workers had replaced the concrete slabs covering the convenience and were rolling the re-laid footpath, when the driver, Mr Ley Tuala felt the front of his roller go down. He quickly leapt out of his seat.
The roller had broken through a slab. Then a second slab gave way, leaving the roller hanging upside down. A crane was brought in to lift the roller out.
The intrusion by the pavement roller didn’t cause any major damage to the toilet facilities and the concrete slabs were replaced.
Image: Black and white photograph of the Ponsonby Post Office building which is white and made of stone. The building is two storied with a clock tower on the top. The building has many decorative architectural features. In the foreground is a wrought-iron fence on the footpath in front of the building. This fence is the entrance to the Three Lamps men’s toilets.
Caption: Auckland City Council photographer / Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 435-B4-196A.
Windsor Reserve Devonport
An example of modern underground toilets.
Designed by architect Jeremy Salmond.
They replaced the 1960s changing sheds which were considered a blight on the landscape.
Image: Colour photograph of Windsor Reserve. In the foreground is a large tree, in the middle-ground there is a large expanse of grass and in the background are trees and glass brick walls of the Windsor Reserve toilets which are semi-buried under a grassy mound.
Caption: Auckland Council photograph.
Windsor Reserve changing shed and public toilet - Elevations Salmond Architects, 1989
Image: Architectural plan of the Windsor Reserve toilets showing the elevations. The plans are a black and white line drawing and were drawn by Salmond Architects in 1989.
Caption: Devonport Borough Council subject file / Archives reference: DBC 109/6-5-6.
Windsor Reserve changing shed and public toilets, 1994-1995
Inventive design – the toilets are partially excavated into the ground to minimise impact on the view.
Architectural features such as port-hole windows and metal bannisters around the viewing platform give a nautical feel to the toilets.
Jeremy Salmond won an award from the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects for his design.
Image: Colour photograph of the Windsor Reserve toilets. In the foreground is the sea and a stone wall. In the middle of the photograph is a walkway with the concrete and glass brick building surrounded by grass and large trees.
Caption: North Shore City Council parks file / Archives reference: NSC 688/PF10084/Pt 5.
Functionality and architectural aesthetic
Functionality and aesthetic architectural elements are two common themes in some of the early public toilets in and around Auckland.
It was common to build a public toilet that also had other functional elements: a tram shelter, a restroom, changing sheds and power substations to name a few.
These were practical, time and money saving decisions that were made to maximise ratepayer contributions for public amenities and were often a result of practical constraints such as convenience and available land.
Grafton Bridge toilets and shelter
Built 1910 to coincide with opening of Grafton Bridge.
Edwardian Baroque architectural style.
First public toilet to incorporate a tram shelter.
First public toilet to cater for women.
Image: Colour photograph of the Grafton Bridge toilets and tram shelter. It is a red brick building with decorative concrete features which in the middle of the photograph. In the foreground is the road (Symonds Street) and in the background are trees.
Caption: Photograph from Auckland Council Conservation plan for Grafton Bridge toilets
Symonds Street public conveniences and shelter, 4 August 1909
Alterations were made in the 1920s.
Originally the entrance to the women's toilet was inside the tram shelter.
Women had to squeeze past people waiting in the shelter to enter the toilet.
The entrance way was moved to the side of the building to reflect the layout of the men's toilet.
Image: Colour engineering plan of the toilets and shelter. The plan has a location diagram showing the position of the toilets on the corner of Symonds Street and Grafton Bridge, the construction of the shelter including elevations of the building, cross-sections and the floor plan. The elevation to Symonds Street shows a red brick building with decorative concrete features with an awning over the front of the shelter. A woman with a hat is sitting inside the shelter. The floor plan shows the layout of the toilet cubicles and hand basins in the men’s and women’s conveniences.
Caption: City Engineer’s plan / Archives reference: ACC 015/2841-1.
Mission Bay changing sheds and toilets
Built in 1934 as dressing sheds.
Toilet and shower facilities were added in 1946.
In 1957 the building was extended.
The building was redesigned in 1998.
Image: Colour photograph of the redesigned building. People are sitting on the wall alongside the footpath opposite the building.
Caption: City Scene photograph / Archives reference: AKC 428/2fq.
Proposed bathing shed at Mission Bay, 1934
Until the mid-1930s facilities at Mission Bay were basic with 'corrugated iron enclosures for dressing sheds and no showers whatsoever'.
A permanent structure with dressing rooms and lockers, an ambulance room, a lifesaving room and an office was built in 1934.
But there were no toilet facilities.
In 1946 an important addition was made – toilets.
The bathing shed has been modernised and redecorated but the exterior remains much the same.
Image: A colour engineering plan of the changing sheds. Plan shows elevations of the rectangular brick building with an orange tile roof, and a cross-section of the building and the floor plan. The floor plan shows the women’s and men’s dressing rooms with showers and changing cubicles, an office, life-saving room and an ambulance room.
Caption: City Engineer’s plan / Archives reference: ACC 015 / 7688-5.
Waiuku Plunket and restroom
Waiuku Plunket was established 30 May 1929 and the Waiuku Town Board was asked to provide a ladies’ restroom and Plunket room.
On 26 November 1937 the Waiuku Plunket and Restroom in Queen Street was officially opened.
The restroom served the Waiuku community until 1987 when the Civic Centre in King Street was built.
The old Plunket and ladies’ restroom became redundant and was eventually sold by the council.
It has since been used for many other purposes, including a funeral home.
Image: Plunket and Ladies Rest Room building surrounded by trees on one side and a church on the other. Two cars are parked on the road in front of the building.
Caption: George Doherty photographer / 04757 Research Centre South, Auckland Libraries.
Toilets for all
The topic of gender and toilets has long been an ongoing issue.
In 1949, Auckland City Council operated 20 men’s conveniences and only six women’s. Even in the 1950s public conveniences for women had to be fought for and justified.
The Auckland West Federation of Country Women wrote to the Council in 1958 asking for more public conveniences for women and children. The City Engineer conducted a report and found there were 25 public conveniences accessible to women and that ‘In addition to these, facilities are provided in a number of the large Departmental stores in shopping areas. I do not consider that additional women’s public conveniences should be provided’.
In essence, it was about more than just toilets -it was about giving women the freedom to move, socialise and work throughout the city without being limited by something as simple as nature’s call.
From the 1960s through to the 1990s, ideas around designing and providing public amenities to make them accessible to all people regardless of age, ability and life stages were developed. Auckland City Council opened the first unisex toilet in Remuera in 1974 in an attempt to provide one facility available to both men and women.
Karangahape Road restroom
First purpose-built women’s restroom.
Built in 1926 and opened April 1927.
Featured 6 toilets, lounge room, change room, mother’s room, attendant’s room and pram storage room.
Replaced in 1950 with a new restroom with more amenities.
The restroom was demolished in 2000.
Image: A colour engineering plan of the restroom. The plan has an elevation showing a small building that looks like a house with windows and an orange tile roof. The floor layout shows the entry porch, lounge room, pram storage area, room for the attendant, lavatories, mothers’ room and a changing room.
Caption: City Engineer’s plan / Archives reference: ACC 015/6541-3A.
On 17 March 1927, the Council advertised for lady attendants for the Karangahape Road restroom.
A huge number of applications were received - 298 by the closing date.
Two attendants were appointed to cover shifts between 9am to 3.30pm and 3.30pm to 10pm.
The tradition of attendants continued into the 1990s - pictured is Caroline who was a restroom attendant in 1993.
Image: Photo of a restroom with chairs, table and plants. Caroline, a restroom attendant in 1993, is standing behind a chair holding a spray bottle and cloth.
Caption: Photograph from Scene newsletter / AKC 035/1ba.
Toilets with a conscience
In recent years there has been a shift in thinking and design toward providing more environmentally sustainable and suitable buildings and facilities for the public to use.
Whether it is a composting toilet designed to operate without water, a state-of-the-art septic tank system, a stormwater collection system or a living roof designed to filter rainwater, there are many ways that technology can be harnessed to create toilets with a conscience.
There is also an emphasis on creating toilets that are well suited to their physical environment. Suitable cladding materials, landscaping and the size and position of the building each offers the chance for a building to complement its surroundings.
Maukatia (Maori Bay) toilets
Designed by Turbott and Associates for Auckland Regional Council in 2001.
The buildings are made from timber and have earth roofs planted with grass and shrubs helping them blend into the natural environment.
The grassed roofs also assist with minimizing the impact of water run-off on the soft soil.
To limit damage with any rock falls, the roofs are designed to be impact resistant and the toilet blocks have debris fences behind them.
Image: Cliff face with the timber toilet blocks and boardwalk in front. The roofs are planted with grass and shrubs. The toilets are surrounded by trees and large rocks.
Caption: Maukatia (Maori Bay) toilets / Photo by Samantha Waru.
Maori Bay toilets - Women's toilets elevations , Turbott and Associates, 2001
Image: Black and white plan of the women’s toilets at Maori Bay showing the north, south, east and west elevations for the building which is depicted as being made from planks of wood. Notations on the plan indicate the types of materials to be used in the construction. The plan has a Rodney District Council resource consent stamped on it.
Caption: Rodney District Council resource consent file / Reference: RC 10584.
Toilets as art
Much like the new trend of creating environmentally friendly and accessible toilets, there has also been a shift toward designing toilets that are aesthetically pleasing. Bonus points if it ticks all the boxes!
With the popularity of toilets such as the famous Kawakawa Hunterwasser toilets, the Wellington waterfront lobster toilets or the iconic Tirau corrugated iron sheepdog toilets, small towns around New Zealand are opting to build eye-catching, unique toilets that make a statement in an attempt to attract tourists and to provide a talking point.
These sorts of facilities often become projects that heavily involve local communities and they become a great way to get local businesses and designers working with each other.
It is a commonly accepted idea that public art enriches a place and it offers a great opportunity for story-telling and the development of local identity.
Opened in 2009, nearly six years after the design was chosen.
They have disabled and unisex access combined.
Concept was designed by Steffan de Haan, who was a student at ELAM art school.
Malcolm Halley of Halley Arthouse worked the design into technical drawings.
Image: Two toilets with half-faces made from moulded concrete at the front. The wooden toilets resemble boat hulls with windows at the top.
Caption: Matakana toilets / Photo by Samantha Waru.
Matakana toilet design - Sections and detail, Malcolm Halley, Halley Arthouse
Image: Black and white plan of the toilets at Matakana, and shows the sections and details of the toilet cubicle building design. There are two drawings depicting the building as being a curved archway. The drawing on the left-hand side shows a hand basin and toilet inside a cubicle and the drawing on the right-hand side shows a figure of a man with a child to give a sense of the scale. There are notations on the drawing indicating the construction materials.
Caption: Rodney District Council parks and community facilities project file / Reference: P990 part 1.
These surrealist sculptural toilets act as a public artwork and tourist attraction for Matakana village.
A community-lead project with the Matakana Toilets Project Team established in 2003.
Funded by combination of community donations, grants and the Rodney District Council.
Cost about $400,000 to construct.
Image: Coloured artist impression of the Matakana toilets. It depicts the sculptural heads which are the shape of the toilet cubicles sited on some grass surrounded by trees.
Caption: Artist's impression of proposed Matakana toilet, 2007 / Reference: P990 part 2.
Creek Lane Helensville toilets
Opened 10 July 2010.
Replaced the old 1993 Exeloo in Creek Lane.
Rodney District Council chose Exeloo’s Jupiter triple cubicle building with unisex facilities and wheelchair accessibility.
The community identity was able to be reflected in the new toilet block through exterior artwork.
In February 2009, Rodney District Council called for expressions of interest from artists.
Local artist Jeff Thomson was selected.
His chosen media is corrugated iron and is well known for various public artworks.
Image: Triple Exeloo toilets with corrugated iron cladding. The round corrugated iron water tank to the left of the toilet block has blue glass portholes.
Caption: Jupiter (43AAD)|triple|retail|1209 / Photo courtesy of Exeloo.
Creek Lane public toilets - Plan and elevations, Brewer Davidson, September 2009
Image: Mostly black and white plan of the toilets at Creek Lane in Helensville. Plan shows a front and side elevation of the toilet building and includes a water tank beside the building. There are notes on the plan indicating that the cladding was to be corrugated iron. The plan also shows the layout of two ordinary toilet cubicles and one accessible toilet.
Caption: Rodney District Council parks and community facilities file / Reference P938-05.
Creek Lane Helensville toilets
A sustainable feature is the water tank which is filled by stormwater run off from the roof.
The tank is also an artwork.
Constructed from corrugated iron with toughened glass.
The portholes are lit from the inside and when a viewer looks in they can see images of ships and sea life.
The toilets tell the story of Helensville.
Image: Round corrugated iron water tank to the left of the toilet block has blue glass portholes.
Caption: Rodney District Council parks and community facilities file / Reference P938-05.
Reinventing the toilet for the 21st century
Modern public toilets differ from historic examples in a couple of ways. Advances in technology have allowed toilets to be built in more obscure and remote locations. It is important that toilets are well suited to their natural or built environment.
Another great change in the 21st century is how we talk about accessibility and gender. It is standard now for all public toilets to be built in compliance with accessibility legislation to ensure anyone can use at least one stall within a facility. While discussions around gender and toilets isn’t strictly a 21st century phenomenon, it is now a common expectation when it comes to the design of public toilets.
Expectations held by 21st century public toilet users are much the same as those who used the early Auckland public toilets. People expect cleanliness, a level of privacy and the ability to locate the facilities easily. The differences in user experience today comes down to how toilets are built and what role the facility plays in its surroundings.
Toilets have become an opportunity to show off architectural flair, to tell local histories, to create facilities that compliment the natural environment and to be environmentally friendly. Many offer much more than merely a building with a toilet.