McKenzie & Willis, the South Island’s leading home furnishing retailer, began as a house and land agency that also dabbled in auctioning of second-hand furniture as a side business. They took up the first floor of the one year old Royal Exchange Building (now demolished but was located at the western cnr of Cathedral Square and Worcester Street) which boasted of having New Zealand’s first passenger lift.
The partnership wasn’t to last too long after a falling out causing the two businessmen to part ways in 1914. Joseph Willis stayed at the Cathedral site and decided not to remove the name McKenzie from the business. R.S. McKenzie continued as a house and land agent, whereas it appears that Willis turned his focus to furniture.
In 1928, McKenzie & Willis were forced to move out of the Royal Exchange Building as it was being prepared to be turned into a movie house and then became known as the Regent Theatre Building. It was able to host an audience of 1600 people and had the largest screen in Australasia. Joseph moved McKenzie & Willis to Cashel Street, which then included the retailing of flooring, home appliances, curtains and blinds.
In 1980, with the takeover of ‘A.J Whites’ (another Christchurch furnishing company) McKenzie & Willis made their move to the most historic and well known site on the corner of Tuam and High Streets. Severely damaged by the earthquakes of 2011, the saving and restoration of the now iconic McKenzie & Willis façade has been a frequent news story these last few years (2016). Sadly McKenzie & Willis, who have been trading on Blenheim Road with roughly 70 staff, have no plans to return to the site but fortunately the name has remained. It has the potential to be one of Christchurch’s most treasured heritage sites with the original façade greeting new retail, office and eatery possibilities.
*Image courtesy of Queenstown Shopping: http://www.queenstownnz.co.nz*