Designs Began On Square’s First Stone Building – 11th July 1864

Charles Orbin Torlesse had a few hard decisions to make as he stood outside the fire gutted remains of his work building – the ‘Torlesse & Mason’ land office. He was not the only one as fifteen other Christchurch businesses were destroyed that day. The fire had ripped through the block of land between Colombo street and the Avon, the south west corner of Cathedral Square. In another blow for Torlesse, the fire had started from inside his office.

Nevertheless, Torlesse was quick to decide to rebuild on site, purchasing the land needed from his Uncle Felix Wakefield who owned the entire block. On 11th July 1864, just 5 weeks after the fire, architect Maxwell Bury began on a new design for Torlesse, resulting in the build of Cathedral Square’s first stone building. At just two storeys high, and of Gothic style, the structure was known as the ‘Torlesse Building’.

Sadly, just two years later, Torlesse, during a trip back to England, died after a quick illness. He was only 41 years old.

He was the nephew of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (the owner of the New Zealand Company and co-founder of the Canterbury Association) and first arrived in Canterbury as one of our earliest surveyors. He explored the untamed Canterbury Plains and High Country; his journal and letters home to his mother are a joy to read.   He was present for Christmas lunch at the Deans Cottage in 1848 when the Deans Brothers (William and John) officially renamed Putaringamotu to Riccarton and the Otakaro to the Avon River. Torlesse was the first to build a house in Rangiora (the site of Torlesse Park) and the first to climb Mt. Torlesse, hence the name.

In 1916, this ‘Torlesse Building’ was demolished when it was purchased by United Pictures. ‘The Strand’ picture theatre was built there a year later, being renamed “The Plaza Theatre” in 1933. Many of us may remember this Square frontage being the location of the ‘United Service Hotel’ and from 1991 until the 2011 earthquakes, the A.N.Z. Bank.

* Photo courtesy of the Christchurch City Libraries – – Photo CD 6, IMG0068

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