Francis Petre

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Francis Petre
Francis Petre

Francis (Frank) William Petre ( 27 August 1847– 10 December 1918) was a prominent New Zealand-born architect based in Dunedin. Before his time, 19th-century New Zealand architecture was dominated by an almost institutionalized Gothic revival style, used by the British Empire for its far-flung colonies. Petre, one of the first of New Zealand's native-born architects, played an important part in guiding it towards the Palladian and Renaissance styles of southern Europe, which were more suited to New Zealand's climate than Gothic.

Able to work competently in a wide diversity of architectural styles, he was also notable for his pioneering work in concrete development and construction. He designed numerous public and private buildings, many of which are still standing in and around Dunedin. Today his private houses are among the most distinguished and sought after in New Zealand. However, he is chiefly remembered for the monumental Roman Catholic cathedrals of Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin, which survive today as testimony to his talent and architectural expertise.

Early life

The Petres were an aristocratic family from Ingatestone in Essex, England. Francis Petre's immediate family was one of the first and most prominent colonial families of New Zealand; Petre Bay, Chatham Island was named after them, as - originally - was the town of Wanganui in the North Island. The Wellington suburb of Thorndon was named after the family's Thorndon Hall estate in England. Petre was the son of the Honourable Henry William Petre, who first came to New Zealand in 1840 as director of the New Zealand Company of which his own father, Lord Petre, had been chairman. The New Zealand Company had been set up to promote the colonisation of New Zealand, and bought, sometimes dubiously, thousands of hectares of land from the Māori. Consequently, Henry Petre was one of the founders of Wellington. He was also colonial treasurer of New Munster. Henry seems to have been a man of strange appearance, from the description by his contemporary, the New Zealand social commentator Charlotte Godley: "He is immensely tall and thin and looks like a set of fire irons badly hung together".

Francis Petre was born in 1847 at Petone, today a suburb of Lower Hutt in the North Island, which was one of the earliest British settlements in New Zealand. In 1855, in the then British colonial tradition, Petre was sent to England to be educated. He attended the Mount St Mary College in the north of England, where he was taught by the Jesuits. After four years, he left to attend the Royal Naval College, then at Portsmouth (the college moved to Greenwich in 1869). Finding himself unsuited to a naval career he pursued his education in France, where he attended the charismatic priest Benoit Haffreingue's college at Boulogne-sur-Mer. Returning to England, he completed his education at Ushaw College, Durham.

Members of British aristocratic families at this time seldom had to "earn a living", as they would generally be possessed of a private income and enter one of the military services or the church. However, as the third son of the younger son of a peer, it was always clear that Petre would have to provide his own income, and consequently he was apprenticed from 1864 to 1869 to Joseph Samuda of London, a shipbuilder and engineer. Here he received his training in the techniques and skills of concrete manufacturing, which he was to employ with great acclaim in his later architectural career.

Circa 1869 Petre qualified as an architect and engineer, and after a brief period in private practice in London working for architect and engineer Daniel Cubitt Nicholls he returned to New Zealand in 1872. He was then employed as an engineer by railway contractors Brogden and Sons. During this period, he oversaw the construction of both the Blenheim– Picton and Dunedin– Balclutha railway lines, as well as the draining of parts of the Taieri Plains and the construction of tunnels on the Central Otago Railway, some of which are today open to the public as part of the Otago Central Rail Trail. When these tasks were completed, he set up his own practice as an engineer and architect in Liverpool Street, Dunedin.


St Joseph's Cathedral, Dunedin, as Petre intended it. This design was never completed.
St Joseph's Cathedral, Dunedin, as Petre intended it. This design was never completed.

From 1875 Petre seems to have devoted his life to architecture, in particular ecclesiastical architecture. No doubt influenced by the fashion of the time, especially by the acclaimed Christchurch architect Benjamin Mountfort, Petre initially designed in the Gothic revival style, which he praised for

the great richness and delicacy of detail, and the closer application of geometrical rules to architecture–more especially in the window tracery which exhibits greater variety of design, together with an easier and more perfect flow into the various parts of the whole structure .

The English Gothic revival style had become popular for Protestant church architecture in the British colonies, as it had in Britain itself, following the rise of the Oxford Movement - a school of Anglo-Catholic intellectuals who felt that medieval Gothic architecture inspired a greater spirituality than other styles based on non-Christian temples. The Anglican church abroad adopted this theory as not only a nostalgic reminder of home to the Empire builders, but also as holding out more hope of impressing the natives to be converted to Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, however, of which Petre was a member, wishing to be distinctive, adopted southern continental forms of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Thus it was the Catholic Church that gave Petre his greatest opportunities of proving his worth as an architect by producing Cathedrals, Basilicas and churches in revived French and Italian styles.

Petre's early specialty was his work in mass concrete, at the time a novel building material in New Zealand. Widely used by the ancient Romans the formula for making it was lost and a new one only invented in the 18th century. Three of Petre's earliest projects were all constructed in this material: Judge Chapman's house (today known as "Castlemore"), the clifftop villa nicknamed Cargill's Castle in 1876, and St. Dominic's Priory in 1877. However, according to the whims of his patrons, he did also work with more conventional building materials.

St Dominic's Priory, Dunedin

St. Dominic's Priory.
St. Dominic's Priory.

Petre described the style of his 1876-77 creation, St Dominic's Priory, as Anglo-Saxon, referring to the straight-sloped window apertures. The style of the building, however, was very much of Petre's own interpretation and only lightly influenced by Anglo-Saxon architecture.

The building is notable for its use of poured concrete, a comparatively new building material in 1870s New Zealand, but one well suited to the creation of the large number of windows in the building's facade. The structure is simultaneously grand and austere, reflecting well its use as a convent.

St Dominic's Priory was the largest un-reinforced concrete building in the southern hemisphere (steel reinforcing being then an unknown construction method), and earned Petre the lasting nickname of "Lord Concrete".


F. W. Petre designed three of New Zealand's cathedrals, each distinguished by a different architectural style: St Joseph's Cathedral in Dunedin, the Cathedral of the Sacret Heart in Wellington and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch.

1878 St Joseph's Cathedral, Dunedin

St Joseph's Cathedral, the completed church, a fraction of the size originally planned. Minus its intended spire and chancel (illustrated above), it is still an impressive edifice.
St Joseph's Cathedral, the completed church, a fraction of the size originally planned. Minus its intended spire and chancel (illustrated above), it is still an impressive edifice.

While Petre designed many churches, schools, public buildings, and private houses, his largest and grandest design, the Roman Catholic cathedral at Dunedin, was never fully completed. The entrance facade and the nave are the original design, and display the cathedral as a prime example of the French Gothic Revival. Today St Joseph's Cathedral, which stands next to St Dominic's Priory, seems reminiscent of many of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, with its twin towers and central rose window– Chartres and Notre Dame come to mind. Petre's original intention, however, was for a mighty structure, with the twin towers dwarfed by a huge spire some 60 metres (200 ft) in height, which would have resulted in a magnificent cathedral. In the event, the project stalled when a prudent Roman Catholic diocese reluctant to incur unnecessary debt postponed further work with the onset of the 1880s depression.

Petre's intention, which is clear from the almost 90 pages of drawings held in the diocesan archives, was to design the most impressive cathedral in Australasia. Construction work began in 1878 and the building was consecrated in 1886. Its construction is notable for its foundations: 40 massive concrete piles, each over 1.2 metres (four feet) in width, sunk 10 metres (35 ft) into the ground, give the cathedral a firm foundation on the volcanic bedrock. The nave is 24 metres (80 feet) in length and 16 metres (52 ft) in height. The walls of the cathedral are in black basalt with cornices of white Oamaru stone, a style for which Dunedin and Christchurch architecture is noted (see also Dunedin Railway Station). Petre was later to have two further opportunities for cathedral design, but St. Joseph's was to remain his largest work in the Gothic style.

1901 Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Wellington

The Basilica of "The Sacred Heart", circa 1910: a Palladian temple in Wellington.
The Basilica of "The Sacred Heart", circa 1910: a Palladian temple in Wellington.
In the classically simple interior of "The Sacred Heart", the altar is given prominence by Serlian arches.The columns in the nave are ionic, supporting a clerestory.
In the classically simple interior of "The Sacred Heart", the altar is given prominence by Serlian arches.The columns in the nave are ionic, supporting a clerestory.
The Sacred Heart today.
The Sacred Heart today.

That Wellington's principal Roman Catholic Cathedral is today a small, but quite perfect, Romano- Grecian temple is entirely the result of chance. The Sacred Heart Basilica, now a cathedral, was originally designed and conceived as a church to mark the site of the fire-gutted St Mary's Cathedral. Petre had strong family connections to the site, as it and an adjacent plot, now the site of St Mary's College, had been given to the Roman Catholic Church by his father and grandfather. The original cathedral, a grand Gothic structure complete with flying buttresses, had been built in 1850 but was destroyed by fire in 1898. Within two days Petre had been asked to design a new church on the site. A decision was taken, however, to build the new Cathedral nearer the more densely populated areas of Wellington, Te Aro and Newtown. Petre later published plans for this Cathedral in 1903, describing his proposed structure as "Roman, bordering on to Florentine Renaissance, treated liberally". Sadly, this cathedral project never came to fruition, but what was quickly constructed was the Church, or Basilica, of "The Sacred Heart" on the razed cathedral site.

Architectural ideas of the mid 19th century advanced by such architects as Pugin and still adhered to by the recently deceased prominent New Zealand architect Benjamin Mountfort, decreed that only Gothic was suitable for Christian worship. Ignoring these old-fashioned and now expensive rules, Petre designed the new church in the Palladian style, which in this country had only a few years before been considered almost heretical for worship.

The design was theatrical in the extreme. The imposing principal facade of Oamaru Stone consisted almost solely of one huge portico constructed of six ionic columns, while the facade was crowned by a high pediment more in the style of Vitruvius than Palladio, and behind the great facade stretched the single body of the church, with the remaining facades in a less severe Romanesque style. Considering that his brief was that "a serviceable church in brick should be erected on the site of the old Cathedral", it is amazing that such an almost avant-garde style should have been permitted. The completed structure would not be out of place in 17th century or 18th century Rome or Venice.

The interior of the church continued the Palladian theme. The large nave was colonnaded, with the columns supporting a clerestory of arch-topped windows, while the chancel was approached through an enormous arch that mirrored the classic Palladian Serlian arch, providing theatre and drama at the high altar. The flat compartmentalised ceiling is a more restrained version of that of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice. Unfortunately, the church's twin bell towers had to be removed following an earthquake in 1942.

The cost of the new church was taken from funds intended for the construction of the new cathedral, thus delaying that project. After seventy years of delays, the intention to build the new cathedral was finally abandoned. In 1984, following new enlargements and additions, Petre's church of the Sacred Heart was reconsecrated as Wellington's principal Roman Catholic Cathedral. In 1901 when the church was designed, Petre's use of the Palladian as a style for such a high profile building would have been unusual in New Zealand.

1904 Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch, F. W. Petre's largest completed work.  The central pediment is in the style of Sebastiano Serlio.
Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch, F. W. Petre's largest completed work. The central pediment is in the style of Sebastiano Serlio.

Of all Petre's many designs, the most outstanding is usually considered to be the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch, commonly known as the Christchurch Basilica. Commenced in 1901, it replaced a smaller wooden church designed by Benjamin Mountfort that had been in use since 1864. The cathedral was officially opened on 12 February 1905, a mere four years after construction began. Today the building, said by some to be based on the 19th-century Church of Vincent-de-Paul, in Paris, is held to be the finest renaissance style building in Australasia.

Forsaking Mountfort's 19th century Gothic, Petre designed the new church in a Renaissance, Italian basilica style, albeit with one major exception. Ignoring Renaissance convention, Petre obtained a greater visual impact by siting the Italianate green copper-roofed dome not above the cross section of the church (as in St. Peter's in Rome), but directly above the sanctuary. In Petre's opinion, this design element, coupled with the Byzantine apse, added extra grandeur and theatre to the high altar set in the tribune. The nave and chancel roofs were supported by colonnades of ionic columns and the entrance facade of the cathedral was flanked by twin towers in the manner of many of Europe's great renaissance churches.

Cathedral of The Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch, under construction.  The nave is lined with Ionic columns.
Cathedral of The Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch, under construction. The nave is lined with Ionic columns.

While often likened to St. Paul's Cathedral in London, it is conceivable that the greatest influence behind this great structure was Benoit Haffreingue. During Petre's formative years studying under Haffreingue in France, Haffreingue had been the driving force of the reconstruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Boulogne-sur-Mer, a French cathedral that has a very similar plan to that of The Blessed Sacrament, including the controversial siting of the dome over the altar rather than the centre of the cathedral.

The Cathedral, constructed of concrete sheathed in Oamaru limestone, was widely acclaimed, causing the famous author George Bernard Shaw to describe Petre as a "New Zealand Brunelleschi". Fifty men were employed on the site, and in excess of 120,000 cubic ft (3400 m³) of stone, 4000 cubic ft (110 m³) of concrete, and 90 tons of steel were used in the construction. Problems with finding suitable stone for the construction of such a large structure caused financial difficulties during the construction, and a special bill was pushed through parliament by then Premier Richard Seddon in order to aid with the financing of the building. The total cost to the Roman Catholic diocese was £52,000.

Private houses

The styles in which F. W. Petre designed his private houses were as diverse as those of his cathedrals and churches. It seems that, unlike many notable architects, he designed according to the wishes of his clients: those who wanted a castle received a castle, and those who wished for a small mansion disguised as an English Tudor cottage were equally fortunate.

"Castlamore", Lovelock Avenue, Dunedin, designed by F. W. Petre. This Gothic house merely hints at a castle theme, and has none of the Gothic gloom and sobriety of the small lancet windows and turrets generally associated with the style.
"Castlamore", Lovelock Avenue, Dunedin, designed by F. W. Petre. This Gothic house merely hints at a castle theme, and has none of the Gothic gloom and sobriety of the small lancet windows and turrets generally associated with the style.

A large private residence designed by Petre can be found in Lovelock Avenue, Dunedin. It was originally built for Judge Chapman in 1875 and christened "Woodside", though it has been known throughout much of its history as "Castlamore". This imposing structure sits on the slopes of Dunedin's Botanical Gardens close to the University of Otago, and is a triumph of restraint. The castle atmosphere is there, almost a Scottish baronial castle, but the battlements are merely hinted at by stepped gables. Large bay windows, allowing light to flood in, again merely hint at the Gothic; one has to study them closely to perceive that they consist of a series of lancet type windows. The large octagonal chimneys reflect the design rather than being ostentatious.

This design could have been a grim bombastic faux castle, yet appears as a comfortable dwelling complete with loggia and conservatory. A lesser architect might not have been able to resist the addition of a small turret or pinnacle. Petre's ingenuity lay in knowing how to mix large windows and more comfortable features with the medieval, and then ascertaining the exact moment to halt the Gothic theme before it became a pastiche of the original. In this way Petre was referring in a modest way to the original Gothic revival period as conceived by such architects as James Wyatt, rather than the later Gothic, after it had fallen under the ecclesiastical Anglo-Catholic influences of such architects as Augustus Pugin in England, and Benjamin Mountfort in New Zealand.

Pinner House, Dunedin: a perfect example of the "English Cottage" style which Petre popularised at the beginning of the 20th century.
Pinner House, Dunedin: a perfect example of the "English Cottage" style which Petre popularised at the beginning of the 20th century.

One of Petre's abilities was that he could vary his styles of architecture. In 1883 he built a mansion in Christchurch known as "Llanmaes" for a local merchant. The style selected came to be known in New Zealand as the "English Cottage" style. This was a complete reversal of his previous work: rather than impressive grandeur, this style was intended to evoke rustic charm. However, the large size of these "cottages" made them more akin to Marie Antoinette's Petit hameau at Versailles than a humble English cottage. Similar in nature to the work of George Devey at a similar time in England, the style was a form of idealised Tudor with half-timbered black beams set into white painted walls, beneath beamed gables and tiled roofs. This form of design eventually became very popular in New Zealand from circa 1910.

Two of Petre's "English Cottages" exist close to each other in Cliffs Road, Dunedin, overlooking the sea in the suburb of St Clair. Pinner House (pictured) is a perfect example of this traditional style, adapted for the brighter and warmer southern climate, with large windows and verandahs. It was built in the 1880s for Aufrere Fenwick, one of Dunedin's main stockbrokers. Opposite, a very similar house was constucted by Petre for his own residence.

Personal life

One of Petre's first large houses, the folly-like Cargill's Castle, was built for Edward Bowes Cargill, a local politician and later a mayor of Dunedin. It is also very likely that Petre was the supervisor of construction on a tunnel that Cargill had constructed to a private secluded beach below the castle (today known as Tunnel Beach). While designing the house, Petre fell in love with Cargill's daughter Margaret. After a difficult courtship (due to Petre's staunch Catholicism and the Cargill family's equally staunch Presbyterianism) the couple were eventually permitted to marry, the marriage taking place in the villa's principal salon shortly after its completion in 1877. The building was gutted by fire in the 1940s, and is today a preserved ruin. Petre and his wife had thirteen children; Petre himself had been the third child of sixteen.

In 1903, Petre was appointed Consular Agent for Italy in Dunedin following the death of Edward Cargill. He was a founder member of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, was elected a Fellow in 1905, and was president of the Institute in 1907–08. Unusually for a man at the peak of his profession, Petre was known as congenial and popular. He died at Dunedin, in December 1918, following 42 years of architectural practice, and was buried at the Anderson's Bay Cemetery, Dunedin.


For an architect Dunedin was an exciting place to be in the late 19th century, due to its great prosperity and subsequent expansion just before and after the turn of the 20th century, these being largely the result of the Central Otago goldrush of the 1860s, the subsequent development of the refrigerated meat export trade and then the gold-dredging boom.

Petre certainly did not obtain his many important commissions because of a void of alternative architects. The equally versatile architect R. A. Lawson was responsible for several important buildings in the city including the neoclassical ANZ Bank building and the Gothic revival Presbyterian First Church. W. B. Armson designed the Italian renaissance Bank of New Zealand building in 1879, and George Troup was responsible for the magnificent Dunedin Railway Station. Nor did Petre obtain work, with the possible exception of the Sacred Heart Basilica at Wellington, because of his family connections. On the contrary, his Catholicism, at the height of the British Empire, possibly lost him more ecclesiastical commissions than those for which he was ever engaged. What stood out was his engineer's practicalities at overcoming almost impossible difficulties. St. Joseph's Cathedral was actually built not only on the side of a hill, but also in a gully. His pioneering work with concrete and steel was of enormous value in a country where earthquakes were a constant risk.

Petre's buildings, in whatever style, all have one common denominator: an attention to the smallest detail. It was said that his drawings of stones, window traceries, arches and ornamentation were so precise that stonemasons could execute his intentions from one single drawing. It is this attention to detail which is outstanding, whether the simple carving on the capital of an Ionic column or the heavy ornate work on the monumental corbel of a Gothic design. While this precision enabled him to work as successfully in the wide range of styles as he did, it in no way inhibited his sense of developing design. In his own words, an architectural style could be "treated liberally”, and this is the key to the individuality of his designs. Dunedin's Royal Exchange building is a Palladian town Palace, yet has an almost Rastrellian restrained baroque design. Cargill's Castle would not have looked out of place in the Cimini Hills; it also has an almost hacienda spirit. His work in the Gothic style was lighter and more delicate than that of Alfred Waterhouse, and equal in detail to Augustus Pugin's. It has been said of his work that he never fully developed his vision or overcame the limitations of his training, but his experience as an engineer equipped him to find sound innovative solutions to constructional problems. His placing the dome at the Blessed Sacrament over the altar has also been criticised, as many feel it does not cohere to the design. However, others feel it was a stroke of genius, enhancing the interior.

Francis Petre's work cannot be judged against that of the great classical architects of the northern hemisphere, who so clearly influenced him. He did not create a style or have a revival period named after him. His achievement was adapting and developing so many established styles well; whether through the new techniques of steel or concrete, or through more traditional building methods. He was given amazing opportunities to prove himself worthy as an accomplished and inspired architect; the many monumental buildings with which he provided New Zealand speak for themselves as to his talent.

Works by Petre

  • Woodside mansion (Castlamore), Dunedin, for Judge Chapman, 1875. Style: Gothic revival.
  • Cargill's Castle, Dunedin, for E. B. Cargill, 1876. Style: mixed Italianate/Castelated/Gothic.
  • St. Dominic's Priory, Dunedin, 1877. Style: Gothic revival. - all three of these in poured concrete.
  • St. Joseph's Cathedral, Dunedin, 1878–1886. Style: Gothic Revival.
  • Guardian Royal Exchange Assurance Building, Dunedin, 1881–1882. Style: Palladian.
  • Llanmaes mansion, Christchurch, 1883. Style: English cottage.
  • Phoenix House, Dunedin (now Airport House), c.1885.
  • Pinner House, Dunedin, c.1885. Style: English cottage.
  • Sacred Heart Church, Dunedin, 1891.
  • St. Patrick's Church, Lawrence, 1892.
  • St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Milton, 1892.
  • St. Patrick's Basilica, Oamaru, 1893–1903. Style: mixed Palladian & Renaissance.
  • Sacred Heart Basilica (now Cathedral of the Sacred Heart), Wellington, 1901. Style: Palladian.
  • Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch, 1904–05. Style: Italian Renaissance.
  • St. Mary's Roman Catholic Basilica, Invercargill, 1905.
  • St.Patrick's Church, Waimate, 1908. Style: Romanesque with Italianate cupola and campanile.
  • Church of the Sacred Heart, Timaru (Timaru Basilica), 1910. Style: Byzantine.
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