About the Rotunda
This building is one of two built in Rotorua in 1915 and opened in January 1916 as dormitories for the King George V Military Hospital for convalescent patients during the First World War. It was designed by the architectural firm of Hoggard and Prouse and built within six weeks by the Wellington firm of Campbell and Burke. The two octagonal dormitories were named Anzac and Suvla Wards.
The King George V Hospital was used as a civilian hospital in the 1920s. At the end of the decade the two octagonal dormitories were moved to Ōtaki to become part of New Zealand’s first permanent children’s health camp, which opened in 1932. They were dismantled and sent by rail to the camp where they were re-erected by the Lower Hutt firm of S Jarvis and Son. Dismantling the buildings was no easy task as the various nuts and bolts used in their construction had been fused together by the Rotorua sulphur. Jarvis and Son nearly went out of business as a result.
The rotunda is now the last remaining original structure of New Zealand’s first permanent children’s health camp. It is of outstanding national significance. [This building] has high technological interest as its design reflects the attitudes of the day towards the treatment of the sick. It is probably the last World War One hospital building of this design remaining in New Zealand.
Alison Dangerfield ~ Area Manager, Heritage New Zealand
The two rotundas - one for boys and the other for girls - each held, at peak, 60 beds. Such was their impressiveness in size and uniqueness that those who were among the first intakes and are now in the nineties, still recall the experience of sleeping in them. Some even remember exactly where their bed was located. These buildings became a feature of health camp promotions over the years, appearing on posters, tea-towels and first-day covers.
The buildings were temporarily used as hospital wards during the Second World War, mainly for geriatric and orthopaedic patients, until mid 1944. The nurses affectionately called the rotunda used for male patients “the bull ring”. After renovation they re-opened for health camp use in December 1944.
The eastern rotunda was demolished in 1963 and the remaining one was converted from a dormitory to a recreational building. Over the years the remaining building has been used for concerts (having proven to have excellent acoustics), dances and gymnastics
In 1982 the Manawatu Daily Times described the building thus: “Today this building remains not only as a historical reminder of service and utility but as a very happy place of activity … It stands proudly as a living piece of both New Zealand’s and Otaki’s history” The same is true today.
The rotunda is registered Category One on the Heritage New Zealand List and is a heritage building on the Kapiti Coast Heritage Buildings Register (B9). It has high technological interest as its design reflects the attitudes of the day towards the treatment of the sick.
It is not only important for its structure and historical usage but also for its association with nationally important figures; such as Dr Ada Paterson, who was responsible for establishing the Health Camp Federation with its network of health camps, Dr Harry Gibbs who chaired the Otaki Camp Committee for 20 years, Otaki’s Dr Gertrude Atmore, who served for many years as the camp’s doctor, and the local philanthropist Byron Brown, who donated land for the health camp and for other important buildings in Otaki.
Over recent years the remaining rotunda has fallen into disrepair and has been mothballed awaiting a decision on its future. In the year 2000, the seven children’s health camps around New Zealand were taken over by a Charitable Trust called Stand Children’s Services (Stand) including Otaki Health Camp. In 2018, confronted with rising maintenance costs, Stand decided to close the Otaki Camp.
Investigations have begun in conjunction with Heritage New Zealand into how this building can be saved and restored as a memorial to the pioneering days of the health camp movement and as a community facility.
Alison Dangerfield, Area Manager of Heritage New Zealand is enthusiastic about the potential for repair and reuse of the building. She commented “buildings which have had little maintenance over many years, on first look can seem a bit challenging but this challenge is one that has been met by many people all over New Zealand. The adaptive reuse of such a remarkable structure, which has played such a significant role in the lives of so many New Zealanders, will enable this part of the country’s history to be appreciated by generations to come.”
A Personal History
Darcy's drone view of the Rotunda, with dining hall top left and school bottom right.
On a recent tour was Wellingtonian Darcy Waters. Three times in the 1980s he was referred to the camp as a resident. Re-visiting Otaki Children’s Health Camp brought back the experience in such vivid detail that he was moved to write a memoir of his experiences. With his kind permission, we include extracts from his story.
As I walked up the drive that cold, windy damp Saturday, I commented to myself how small the place felt. When I was a kid it did feel large although I am now over 6 feet tall and 47 years old.
While I can’t really remember much about individual staff, I remember the buildings well and the current ones are different - I can almost draw a floor plan from memory. As the tour progressed, I was saying “A wall’s been removed there”, “That bit behind that window wasn’t there when I was here” and such like. Of the morning tour, out of the two guides and ten of us attendees, I was the only one who had stayed at the camp as a child. The afternoon tour of fifteen attendees was just starting as I finally left the camp having taken photos of the grounds, using my drone.
As to why I was referred, I don’t know but I can say that regardless of how much I ate, I could hide behind a lamp post not a problem, and I was the sort of kid who tended to stick to themselves rather than socialise with others … Going to the camp from Wellington central, my parents would take me to the Newmans coach depot in upper Taranaki Street opposite Wellington High School. The coach would drop us kids off at the Otaki railway station where the camp van would be waiting.
The van would take us over to the camp. When we arrived at camp, we were issued camp clothes. The clothes we arrived in were washed and put into our bags. The bags were stored in the “Bag Room” (small room opposite the nurses “Duty Room”). The courtyard corridor …. encircled a small open courtyard and linked all six dorms together and to the main building. Sometime after my last visit, this courtyard was roofed over and turned into a room due to the playhouse/Rotunda being deemed unsafe.
In dorm rows, we would stand where the courtyard corridor met the medical/admin building. Three dorms each so we were standing in three rows for boys and the same for girls). One dorm group at a time was led down the corridor and on through to the dining room. I think we said grace standing, before dorm by dorm we went to the serving counter. Each child would collect a plate, then move along to each serving station until we got to the other end of the counter, from there up the central aisle then across to our assigned table. If we wanted seconds, then we waited until they called our table row up.
Breakfast usually comprised some sort of porridge followed by toast. They would have so many marmite and so many honey coated slices. (I can’t remember if there was any other flavour). When one type of toast ran out, you could still have more of the other. I didn’t know the toast was prepared the night before until I read Di Buchan’s book.
The one time I got into trouble was at meal times when there was a no talking rule. Someone at my table spoke. I got blamed for it even though it wasn’t me. I was taken up to the small table at the south end of the room near the piano – the naughty table - and seated facing the wall t. I resisted and ashamed to say I broke the staff member’s necklace. I think it was the Matron herself. Apart from that one incident, my stays at the camp were not unpleasant.
Showers were in the evening, after dinner when we changed from day clothes into pyjamas. There was a short period in-dorm before lights out. When the lights went out a story was played over the P.A. speakers. The stories were things like the adventures of Noddy, Little Black Sambo (remember this was the 1980/81 era), Little Toot, Pinocchio and similar Disney/Little Golden Book stories – played from either records or cassette. (CD’s and streaming music wasn’t around back then).
The Rotunda was used as a playhouse during wet weather. Equipment was stored in the room through a door in the south wall. I didn’t know at the time that this building was one of the original dormitories of the camp. The playhouse was also the venue of the camp concert held at the end of the stay. Over the following days we would all go home.
Collectively, my stays at the camp obviously had an impact on me given how much I can remember of the place. I think I was lucky in going just before all the modern changes came in. Looking back on it, overall I’d say it was a positive experience for me.
Our thanks for permission to reproduce the photograph and to Darcy for his story.