Ōhinehou Lyttelton's 1875 Post Office at 7 Norwich Quay (on the corner with Oxford Street) was one of a large number of heritage buildings lost as a result of the earthquake sequence of 2010-2011. It held Category II Historic Place status, as did its neighbours - the 1880 Harbour Board Office and Forbes' Store (demolished post-earthquakes). Happily, the 1862 Telegraph Office (New Zealand's first) survived the rigours of tectonic movement and stands proud on its original site, a small heritage island surrounded by stacks of logs awaiting loading for export.
At the time of the arrival of the first European colonists in Lyttelton and prior to reclamation, the water's edge was very close here; initially a modest ‘shanty’ served as the Canterbury Association's store and accommodated customs and postal services. As early as 1858 the structure was being described as disgracefully shabby, but it took until the early 1870's for the Provincial Council to commit funds for a customs house, post and telegraph office, and town clock.
The resulting building was designed by William Clayton, a Tasmanian born and UK educated Colonial Architect, responsible for over 180 government buildings in New Zealand including Wellington's old timber Government Buildings, and over 80 post and telegraph offices around the country. His grand Italianate style incorporating Venetian and Gothic elements denoted the status of civic services, including the vital role of Postmaster, in the era before mass communication technologies.
Foundations of concrete topped by bluestone rubble walls were clad in warm toned brick with reticulated white Portland cement dressings. Windows and portico were flanked by columns of the same material, with moulded bands and column caps of winding acanthus leaves highlighting those features. Inside, a fine kauri staircase swept to the upper floor, and mantelpieces glowed in the same varnished timber.
Architecturally, Clayton's Lyttelton building bore a strong resemblance to his later and much larger Christchurch Central Post Office, which originally also functioned as the Government Buildings. Constructed in 1878 after the completion of its Lyttelton cousin, it led to the first being regarded as something of a ‘trial run’ for the latter. The Category I Historic Place city building survived the earthquakes and has been carefully restored.
In its heyday, Lyttelton's Post Office was arguably its most important civic building, proudly flanking the main entry to the port, when Norwich Quay was the bustling commercial heart of the town. The Canterbury and British hotels stood on the other corners of the busy intersection. Originally, the Post Office incorporated the Customs Department, post and telegraph functions, and Harbour Master's room, with the pre-existing Telegraph Office combined in 1881. It was elaborately decorated for both the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 and the 1953 coronation celebrations, when a faux stone arch spanned Oxford Street.
In 1944 the distinctive 6 m clock and bell tower was removed and in 1976 a new post office with a distinctive salmon pink exterior was built on the corner of Canterbury and London Streets, said building now housing the Lyttelton Library and Council Service Centre. In the years immediately prior to the earthquakes the original Post Office on Norwich Quay accommodated various hospitality and commercial activities, until its demolition in August 2011.
The Post Office site is highly significant for both Māori and Pākehā and is an important archaeological area. Excavations carried out in 2016 revealed evidence of pre-European occupation; an oven and midden deposits conveyed a wealth of information about early mahinga kai (food gathering) practices. Radiocarbon dating of the site indicated it was in use from between 1465-1660. A small broken adze was also found. At the time of first Māori-European contact in the early decades of the nineteenth century, local Māori had a fishing village and market area with several whare on this land, so too on land close to the tunnel entrance where Ōhinehou Pou at Sutton Reserve marks the significance of that site to Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke.