A feature that came to distinguish commercial streets of towns and cities was street verandahs – roofed footpaths in front of shops to provide shelter for pedestrians and goods. The structures were fixed to the front of buildings, and supported by pillars. Roofs were usually of corrugated iron or glass, the latter allowing greater light to footpaths. Initially few shops had them, but by the mid-1860s they had become fashionable, possibly because shopkeepers recognised their potential to attract custom in inclement weather.
Verandahs for all seasons
An Australian visiting Christchurch in 1885 was startled to discover the ‘shop verandahs are nearly all of glass, which tells of mild summers and dark winter days. In Melbourne we would be frizzled into cinders under them.’1
Not everyone welcomed them. Aesthetes complained about their higgledy-piggledy appearance, with some higher, wider or grander than others. There were also gaps in their coverage because most bank, public and office buildings excluded them. This meant rushing from one verandah to the next to avoid getting wet in rain showers. Some verandahs were shoddily built or poorly maintained: ‘colanders on a large scale’, quipped one critic.2 Pillars were also regularly hit by vehicular traffic, leaving unsightly dents or buckles that could weaken the whole structure. From the 1910s municipalities began to require the erection of cantilevered verandahs without pillar supports on new buildings.
By the early 20th century most city dwellers had embraced verandahs. In providing shelter from both freezing winter rain and blazing summer sun, they made it easier to window-shop and stop and converse. In Wellington – where umbrellas were (and are) no match for wind-blown rain – they enabled people to walk the principal streets without being drenched. Recognition of their utility led the city council in the 1980s to force owners of buildings without verandahs to build them. By 2009 the gaps outside banks and offices had been largely filled.
Business owners used the space beneath verandahs to erect signs advertising their business and wares, both below the roof eaves and on footpaths. This, complained one Whanganui resident in 1905, created ‘a mass of confusion, one sign obscuring the next one’,3 making it hard to distinguish one shop from another. On the other hand, brightly lit and (later) neon signs enlivened streets, giving them a ‘big city’ feel. After a while most citizens learnt to quickly read the signs or ignore them altogether. Periodic policing by municipalities ensured footpath signs did not obstruct pedestrian traffic.
With the rise of street cafés in the 1990s verandahs were given a new use as a place for outdoor tables and seating. Some cafés used portable gas burners to keep customers warm during crisp evenings and winter days.