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First State House


First State House First State House First State House First State House

First State House (1937)

Little boxes for suburban nuclear families

We have all seen the photograph – Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, Under-Secretary for Housing John A. Lee and other Cabinet ministers helping to carry the furniture of Wellington bus conductor David McGregor and his wife Mary through the crowd into the first of the Labour government’s new state houses. The 18 September 1937 ceremony was a propaganda coup that Labour’s politicians would repeat elsewhere whenever there was a ‘first’ state house available.

This was not the first state housing programme. The Liberals had built a few workers’ dwellings and the Reform government still awaits full credit for its substantial efforts to create a property-owning democracy. Still, the Labour government’s programme was massive. The Housing Construction Branch of the State Advances Corporation designed its houses to be good enough to cross class barriers. Continued by Labour and National successors, the state housing system would give New Zealand its distinctive tracts of tile-hatted suburban boxes; by 1987 more than 91,000 had been built. We tend to dismiss them, but read John A. Lee’s polemics to see just what an advance they were over the sort of privately rented housing his mother endured in working-class Dunedin. No wonder private landlords resented them and writer Kevin Ireland’s mother cursed her husband for moving out of one into a ramshackle old bungalow.

Architects still hate them. A book on the modern movement in Wellington virtually ignored them in favour of the numerically insignificant blocks of flats. In Built in New Zealand, William Toomath puzzles over why we rejected the Californian bungalow, with its low pitch and spacious verandahs, for the high-pitched English cottage, with its small windows, small rooms off a central hallway and only the most grudging entrance porch. Perhaps it was the ultimate expression of historian James Belich’s recolonisation theory, but more probably the modern kitchens, fitted wardrobes and sturdy construction of the Housing Construction Branch’s homes impressed people fleeing draughty, rotting old dives. Whatever the reason, how long will it be before state houses acquire the retro chic status we have given villas and bungalows? Perhaps not long. In 2012 one changed hands in Ōrākei for $1,450,000 as Auckland’s housing market surged upwards.

Further information

This site is item number 95 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.



  • Ben Schrader, We call it home: a history of state housing in New Zealand, Reed Books, Auckland, 2005

Text: Gavin McLean, 2013

Colour images: Andy Palmer, 2012

Historic images:

Alexander Turnbull Library
References: PAColl-5800-49, APG-0448-1/2-G (photographed by Albert Percy Godber) and 1/4-048806-G
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of their images.

How to cite this page

First State House, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated