Robert Lawson was trained in an architect's office in Edinburgh before emigrating to Melbourne in 1854 aged 21. There were few opportunities - for some years Lawson held various jobs in the gold mining region of central Victoria. His career had faltered, prospects were slim. However a younger brother John Lawson who had emigrated to Waikouaiti, alerted Robert to a design competition for a landmark First Church for the Presbyterian settlers in Dunedin. Lawson won the competition; he moved to Dunedin and a glorious career unfolded.
Both First Church and Knox Church with their breathtaking spires are the work of R A Lawson. Always a devout Christian, he formed close ties with the Presbyterian fraternity and designed many churches throughout Otago and Southland. In the wider community also, Lawson left his mark: the original Dunedin Town Hall in the Octagon, the core buildings at Otago Boys High School, and a host of commercial buildings including large retail stores, warehouses and banks too numerous to list. Several of the standout neo-classical buildings in the heart of Oamaru come from Lawson’s pen. Larnach’s Castle is another.
In Timaru a Bank of New Zealand building in bluestone is no longer with us leaving the former Chief Post Office as the one surviving example of Lawson’s work. The building is robust in appearance and defines the triangle of open space that is King George Place. The original tall clocktower was removed some time ago owing to concerns about its stability.
Sadly Lawson’s career in Dunedin ended in disarray, with settlement problems at the new psychiatric hospital at Seacliff coming under public scrutiny and formal investigation. The real problem – unstable subsoils – was only identified later. Furthermore, New Zealand was in the grip of severe depression. Lawson decided to return to Melbourne in 1890 to make a fresh start, coming back however to practise in New Zealand again in 1900.
R A Lawson had genuine competition in Dunedin during his heyday, but his name stands proud as the leading architect of a brand new city. He died while visiting family members at Sutherlands near Pleasant Point in December 1902.
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