What is the Dunedin Flat Names Project all about anyway?

Dunedin! It’s the site of New Zealand’s oldest university and has a campus environment like no other in the country. A big part of the experience is living on a residential campus where a great part of the surrounding suburb of North Dunedin is rental accommodation. The majority of Otago students hail from out of town, and for most of you this is your first experience of living away from home. This makes North Dunedin ripe for lots of liminal activity!

In fact, you might have noticed some interesting signs hanging on houses. You may even have moved into a flat and named it. You walk past these flats everyday as you make your way through campus – down Castle, or Leith, Hyde, Clyde, Dundas and Howe Street, you just don’t know that this has been going on for a very time, since before you were born, before your parents and grandparents were born.

Students have been naming their flats in Dunedin since the 1930s, there are flats with names like: The Bach, The Shambles, The Jam Factory, The Cock and Swallow, Hobbit, Libido’s Bar and Grill, Footrot Flats, Hogwartz, The Shrieking Shack, The Kumara Pit,  Hyde Street RSA, The Hilton, Bedrock, Sifta Rosa, The Lodge, DSIR (The Department of Student Inebriation Research), The Jolly Rodger, The Brick Shithouse, The Heap, The Manor, The Wardrobe, Bonnie Doon, The Greasy Beaver Lodge, The Muff Inn, The Burrow, The Palace, Bag End … the list goes on, there’s over 500 of them!

Names come and go, sometimes they move houses, or the name and their meanings can morph over time, but one thing hasn’t changed over the decades – named flats are ever present in Dunedin. They largely they follow the season of the academic year, but there are some that have taken root and have become part of the landscape.

How do we know this? The Dunedin Flat Names Project collects the names and the stories behind them. Names that have been painted, drawn, stencilled, spray painted onto a variety of objects: bits of board, fence palings, beer boxes, head boards, surfboards, whiteboards and skateboards! Some signs are commissioned, some obtained by sponsorship, some are initiated by landlords. They are photographed mapped and shared to this blog and to the DNFP community on Facebook, and this year, reported on in Critic in a series of columns.

Each week there will be a story about a flat, or group of flats that illustrate a theme in the taxonomy of flat naming, and I’ll be keeping an eye out as new flats emerge over the course of this year. Despite an environment rich with experiences, notorious parties, and houses in various states of historic significance or rank disrepair, some flatties find naming their flat difficult.

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Names are Hard on Duke Street

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27 Steps to Heaven

Purported to have been a brothel, this name of this flat instead refers to its proximity to the pub across the road. This flat is an excellent example of how the meaning of named flats can morph and change over time. Once famously known as the Ori, (The Oriental Tavern) is currently known as Starters Bar. The Ori was well known as a student bar for several decades and in the 1980s and 1990s was a popular band venue. Historic venue details for the bar https://www.dunedinmusic.com/venues/40

The original flat sign (2007) painted black with white lettering and detail, depicts 27 askew foot steps leading from a smaller sign THE ORI, implying a drunken pathway home.

27 Steps to Heaven

27 Steps to Heaven (2007)

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A later sign depicts heavenly cloud forms and opening golden gates, but no reflection of the origin of the name or connection to the pub across the road.

27 Steps to Heaven

27 Steps to Heaven (2009)

This photo (2016) from the Prime Campus account appears to have been taken from Starters Bar.

This artwork commissioned by Prime Campus for the flat, certainly plays on the aspect of the pearly gates.

The Muff Inn on Great King Street

The Muff Inn was created in 2006 by a group of six female students. The sign was painted white with pink lettering. Miriam Kirkpatrick remembers, “We are totally the original muff inn girls lol – in fact do you remember how we named our house?! It was your idea [Sarah Wakefield] coz we all had bfs at the time except you and we were going to put “one vacancy” 🤣 (Facebook comment, 16 October 2017).

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The sign was later replaced, and the name made its way on to the recycling bin and also the flat van which was often seen parked nearby.

The Greenhouse on Frederick Street

This modest brick bungalow on Frederick Street has had a few names over the year, in 2016 it was The Shade Room, in 2017 The Hippie Hut, and this year – following in a similar environmental vein, it’s The Green House.

The flatties, who are all science students, are huge Rick and Morty fans – their favourite character, Pickle Rick, features prominently on their sign which was painted on a bit of chip board.

2018 The Green House 2

The Green House on Frederick Street (2018)

Pickle Rick features in season 3 episode 3, when mad scientist Rick transforms himself into a pickle to get out of going to family therapy. Beth confiscates the antidote and after finding himself in a sewer, Pickle Rick fights for his life against a horde of rodents. Eventually he prevails by creating an exo-skeleton from their dissected remains and makes it back, injured, to join the family in therapy. It was an extremely popular episode, netting over 2 million viewers.

 

Queer Lodgings on Malvern Street

Many flats fit within a few general taxonomic categories of either: alcohol, popular culture, or sex. There are very few signs that are clearly representative of ethnicities other than NZ European or heteronormative sexualities.

Here is the one example of a known LGBTQIA sign, made by Kerry Lane c 2014, which is charmingly reminiscent of the party sign hung on Bilbo Baggins’ door in Fellowship of the Ring, “no admittance except on party business“, and which can also be seen on the flat, Bag End on Ethel Benjamin Place.

Photo submitted by @ScoutRiver, used with permission.