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Anthonie Tonnon: the pop star operating New Zealand’s oldest public underground lift


With his slicked back Berlin-era Bowie haircut and fine wool suit, New Zealand singer-songwriter, public transport advocate and now, operator of Whanganui’s Durie Hill Elevator, Anthonie Tonnon cuts a dapper figure and looks right at home in the rich wooden interior of the 102-year-old lift.

The interior of Durie Hill Elevator in Whanganui, New Zealand
The interior of Durie Hill Elevator in Whanganui, New Zealand Photograph: Kiran Dass

When the operation of the elevator came up for tender this year for the first time in 50 years after being closed for three months for servicing, friends of Tonnon encouraged him to throw his hat in the ring. But with a new album Leave Love Out Of This due to be released in July followed by a nationwide tour, he says his initial reaction was, “No, no no, I don’t have time for this. I’ve got a lot of things going on, it could ruin my life!”

But he put in a successful tender with his newly established company Whanganui Connection, winning a one-year contract with an option of renewal. I visit Tonnon while he’s on an elevator operator shift and it’s hard to believe he has only been on the job for two weeks. He’s in his element.

When a couple of schoolchildren board the elevator, he remembers them by name, grabbing their stored yellow concession cards filed by name and clips the cards with a clipper gifted to him by the outgoing elevator operator Zena Mabbott. When a couple visiting from Wellington board and ask where they can find the best coffee in Whanganui, Tonnon directs them to Article Cafe. He’s even wearing a pastel pink Article T-shirt to back up his endorsement.

The opening in 1919 of the only public underground elevator in New Zealand allowed the development of and easy pedestrian access to Durie Hill, a modern garden suburb designed in 1920 by architect and town planner Samuel Hurst Seager. The lift descends 66 metres into Durie Hill, connecting to a 213-metre-long pedestrian adit which opens up to a short walk to the city centre. And at the top, commuters and Durie Hill dwellers are treated to panoramic views of the river city.

Anthonie Tonnon is reflected in the mirror as he operates the Durie Hill Elevator in Whanganui, New Zealand
Anthonie Tonnon is reflected in the mirror as he operates the Durie Hill Elevator in Whanganui, New Zealand Photograph: Kiran Dass

Prior to the elevator being built, access to the suburb was via a steep 191-step staircase which still remains. A one way trip in the elevator, however, is a swift 55 seconds, saving the commuter a lot of puff.

Tonnon says his interest in public transport was sparked when he moved from Auckland to Whanganui, where the ease of life in a smaller city allowed him to work full time as a musician.

“In Auckland I used to have odd part time jobs just to be able to get by as a musician. Then when I got to Whanganui and could be a full time musician I suddenly needed a hobby. I got to thinking how good public transport could be.”

“I was thinking of this holistic view of what Whanganui’s public transport should be. I was wondering, what should I do? Do I become a public transport advocate or a politician? And neither appealed,” he says.

A punisher for public transport

Tonnon is interested in public transport from an urbanist angle, not a nostalgic one, and he channelled this interest into developing his Rail Land tour, an immersive musical experience.

View of Whanganui, New Zealand from the Durie Hill Elevator office at sunset
View of Whanganui, New Zealand from the Durie Hill Elevator office at sunset Photograph: Supplied

Rail Land included a communal journey for Tonnon and his punters to travel by rail or other means of public transport to his shows at community venues across the country. If he was playing in a town that no longer ran such a service, he would charter one for the evening. Every town he played in, he would investigate what public transport systems they used to have and would compare it to what is offered now. “And it was always better before.”

After attending the Rail Land show in Gonville’s St Peter’s Church, Whanganui mayor and New Zealand music enthusiast Hamish McDouall invited Tonnon to sit on the committee that governs Whanganui’s public transport via Palmerston North’s regional council Horizons. “And so I became his punisher for public transport,” Tonnon laughs.

He says he could never be a politician but likes the idea of someone from an artistic background who is accustomed to problem solving from different angles being in the pipes of government.

“Just to see if we can shake something out, or be a chemical agent to get rid of some scunge.”

The wide streets of Whanganui are dotted with bus stops, but one seldom sees a bus because there is often a two hour gap between services. When I remark how curious it is that one of the only reliably frequent modes of public transport in Whanganui is an underground elevator, Tonnon smiles diplomatically. “It is what it is. Part of our role [with Whanganui Connection] is to be positive about public transport.”

While the elevator is a point of interest for tourists, Tonnon says for the time being he is more keen on it running as an efficient mode of public transport for the community. He says the remarkable thing about the elevator is its cycle time – the longest anyone ever has to wait for the next ride is three and a half minutes. He lights up, eyes gleaming and likens it to the Berlin Metro. “It’s true. Don’t just see it as an elevator, see it as a Metro!”

Leave Love Out Of This is released 16 July on Slow Time Records



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