Three attractive Swiss chalet-style buildings made up the original Magnetic Observatory; the Absolute House where celestial and magnetic determinations were made, an office of Magnetic Survey where a seismograph was housed in the cellar, and the Magnetograph House where continuous recordings were made of magnetic variations. In its first ten years, the Observatory was often used by scientists to calibrate their instruments before going to Antarctica. Scientists from the Carnegie Institute in Washington would also visit to engage in magnetic research.
To ensure nothing would interfere with the delicate magnetic equipment, copper nails and brass screws, locks and hinges were used to construct the buildings. Visitors to the grounds were prevented from going near the magnetograph cellar in case they were carrying metal objects such as keys and belt buckles. The introduction of the electric tram system in Christchurch affected some of the instrumentation and led to a new magnetograph being constructed offsite in Amberley Domain in 1913.