Layers of History: Hope for Heritage Buildings

By Adrienne Rewi

Christchurch Cathedral 2009 – Before the Earthquakes

Christchurch Cathedral 2011 – After the February 22 earthquake. Photo courtesy Christchurch Art Gallery

Many will have read the gloomy predictions in The Christchurch Press – that “nearly 50 heritage buildings have been demolished since the February earthquake, with hundreds more at risk;” that in all, around 1,300 Christchurch buildings will be demolished; and that of the 600 heritage buildings in Christchurch, “at least 104 had been approved for demolition with an additional 46 to be partly demolished or made safe.” Among those already consigned to memory are the Category 1 Historic Places Trust listed St Paul’s Church (and many others), Charlie B’s Backpackers and the Carlton Hotel; and whole tracts of Colombo Street in Sydenham have already vanished. Many more historic inner city buildings await the wrecker’s ball.

 It makes for depressing reading and many believe the backbone of the city’s fine heritage buildings is lost, never to return. Renowned Christchurch architect, Sir Miles Warren doesn’t agree with that. Despite extensive damage to his own Category 1 Historic Places Trust listed home, Ohinetahi, in Governor’s Bay, he is buoyant about the city’s future and he admits to lying in bed, “quite happily redesigning the whole city” in his head.

Above Left: Colombo Street, Sydenham Right: Manchester Street. Both 2009 pre-Earthquakes

“I can envisage a very elegant four-storey city and the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects is already discussing some very exciting ideas. It’s very easy to talk about building ‘castles in the air’ but it’s much harder to get that middle course of the best that is achievable,” he says.

        “Colombo and Manchester Streets south and the east-west cross streets – all those shops with plastered brick facades – were a disaster waiting to happen. People often describe a lot of this as Gothic architecture but it’s not; most of Christchurch was debased Neo-Classical at best and areas like these are more correctly described as character building. Victorian Gothic is a description reserved for buildings like Christ’s College and the Arts Centre.”

Christchurch Arts Centre – Braced after the February 22nd earthquake. 2011

“No one really knows how many city buildings will be left standing. As a practice, Warren & Mahoney were responsible for (the design of) nearly twenty large office buildings but I don’t know how any of those have fared,” he says.

“I think the very worst that could happen would be rows of single story shops with verandahs being built along Colombo, Manchester and High Streets. That will make Christchurch look like a hick town; but sadly, that may be all some property owners will be able to achieve.”

 Sir Miles believes Christchurch has always had a surfeit of under-utilised retail space. He says that at the turn of the century, Christchurch was almost as big as Auckland was then and, with no physical restraints, it spread in all directions.

“After the war, Christchurch had twice the retail space per head of any city in New Zealand. A lot of the grand old department stores have long gone but we still had too much prior to the earthquakes. Now, I think the best we can hope for is a retail area from the restored Cashel Mall and High Street areas, and Colombo Street down to South City.  I don’t believe we need as much retail and we will be doing very well if we can restore that,” he says.

Christ’s College, Christchurch 2009. Pre-Earthquakes

Despite visions of a bright Christchurch though, Sir Miles is saddened by the toll the earthquakes have taken on the city’s iconic heritage buildings. Nonetheless, his is also hopeful that a good number will be rebuilt.

Our Place – Otautahi, Christchurch 2010, Pre-earthquakes

“There are seven heritage buildings at Christ’s College and they’re all still standing thanks to the earthquake strengthening that has been happening there over a number of years. The Arts Centre, although badly damaged, is also still standing. They had spent a million dollars strengthening the old art school and although it will take many years, it can be repaired. The Our City-Otautahi building is a disaster. That’s one of the best and earliest examples of Arts and Crafts style but it’s very badly damaged. I had hoped the old Canterbury Library opposite the Police Station could be saved and after September that seemed possible. But the February earthquake may have finished it off – although the early single-storey building behind can be saved.”

Interior of the Stone Chamber, Canterbury Provincial Chambers, 2009

Canterbury Provincial Chambers, 2009

He says the Canterbury Provincial Chambers is top of his list for the rebuilding programme.

“All we need is the will and the courage to do it. There are plenty of stonemasons in New Zealand and because of the nature of the collapse we have plenty of samples for copying the beautiful interior painted detail.”

The Stone Chamber, Canterbury Provincial Chambers, After the February 22 earthquake.

Southern General Manager for New Zealand Historic Places Trust, Malcolm Duff agrees that the rebuilding and restoration of the Canterbury Provincial Chambers should be a priority.

“If we’re going to do anything in terms of rebuilding, this one is important. It is a uniquely Canterbury building and one of Benjamin Mountfort’s finest. The two cathedrals are also important and I don’t think we should give up on either. If we look abroad to Newcastle in Australia, it took them twenty years to rebuild some of their churches after their 1989 earthquake, so it’s early days yet. I personally feel these are the sorts of buildings that shouldn’t be allowed to go – and if the authorities need to go to Rome to get the Pope to put money and skills into the rebuild of the Catholic Basilica, then they should. The Basilica was the high point of Petre’s work. It’s a splendid building,” he says.

St Elmo Courts, Hereford Street, Christchurch. Before & After the February 22 earthquake.

Duff is quick to name other major historic buildings badly damaged by the earthquakes.

“The current state of the Provincial Chambers is a real tragedy of course but I have also been saddened by the loss of one of my favourites, Manchester Courts, which was demolished after the September shakes. I had a fondness for that. The Lyttelton Timeball Station is also a huge loss. It was one of only seven working timeball stations in the world; and I can’t tell you how sad I was when Lyttelton lost the Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic churches. And then there is the Cranmer Centre – gone; Cranmer Courts, which is badly damaged; St Elmo’s Court – gone. And that’s before we even consider the loss of suburban corner shops like Piko; and the damage to rural centres, like the Kaiapoi Museum.”

“The question is, are we watching the end of heritage here, or are we going to appreciate what we have left, even more? From our perspective, we have to accept what Nature throws at us – these buildings, even with earthquake strengthening, were not designed to withstand the forces we’ve experienced – but we are trying to ensure that hasty decisions are not made to knock buildings down.

 “We’re trying to encourage a slower approach. That was much easier after the September earthquake but after February, it was a very different ball game. There hasn’t been wholesale knocking down of heritage buildings but in some cases, things have been moving too fast and in the early stages some buildings went down as a result of opportunism and perhaps a little too much testosterone and not enough thought.”

Christchurch Arts Centre – Braced after the February 22 earthquakes.

Duff says one important thing has been learned during the earthquake recovery process.

“We in the heritage and arts fields have learned that Civil Defence is not aware of how to deal with the treasures of New Zealand and we are now looking at ways of improving their procedures. We are looking forward to a time when we are part of the Civil Defence response and training, so that ultimately, they will use the key to the door, rather than kicking the door in,” he says.

 “The issue for us is getting the message out that these buildings are treasures for all New Zealanders and we need to take special care. There’s no doubt that lives come first but we have so few buildings in New Zealand that tell stories of early life here. We need to keep as many of them as we can so the next generations can learn from them. The memory of the city, the buildings and the intangible values of places will become more and more important.”

 He says cost will determine much of what can be saved.

“The economics of heritage are well recognised so we have to find ways to incentivise heritage owners so they will want to do the right thing.”

Sir Miles Warren’s Governor’s Bay home, Ohinetahi, prior to the September 2010 earthquake.

Like Sir Miles, Malcolm Duff believes there will be opportunities to go back and “do something more innovative” in the case of some buildings. He agrees that the stability of certain sites means some complex decisions will have to be made but he’s not averse to new directions.

 For his part, Sir Miles thinks the Cathedral has “a wonderful opportunity to build perhaps, a dark grey, stainless steel tower – something very dashing and modern” and as he suggests, there are plenty of international precedents where modern additions have very successfully added to the character of heritage buildings. He’s doing that very thing himself, at Ohinetahi.

Ohinetahi after the demolition of the two top floors, after the February earthquake; and before the building of a new first floor.

“We’ve removed the two top floors – over 160 tons of thick stone – and we’ve strengthened the ground floor, which will be fully restored to its original state. Now we’re building a light-weight first floor to replace the bedrooms and we hope to have it all done by September,” he says.

 Malcolm Duff is not yet willing to concede defeat – to say that some of the city’s iconic buildings are lost.

“We’re blessed in that we’ve still got the Arts Centre. Like many, it’s badly damaged but it’s still standing and there has been some outstanding strengthening work done there since September. Like the Provincial Chambers, it is well insured and providing there are no more 6.3 earthquakes, there is an opportunity to put it – and much of the city – back together again – even if it does take fifteen years.”

 The opinions expressed in this blog and comments are the authors’ and may not necessarily represent the views of National Services Te Paerangi or Te Papa.