Wellington Scoop

Farewell to a heritage building

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by Elizabeth Cox
Well the scaffold is up, and the main college building is coming down.

For some time we have been tracking the attempts by heritage advocates to save the Erskine College buildings in Island Bay. In June last year, a mediation was underway between SECT (the Save Erskine College Trust), the Wellington Company (the owners of the building and the large surrounding site), and Heritage New Zealand, in the hope that the college buildings could be saved during the massive $30 million redevelopment of the land, which includes the construction of 94 new dwellings.

However, these discussions broke down and the legal proceedings continued. The Environment Court issued another decision in January. The decision acknowledged that there are two buildings of very high heritage quality on the land – the chapel and the former convent building (often called “the main building”). Nevertheless it gave conditional approval to The Wellington Company to demolish the main building, on the basis that the company would then retain, strengthen, restore and reuse the chapel. During the hearings, The Wellington Company verbally agreed that it would provide immediate strengthening of the chapel, prior to all or most other development activity on the land.

Since then a number of step-by-step interim decisions have been issued by the Environment Court, to try to resolve the issues between the parties, which, as it says, were ‘seriously at loggerheads’. A series of such interim decisions were issued in January, March, May, July and August.


In the meantime, work began on the garden and landscaping, with many massive trees being felled.

These interim decisions from the Environment Court have now got to the point where the Wellington Company can begin to demolish the main building. The final version of the consent given by the Court can be found here. It provides permission to demolish the main building, but commits the Wellington Company to both ‘accelerated strengthening works’ on the chapel and its ‘restoration and beneficial reuse’.

It goes on to say that the work on the chapel must result in the creation of a ‘high quality, functional place that people can use and appreciate for its conservation heritage and values’.


It also requires the issue of the western facade to be treated ‘sensitively’, as the court was concerned, as were the heritage experts who had given evidence to the court, about the massive glass screen that is proposed for the chapel’s western facade, designed to cover the area where the main building currently connects to the chapel building.

The Wellington Company has been required to pay a large bond (which will be held by Heritage New Zealand) which holds them to their agreement to strengthen, and make waterproof, the chapel building. The court has had to reach decisions on how large the bond should be, and to what level of work needs to have been completed on the building before the bond is given back (e.g. should the chapel be just ‘safe’, or should it be ‘functioning’?), and what will happen if the work doesn’t proceed (there is now agreement that Heritage New Zealand would be permitted to ‘step in’ and complete the works itself if it is not done by the owners).

So here we are, at the end of the battle to save the main building, which is so well-remembered by many of the girls who were educated there (see the article from City Councillor Nicola Young who was once the head girl of Erskine College).

It is a salutary lesson in the heritage protection our heritage buildings really have in New Zealand. This building had the trifecta – it was listed on the city council’s district plan as a heritage item, it was listed by Heritage New Zealand as a Category 1 historic place, and it was the subject of a Heritage Order. And yet it still comes down.

I thought I would conclude with the summary of the importance of the site and complex of buildings written by Heritage New Zealand in 2009:

Erskine College (Former) is of outstanding heritage significance. As a now-rare physical testament to the work of the Society of the Sacred Heart in New Zealand, the place tells a story of the development of Catholic education in this country and is associated with numerous significant historical figures as well as being a place of worship, spiritual retreat and celebration for generations of pupils and Sacré Coeur religious, some of whom are commemorated within the site. The subject of huge community esteem, the place is held in extremely high regard by former alumnae, members of the Catholic community, local Island Bay residents, heritage professionals and other interested parties. The high social value of the place is most strongly demonstrated by the extensive campaign to protect the entire site, which was spearheaded by the formation of the Save Erskine College Trust and its official approval as New Zealand’s only non-government heritage protection authority.

The main convent building, Chapel of the Sacred Heart and associated additions are also of special architectural, cultural, technological and aesthetic significance as fine examples of the work of prominent architect John Sydney Swan. The Chapel in particular is regarded as the finest Gothic interior in New Zealand, and its elegant proportions an offer exceptional acoustic quality which has seen many notable musical performances. The other buildings of the complex also have lasting associations with many cultural activities, having been used as the site for the creation of various artistic activities and as a venue for some high profile cultural events.

This article was first published on the Bay Heritage Consultants blog. Main photo: Kari Beaven.


  1. Citizen Joe, 2. October 2018, 9:41

    The developer bought the site for a reported $1 million in 2001, promised so much but did nothing. The result? One of New Zealand’s true heritage buildings was left to rot over 18 years. The City Council should hang its head in shame for letting the developer get away with this. Indeed for helping him knock down a heritage listed building! And the judiciary? Well you be the judge of their decision.

  2. Michael Gibson, 2. October 2018, 11:25

    Yes, Citizen Joe, Erskine was sold to Ian Cassells for $1,000,000 in 2001. At the time I was manager of the previous owners and we wanted to keep both the main building and the Chapel but there were dealings with the Wellington City Council which stopped us doing this – I imagine that prospective purchasers thought that the price would be driven down if the Council made life difficult for us.
    The important words in the Environment Court document are:
    ” The Chapel accelerated strengthening works …. must, in any event, be commenced no later than 1 November 2018; and completed no later than 1 May 2019; (and) be given priority over all other works on the (site at) Erskine”
    Like you, I am appalled at the way the Chapel has been allowed to go to wrack and ruin, but please help make certain that the Court’s dates are complied with.

  3. Andy Foster, 2. October 2018, 14:26

    Thank you for the article Elizabeth.
    It’s good that the Chapel must be restored, but I think overall it is a very sad day to see the loss of the main Convent Building. We have known since the Environment Court ruling that this was coming – the Convent Building will be the first heritage listed building in Wellington to be demolished under the current District Plan (notified in 1994) with the exception of Centreport’s Shed 35 which damaged beyond redemption by the Kaikoura earthquake, and was demolished with Heritage NZ’s reluctant approval. That approval is absolutely not the case in respect of Erskine. Both Erskine buildings are Category 1 which as you say makes them of ‘outstanding’ significance.

    Citizen Joe – it is good to agree on something ! In my view Council should hang its head in shame over this. It is Council that established the Special Housing Area (by just 9 votes to 6) for Erskine, and that is what has led to all this. It meant that even Heritage New Zealand and Save Erskine College Trust – the holder of the Heritage Order over the site, were cut out of the resource consent process, and the provision of housing trumped everything else including heritage.

    Elizabeth – it is instructive to read the decision of the Environment Court. In the end their conclusion was that if they did not approve the development, both buildings would be left to linger and we might lose both. They noted that both are well built and in surprisingly strong condition. You mention the ‘trifecta’ of heritage listing (by HNZ and WCC) and SECT’s Heritage Order. Ultimately they were all cast aside at the stroke of a pen by the Council’s Special Housing Area decision under the last Government’s Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act. I have said this many times but it was a very nasty piece of legislation, Council was poorly advised by officials, and the legislation was used in the wrong way in the wrong place by Council. A sad day.

  4. Rabbitoh, 2. October 2018, 17:05

    Thank you for your insight Andy. Would you happen to know the councillors who voted for and against the SHA? It always pays to be informed of these sort of things come local body elections. I never knew Erskine existed until I had to do some work up there about 8 years ago and I was instantly blown away by it and still am. I think this is part of the problem, out of the public eye it had a low profile. It makes me so angry to see a property with so many protections in place treated this way. It should be a criminal offence to neglect properties that have this sort of status to the point they are supposedly beyond repair.

  5. Michael Gibson, 2. October 2018, 17:23

    Andy Foster’s comments remind me that it was the same developer who used the same “Special Housing Area” tactics to get the Council green light to spend a heap of ratepayers’ money in order to develop Shelly Bay.

  6. Mel G., 2. October 2018, 17:52

    Well said Rabbitoh – Take a look at the Gordon Wilson Flats to see exhibit 2 of corporate neglect for massive financial gain!

  7. Alex, 2. October 2018, 20:22

    Absolute disaster for the community. Can imagine what people who have had this building in their midst for most of their lives must be going through! Erskine was one of the most notable pieces of heritage architecture in Wellington.
    The development should have been mixed use with heritage and housing – and would have been profitable with 90 dwellings rather than the 100 planned for. Shocking that a piece of our lives must be torn away to pay for legal fees!

  8. Andy Foster, 2. October 2018, 21:13

    In answer to the question Rabbitoh – the vote was at the Full Council meeting of 8 April 2015.
    Voting to make Erskine a Special Housing Area – Celia Wade-Brown, Ray Ahipene-Mercer, Jo Coughlan, Paul Eagle, Justin Lester, Simon Marsh, Mark Peck, Simon Woolf, Nicola Young.
    Voting against the SHA – Andy Foster, Sarah Free, David Lee, Iona Pannett, Helene Ritchie, Malcolm Sparrow.

    Shelly Bay the vote was 10 : 5 with the same 9 councillors plus Malcolm Sparrow in favour. Shelly Bay SHA was expanded to include Open Space zoned land on 28 October 2015 – the same 10 : 5 voting margin.

    Kind regards, Andy

  9. lanz, 3. October 2018, 12:07

    thanks andy i certainly won’t be giving my vote to any who voted for making Erskine a Special Housing Area.