Wellington Scoop

Coming soon: a sense of loss


The enormity of what Wellington is losing becomes clear when you read Heritage New Zealand’s official listings about the convent building at Erskine College (above; now being demolished), and all the buildings at the former teachers college in Karori (five of them are to be demolished.) They all have number one categories, but this isn’t enough to save them.

Here’s what Heritage NZ says about the convent at Erskine:

Constructed in 1905-6 …the imposing four-storey Gothic brick and reinforced concrete building was designed by noted architect John Sydney Swan, who was just then emerging from his partnership with Frederick de Jersey Clere, and was the earliest in a series of major commissions for the Catholic Church for which Swan would become well known… 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. 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 in 1992 and its official approval as New Zealand’s first non-government heritage protection authority.

…The sombre exterior of the convent building speaks to the Edwardian educational principles of its time of construction, and also conveys the philosophies of the Society of the Sacred Heart through its use of cross motifs and the Sacred Heart emblem as decorative detailing. Although imposing, the spaces of the convent building still evoke a strong emotional response in former students and staff, as evidenced by reminiscences published by alumnae.

…Erskine College & Chapel are of high architectural significance as the work of John Sydney Swan whose substantial work gave New Zealand some of its finest buildings. The Chapel and Convent are among his greatest achievements and are remarkable for their design, form, planning and detailing. These buildings … show a confident resourcefulness in design, mixing appearance that is both progressively inventive and comfortingly traditional with clever planning and a firm structural approach. Erskine College is remarkable for its design, form and composition. The building design has been influenced by the Gothic, Tudor and Edwardian traditions, modified by a colonial approach to suit the new country.

The chapel is to be saved and restored. The heritage listing states

The elegant proportions of the interior of the Chapel, reputed to be the finest Gothic chapel interior in New Zealand, have an undeniable beauty and strong visual impact. . .


And here’s what Heritage NZ says about the former teachers college in Karori, that has been sold (by Victoria University) to a retirement village operator which has announced demolition plans:

… has outstanding architectural significance as one of New Zealand’s finest examples of brutalist architecture, consisting of an integrated grouping of multi-storey buildings and landscape features. The College represents an elegant and expert interpretation of the movement and was a milestone in the long and distinguished architectural career of Stanley William (Bill) Toomath (1925–2014). The College has historic significance because its creation was motivated by major mid-twentieth century teacher training reforms to compensate for increased educational demands resulting from the post-World War Two ‘baby boom’. The College also has social and cultural importance as a tertiary institution associated with thousands of students and staff, including some notable contributors to New Zealand’s education system, arts sector and Māori rights movement…

… It is an exceptional example of design and execution, demonstrating skilful, varied and elegant treatment of the raw materials, rich with texture and sculptural elements. Toomath’s aim was to create a community of learning. The design and layout of the buildings is an expression of the educational philosophy of sharing knowledge in a straightforward and meaningful way…

… an outstanding example of New Zealand modernist architecture by Toomath, one of New Zealand’s most influential modernist architects. Toomath was well-known for his work for educational institutions and the College, a project he spent over a decade on, represents the epitome of this…has special architectural significance for its coherent and comprehensive design. Toomath achieved a design and layout that is a sensitive site specific response to the undulating suburban location of Karori, and contributes to this suburb’s reputation for important modernist architecture. The campus is … linked by two sky bridges that provide a functional and elegant visual connection… This integrated group of campus buildings and structures has retained a high level of authenticity to Toomath’s original designs, making it an exemplar of New Zealand brutalist architecture.


Among those who fought the save the buildings, the Architectural Centre argued persuasively, but to no avail:

We believe that the Wellington Teachers’ College, Karori must be retained because:
(a) it is incredibly well-built (apparently it meets 100% seismic code) and it would be a shocking waste (in terms of sustainability and common sense) to demolish it.
(b) it is an important community facility (including: dance studio, lecture theatres, marae, playing fields).
(c) it could be adaptively re-used as housing (which we need).
(d) it is an important heritage site.
(e) a redevelopment could be mixed-use incorporating recreation and cultural programmes (like the Barbican in London).
(f) it could be NZ’s first “Barbican of the South” and an exemplar of a high density residential community with public cultural and recreational facilities for the wider community.

And as Ben Schrader wrote earlier this year, the loss of the Karori buildings will be a crushing blow to Wellington’s modernist heritage.


  1. Neil Douglas, 10. October 2018, 12:54

    Great credit to those who defended the Erskine building. I did my bit to save it by providing a view on the finance/economics, but to no avail. The Judiciary sided with the developer and a piece of Wellington history is on its way to a landfill.

  2. Susan Says, 10. October 2018, 16:17

    So what’s the point of a Category 1 listing?

    I checked the Historic Places website and found the following information.
    ” What does entry on the List mean?
    The List is an information tool – it identifies and provides information on significant heritage places throughout New Zealand.
    Entry on the List: does not equal automatic protection, does not directly create regulatory consequences or legal obligations on property owners, does not directly create specific rights or control over property, can provide heritage funding opportunities such as the National Heritage Preservation Incentive Fund, can lead to heritage properties being considered for inclusion in district plan heritage schedules.
    How does the List link with district plans?
    District plans are administered by local authorities and set out the changes that can be made to a property. Most district plans control proposed changes to heritage places and sites listed in their heritage schedules. Heritage New Zealand can get involved in this process and advocate for the retention of heritage values.
    Local authorities are required to notify Heritage New Zealand if a building consent application is received regarding a property on the List. This allows Heritage New Zealand to offer conservation advice to property owners and the local authority. The fact that a property is included in the List should be noted on any relevant land information memorandum (LIM) supplied by a local authority.”

    Looks like open slather to me.

  3. Jill, 15. October 2018, 11:27

    If Heritage NZ thinks the old teachers college needs saving I suggest they go overseas and see some really significant architecture. The building is an eyesore and has no artistic or heritage merit. It looks like something out of stalin russia.
    There is an aging population for whom suitable accommodation is needed and the site will be put to a lot more use as a retirement village. If it was financially viable to convert to other forms of housing – also needed, then that’s what a developer would do.

  4. Cheryl Xavier, 25. October 2018, 14:32

    @Susan, A category 1 registration makes buildings eligible for public funding to restore/earthquake strengthen. It means HNZ can be affected party in council consent processes (it was excluded at Erskine because of its SHA status). It also means HNZ can go to court to defend these buildings (which it did for Erskine). Why we are still losing these buildings despite these efforts should be concerning for the government.

    @Jill. Why the overseas comparison? Poor context. No buildings in NZ are 400 years old, we barely have any that are over 100. And experts do not devalue heritage sites just because landowners are intent on destroying them. Ever heard of demolition by neglect? The Main Block is the oldest college building in Wellington. A duty of care was all that was needed, like fixing the roof. The decade-long tenants Learning Connexion Arts School were proof that taking care of the Erskine Main Block was viable – a functional, successful utilisation of a heritage site.