Wellington Scoop

Failing to save our heritage


by Lindsay Shelton
The Wellington City Council’s inability to save two Edwardian houses from demolition last week paralleled its inability ten years earlier to save a popular and historic swimming pool in the same area of Mt Cook.

Though the council allowed the pool to be demolished ten years ago, it was a pointless as well as a destructive exercise – the site has remained empty ever since.


Last week’s demolition of the houses in Rugby Street opposite the Basin Reserve was equally destructive. It couldn’t be stopped because the council had failed to give them heritage protection, though they had interiors unchanged since 1912. Without this heritage status the Chinese Embassy, which now owns the site where it plans to build a new Embassy, was legally able to pull them down.

Felicity Wong, the chair of Historic Places Wellington, said the city council had commissioned a heritage architect to write a report about what buildings should be protected in the District Plan. The report included the two houses but she doesn’t know why they didn’t receive heritage status. “I approached the council more than a year ago to ask them to list them.”

The council was similarly ineffectual ten years ago when the entire site had been bought for a supermarket.


The site included the Boys’ Institute pool in Tasman Street – not only the oldest indoor pool in Wellington but also popular with tens of thousands of boys and girls from all over the city who had attended swimming lessons in the pool for more than 90 years. But the council didn’t care. The swimming teachers and their pupils were evicted and the building was demolished, except for its facade. Leaving the site empty and unused ever since.

Demolition was opposed unsuccessfully by the Mount Cook Mobilised group which was formed in 2007. Around 250 residents attended its first public meeting and more than 1400 signed a petition which asked the city council to keep the pool and upgrade it. The council didn’t listen.

In times past, however, the council had given thought to protecting the area where the demolitions have occurred. Early in 2005 it staged the launch, by Prince Charles, of the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol, “which aims to make urban design an essential component in New Zealand towns and cities.” In the same year, the council’s Urban Planning Update announced “the need for more refined provisions for the protection and enhancement of character in Berhampore, Newtown and Mt Cook.”

Only three years after those brave words were published, anyone could see that the council had done nothing to protect Mt Cook’s popular and historic swimming pool. And ten years later, with the demolition of the beautiful Edwardian houses, the council shows that it hasn’t changed. Or learned.


  1. Guy M, 13. June 2019, 11:19

    This ineptness or unwillingness on behalf of the Council and the Heritage people leads to a strong suspicion that there is a political reasoning behind the destruction of the only two interesting heritage building sites on the block.

    Is there back room pressure from the Chinese government to quietly look the other way while the bulldozers start their engines?

    The pool at the BGI is the sadder event by miles though. A great community facility for thousands of young swimmers over the years, and while the retained / vandalized brick frontage is nice, it would be much nicer to have a pool full of children learning to swim.

  2. Nora, 13. June 2019, 11:21

    As an old Wellington Tech girl, I used to enjoy the walk up Rugby Street past these lovely old houses, ditto the Boys Institute in Tasman Street where I used to go for cricket practice and many years later took my children to learn to swim.
    Pity the Chinese Embassy did not purchase the old Sharella car park where there are now ugly townhouses; Rugby Street’s heritage could have been left alone.

  3. David Mackenzie, 13. June 2019, 12:55

    Spot on, Lindsay. They allow the beautiful and useful to be razed, but promote the construction of useless multi-million dollar arenas. I despair for Wellington and the world in general.

  4. Laura, 13. June 2019, 14:22

    Excellent article. And we have a housing crisis in Wellington?

  5. Alana, 14. June 2019, 4:25

    Thanks, Lindsay, for pointing out the gaps in the Council’s commitment to its own policies and statements. Heritage buildings. Waterfront loss of open public space. Destruction of Frank Kitts Park. The list goes on.

  6. Concerned Wellingtonian, 14. June 2019, 11:31

    Regarding the heritage buildings: note that Chinese people do not mind doing unpopular things. The selection of Frank Kitts Park for a Chinese Garden is an example of this.

  7. Newtown, 14. June 2019, 21:46

    @Concerned Wellingtonian: I don’t think we need to label the owner as ‘Chinese people’, it could’ve been any developer. Protecting character buildings isn’t the site owner’s responsibility, heritage buildings should be the council’s responsibility. The council had several years to do so, the site has been empty for years.

    Yet, the council could’ve bought this massive section and built housing to address the city’s population growth.

  8. Harry M, 15. June 2019, 6:48

    I agree it is the Council’s responsibility, as it was their responsibility to protect the Mt Cook community center.

  9. Concerned Wellingtonian, 15. June 2019, 9:31

    I wonder if the Council’s hands are tied when it comes to land belonging to foreign embassies? Are embassies more free than developers to do what they like?

  10. Joise Talofi, 15. June 2019, 10:32

    NZ land does not have to be sold to foreign owners. As a Kiwi, I can’t buy land in China.

  11. Andy Foster, 18. June 2019, 19:55

    FYI – Concerned Wellingtonian is correct. Embassies etc count as foreign soil – ie the Embassy site is in effect part of China, and the Council has no jurisdiction. We can ask (through MFAT) an embassy to preserve buildings or trees etc of value, but we cannot tell them.
    Kind regards, Andy

  12. TrevorH, 18. June 2019, 21:57

    @ Andy Foster: embassies remain the territory of the receiving State. However the receiving State’s civil authorities require the embassy’s permission to enter its premises and diplomatic staff are generally accorded immunity from prosecution unless the sending State agrees to waive it in particular cases – if not, the receiving State can expel the diplomat concerned. So the demolished heritage buildings remained on New Zealand territory. These matters are governed by the 1961 Vienna Convention with which Councillors should have some familiarity given the number of embassies in their jurisdiction.

  13. michael, 18. June 2019, 22:54

    Andy would that also include protected buildings?

  14. Farmer Bill, 19. June 2019, 8:02

    Can’t they have their Chinese garden in their new Embassy compound and leave Wellington’s waterfront alone? By the way, the Chinese bandstand in Masterton is looking a bit tacky and doesn’t fit into Kuripuni. I haven’t seen anybody using it to play any brass band music either. Waste of space!