by Lindsay Shelton
This little building has sat in Buckle Street for almost 100 years. It’s part of our city’s heritage, and has links back to the early days of European settlement. Yet preparations are being made to push it off its original site.
For years it has been surrounded by overgrown trees and shrubs. But now the section has been cleared, the windows have been boarded up, and indications are that the Transport Agency – which owns it – is intending to move it, to make way for a construction yard.
How can the Transport Agency move a unique part of Wellington’s heritage? The Agency has gained extraordinary powers from the recently-passed National War Memorial Park Empowering Act, which gives it authority to move or modify properties without public notification. But the Category One listed building and its site are not part of the National War Memorial Park. Therefore it’s hard to accept that there’s any justification for moving it.
And its heritage values are undeniable. It’s a direct link to the work of Sister Mary Joseph Aubert, who arrived in New Zealand from France in 1860 and founded the Sisters of Compassion. She and her three Sisters moved to Wellington in 1899 and began working with the urban poor. Her crèche or day nursery began in 1903, a pioneering venture to look after the children of low-income mothers forced to work to support their families. The first crèche became unsafe, and this replacement building was in use for 60 years from 1914.
The register of the Historic Places Trust records its importance:
The Home of Compassion Crèche has outstanding significance because it is one of the few remaining Sisters of Compassion buildings which were directly associated with the founder of the order, Mother Aubert. It’s also special because it is a rare remnant of the intensive Roman Catholic presence that was a feature of the Basin Reserve from the late nineteenth century. The Crèche became a confident expression that the order would live on after its originator’s death, and upon this foundation the Sisters of Compassion became New Zealand’s oldest remaining indigenous Catholic order.
Even the Transport Agency knows about the building’s value. It has commissioned its own heritage assessment, which states:
The site is of significance, not only as the site of buildings associated with Mother Aubert … but also its connection with the now demolished St Patrick’s Church complex, located on the corner of Tory and Buckle Streets and comprising most of original town acres 256 and 257, and including a church, school buildings, a boarding establishment, gymnasium, laundry and carpenter’s shop.
And what’s the justification for moving the crèche? To make way for a construction yard to be part of the project to put the west-bound lanes of State Highway One into a cut-and-covered trench under Buckle Street. Heritage groups were expecting to have to defend the building once flyover plans, or the alternatives, were approved. But no one seems to have expected that the old building would be under threat so soon. And there seems to be no one who can defend the crèche against the Agency’s intention to move it. Unless there’s someone who wants to stand in front of the moving machines.
This unveiling today in Majoribanks Street was a reminder of how much of Wellington’s history has been lost. But it was also a celebration of the creation of a display telling the history of Mount Victoria. The inner city suburb’s Historical Society gathered for the official opening of the display, which is in a space that used to be the window of a shop in the Embassy Theatre building. The survival of the 1924 picture palace was under threat some years ago, but a group of local people headed by Bill Sheat formed a Trust and worked to save the building and then to restore it. Now it’s unimaginable that the theatre might have been lost.
Film director and producer Gaylene Preston, who lives in Mt Victoria, did the honours at today’s ceremony. Fittingly, because some of her features have been premiered in the Embassy during the Wellington Film Festival. Which is an event which also premiered Peter Jackson’s first film Bad Taste. No one needs to be reminded that the Embassy is now the venue of Sir Peter’s premieres. Ten years ago (was it that long ago?) The Lord of the Rings. And in a few days’ time: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Getting back to the point, there’s every reason why historical buildings are worth defending. Not only big ones, but little ones too.