by Lindsay Shelton
Today’s reopening of the ornate Whitcoulls Building, which has been a feature of Lambton Quay for more than 100 years, is proof that not all Wellington property owners want to let their heritage buildings “simply sit there and rot.” Restored and strengthened, it’s now the home of two new landmark stores for Hallenstein Brothers and Glassons.
Only a couple of blocks away, veteran property developer Mark Dunajtschik is taking the opposite approach to his heritage Harcourts Building, He says it “is worthless and … will just simply sit there and rot.” He wants to demolish it. He says he’s “not putting any more good money after bad money,” and the $10million cost of strengthening his building is not economically viable. He believes Wellington would have been better off if he’d been allowed to replace it with a 25-storey tower.
The Environment Court doesn’t agree. It has ruled that he cannot demolish his Category One building which, it says, has high heritage values because of its architectural character and design. It was the same decision by commissioners who ruled early this year that the building was too important to be demolished.
Fortunately for the city, other owners of heritage buildings aren’t pleading poverty and are taking a different view to Mr Dunajtschik. There are plenty of them who have accepted the value of heritage and have successfully strengthened and restored their landmark buildings. A convincing example is not far from the building that Mr Dunajtschik wants to leave to rot.
It’s the Harbour City Centre, (originally built as the DIC Building). Like the Harcourts Building, it’s been on Lambton Quay since 1928. It has twice been strengthened against earthquakes, and its handsome original facade has been impeccably restored. It’s been such a success that Contact Energy doubled the amount of office space which it is leasing. There’s only been one loss. After two floors of small businesses were moved out, the original 1920s corridors and doors and safes were replaced by a modern fitout, to suit the contemporary needs of Contact. Some of us miss the old fittings and the incomprehensible numbering on each door. But it would have been a far greater loss for Lambton Quay if the entire building had been demolished, Dunajtschik-style.
Then there’s the Hope Gibbons Building in Dixon Street. Scott Gibbons, great-grandson of the man who built it, described last year how he’d been able to raise finance to do a seismic upgrade and refurbishment at a cost of $6m. One of his tenants is the firm which was doing the architectural work. Hugh Brown of Tennant and Brown told the DomPost it was a wonderful old landmark building, with high ceilings and good light and great views down Courtenay Place. “It hasn’t been mucked about with lowered ceilings, and it doesn’t need air conditioning because in summer you can open the windows to catch a breeze.”
Does Mr D need more examples? If so, he should look at the success of the Old Bank, or the buildings on Stewart Dawson’s Corner, or the Huddart Parker Building on Jervois Quay. The owners are spending $8m to strengthen and refit it as high-quality office space. They say they never considered demolishing it. “The facade is historic and there would be strong public opposition. You could make a case for boarding it up, insuring it only for demolition and just pay the rates … but …”
An attitude which makes them better citizens than the angry Mark Dunajtschik.