Wellington Scoop

Irreplaceable heritage – choosing the buildings that must be saved

by Andy Foster
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker wrote recently that Wellington will have to make choices about protecting its heritage from earthquakes, just as Christchurch now has to do. He’s right, although we don’t have to make agonising decisions with our city in ruins. He’s also right that, as owners and as a community, we may not be able to afford to strengthen every heritage building. That means making choices. We will need to do that carefully and thoughtfully.

We have not lost a single heritage listed building since the current District Plan was notified in 1994. We’ve also added protections for the character of the older inner city suburbs, but as they are comprised of largely small residential units the earthquake assessment process doesn’t apply.

Ideally we want to get through the process of ensuring resilience without losing any heritage buildings. But that seems unlikely. Indeed Historic Places Trust has acknowledged the likely need to make choices.

Your Council has long taken earthquake resilience seriously. We’ve all just been reminded we live in a seismically active area. The building code in Wellington requires our buildings to be three times as strong as say Auckland’s (to achieve the same % code rating). For 20 years we’ve been investing millions of dollars in strengthening roads, bridges, reservoirs, tunnels, and pipes. We also have a strong focus on working with other key agencies – lifeline operators – and in promoting community and homeowner preparedness.

Wellington is light years ahead of the rest of the country in assessing whether buildings are earthquake prone. Many buildings were assessed in the 1980s, and have subsequently been strengthened or demolished. Some, I think, we regret having lost. Just six existing buildings now have the ‘time’s up” call, but these include category 1 Erskine College and Chapel.

Your Council began a comprehensive programme to assess commercial and apartment buildings seven years ago. Some 5600 pre-1976 buildings were considered potentially earthquake prone. 4,851 have been assessed to 30 June. That 4,851 is about the same as the rest of the country – put together – and there are believed to be some 70,000 buildings nationwide to be assessed. We expect to complete all assessments this financial year.

4,239 of the assessed buildings have been deemed not to be earthquake prone, while another 611 have been deemed less than 34% of NBS. 134 of the 611 are heritage buildings, with another 39 heritage and monuments still to be assessed. We have 835 buildings heritage listed or in heritage areas, so the vast majority are not considered earthquake prone. That is good news.

Buildings are required to be 34% or above ‘New Build Standard’ to avoid being considered earthquake prone. That means that in the event of a so called ‘moderate earthquake’ (usually considered around 7.3 in magnitude but we all know there are complexities such as depth of quake etc) the building is expected not to cause loss of life. It doesn’t necessarily mean the building will remain usable. If we want buildings to be usable, a higher standard of strengthening may be required. Many owners are doing that for market reasons anyway. They want to retain tenants, and people want to be able to continue to operate after a quake. As a city, we will want to ensure key heritage buildings survive any major event too.

The lessons from Christchurch are all too painful. Personally I cannot comprehend how Government and Council have allowed the Cathedral that gave our southern city its name and is the symbol of the city not to be made safe and restored. Another big big lesson from Christchurch is that we cannot have our few transport routes blocked by dangerous buildings and have the central city closed down for months and years. That’s been a catastrophe for Christchurch. In Wellington with our more limited transport options it would be potentially far far worse.

Building owners currently have between 10 and 20 years to strengthen their buildings depending on the nature and level of use and it’s expected that our assessments will be complete by June 2014. The recent announcement by Government does not change these. The new timeframes announced by Government only apply to buildings assessed once the new law is in place.

Many building owners including heritage building owners have already moved to strengthen their buildings. Examples include the Hope Gibbons, Huddart Parker and Whitcoulls buildings and the Carillon, Embassy, Town Hall (now committed), Thistle Hall, City Gallery, and Stewart Dawson’s corner (recently announced). Sometimes strengthening is quite cheap, at other times it runs to many millions of dollars. Private owners will tend to strengthen where it makes sense for them to do so. Council, as well as strengthening its own buildings, has also long supported private owners with grants to undertake work such as up front engineering and conservation assessments. That is some recognition that heritage listing is about public rather than private benefit.

The challenge will be where it isn’t economically viable or the owner doesn’t have the wherewithal. Eventually the yellow stickers become red stickers and the buildings become unusable. The iconic Erskine College in Island Bay is in just this position, with a stand-off between local heritage interests and the owner, Council and Historic Places Trust. The question is which buildings are the must save icons, what level of public support is reasonable (and won’t that be a debate!), what mechanisms for support might be used, and what ownership rights and public access rights might flow from public money being involved.

Government has also been asked repeatedly to assist. Allowing strengthening costs to be expensed rather than capitalised would be a significant help for many buildings. It would also seem a good deal safer – and cheaper (actually a small fraction of the cost) than picking up the pieces as it has had to in Canterbury. There is also work being done looking at financing and insurance issues, because these are often major challenges for building owners.

What is good in Wellington is that many of our most significant icons are already strengthened. However there remain some very significant buildings still needing strengthening. For me that list is headed by St Gerard’s, St Mary of the Angels, the Public Trust Building, the Opera House, Turnbull House and Shed 11. It critically also includes much of Cuba Street and Courtenay Place which clearly collectively contribute immensely to Wellington’s character. It also includes important suburban buildings like Erskine Chapel and College, St Marys (Karori), Northland Fire Station and St Johns (Johnsonville), examples of buildings which are important contributors to the character of their communities, despite being of lower heritage ranking. Of course there is the current debate over the category I Harcourts building which is prominent in Lambton Quay, though there is clearly a debate about whether it is actually even earthquake prone.

As I said at the start, ideally we want to ensure resilience without losing any heritage buildings. It’s important that Council, the Historic Places Trust and property owners work together, with Government support, to help the city get through this process with the best possible outcomes.

I’ve done my inexpert ‘top 40 in Wellington’ (below) and noted which have and haven’t been strengthened. This absolutely doesn’t represent ‘council policy,’ but I believe we want to start this vitally important debate. Have I missed something you think should be in the top tier – something that would be an irreplaceable loss? I also want to be very clear that this is not to diminish the importance of anything not on my list.

What would your choices be? What are the icons of Wellington? Which are the at-risk buildings that cannot possibly be allowed to be lost? When should public money be involved and if so what ownership and access rights might go with it? This is an important debate, and it is one for the whole community.

My top 40 are in three groups, each alphabetically ordered. The Historic Places Trust category is listed beside the building name, so (1) means category one. I also give the year of construction and the architect.

Beehive (1)
Still to be assessed formally but expected to be fine
1965-81. Sir Basil Spence

Cuba St (various)
Multiple buildings – some strengthened, some earthquake prone
Includes category 1 BNZ and Logan Brown buildings

Erskine Chapel (1)
Red stickered
1930. John Swan
Stand off between owner, Council, and SECT

Futuna Chapel (1)
Assessed at 79% – not EQP
1961. John Scott
Iconic example of Maori – European architecture.

Government Buildings (1)
Restored and strengthened
1876. William Clayton
Biggest wooden buildings in the Southern Hemisphere

Old BNZ (actually 4 buildings together) (1 and 2)
Still to be formally assessed – but should be fine as were base isolated in 1990s
No1 1901 (cat1)
No2 1904 (cat2)
No3 1885 (cat1)
No 4 1903 (cat2)
No 1,2,3 Thomas Turnbull and Sons. No 4 Hislop and Walden

Old St Pauls (1)
No strengthening required
1866. Rev Frederick Thatcher

Parliament Building (1)
1911-12. Govt Architect

St Gerrards Church and Monastery (1)
Yellow stickered
1908 and 1932. John Swan & Frederick de Jersey Clere

St James Theatre (1)
1912. Henry Eli White

St Mary of the Angels (1)
Yellow stickered
1919-22. Frederick de Jersey Clere and Llewellyn Williams

Town Hall (1)
Yellow Stickered
1902-04. Joshua Charlesworth
Strengthening work agreed to start Nov 2013

Wellington Railway Station (1)
1934-7. Gray Young, Morton and Young

(13) ————-

AMP Building (1)
Assessed at 65% – not EQP
1927-28. Clere and Clere

Carillon / War Memorial (1)
Assessed at 14% – yellow stickered
1931-2. Gummer and Ford
Currently being strengthened

Courtenay Place – Blair – Allen St precinct
Various buildings – some EQP – some fine

Blair and Allen St are almost entirely strengthened

Crematorium (1)
Assessed as EQP
1909. John Sydney Swan
Karori Cemetery

General Assembly Library Parliament (1)
Yet to be assessed
1898-1901. Thomas Turnbull

High Court Building (1)
1879-81. PFM Burrows

Hunter Building at Victoria University (1)
1906. Penty and Blake

Karori Reservoir Valve Tower (1)
Not assessed
1874. Nicholas Marchant ?

Katherine Mansfield Birthplace (1)
Assessed – not EQP

Public Trust Building (1)
Yellow stickered
1909. John Campbell

Stewart Dawsons Corner (3 buildings)
Strengthening of corner building about to commence to lift from 35 to 70% of NBS. Others strengthened already
1887/1904 Poys Bldg (cat2)
1901 Corner building (cat1)
1900 Fletcher’s Bldg (cat2)
Unknown / William Charles Chatfield / Unknown architect

Thistle Inn (1)
Assessed not EQP
1866. architect unknown
Te Rauparaha was a famous early patron

Wellington Rowing Club (1)
Assessment underway
1894. Frederick de Jersey Clere


Ashleigh Court, cnr Rintoul and Riddiford Sts, Newtown (2)
Building A yellow stickered
Building B – not EQP

DIC (2)
1928. A and K Henderson

Embassy Theatre (1)
Strengthened to 95%
1924. Llewellyn Williams

Erskine Main Block (1)
Red stickered
1906. John Sydney Swan

Government House (1)
Strengthened – 100%
1910-12. John Campbell and Claude Paton
Governor General’s residence

Homewood (1)
To be assessed
1847, extended 1903
Henry Chapman/ Joshua Charlesworth
British High Commissioner’s residence

Hope Gibbons Building (2)
Currently being strengthened
1925-26. JM Dawson

Kirkcaldie and Stains (2)
1909, 1928. William Turnbull and Llewellyn Williams

St Johns Willis St (1)
Currently in assessment process
1885. Thomas Turnbull

St Marys Karori (2)
Yellow stickered
1911. Frederick de Jersey Clere

St Peters Willis St (1)
Currently in assessment process
1879. Thomas Turnbull

Shed 7 (1)
1896. Frederick de Jersey Clere

State Opera House(1)
Yellow stickered
1912. William Pitt

Turnbull House (1)
Yellow stickered
1916. William Turnbull


Andy Foster is a Wellington City Councillor


  1. Lindsay, 23. September 2013, 22:28

    It’s time to remind ourselves of the great plan to Save Cuba Street which was developed by the School of Architecture. I hope it hasn’t been forgotten.

  2. Ellie, 24. September 2013, 10:47

    Very interesting Andy. Save as many heritage buildings as possible especially wooden buildings that have more resilience in an earthquake.
    Unless of course it is Patterson Street, where N Z T A want to bowl a street of heritage houses, mainly wooden.
    Unless ‘N Z T A would be upset’ and frighten us with phone calls again.

  3. Elaine Hampton, 24. September 2013, 22:25

    There is no mention here of the Museum Stand at the Basin Reserve Cricket ground, this should be in the top 10 especially as the Basin is in the top 10 ‘ iconic’ cricket grounds in the world shortly to be acknowledged in an English calendar.
    I can’t imagine the Flyover becoming a heritage structure.

    Save the Basin Museum Stand Andy.

  4. Guy, 25. September 2013, 7:16

    Excellent work, and thank you Councilor Foster. That’s possibly the most useful list I’ve seen ever come out of Council, full of information, and actually, full of hope as well. I think we need to do the same and break down the larger groups, ie Cuba St – not just one entity, but they’re all individuals, and all have different issues, and different heritage qualities too. But this list is a good place to start.
    I would add one little addition – a personal favorite – the Chinese Mission Hall in Frederick St, packed full of history even if it is not a great work of architecture.

  5. Hel, 25. September 2013, 19:55

    Very thoughtful article. Sorry Elaine, I love cricket and the Basin. However the Museum Stand is not worth spending vast sums of money to strengthen and restore. The best outcome is for a pragmatic view to prevail and for the stand to be demolished. There are many more worthy buildings to preserve and there is only so much money.

  6. Lindsay, 27. September 2013, 8:08

    Time for action. A report today says the owners of the Public Trust Building are going to sell it because restoration and earthquake strengthening is a project they are not best suited to undertake. They “hope somebody else can take it on and do the right thing with it.” Who’s the somebody?

  7. Sarah Free, 27. September 2013, 21:53

    Here’s an idea…. Get cost estimates for strengthening each building. Work out our total earthquake strengthening budget. Then get each ratepayer to vote for the buildings they would strengthen with that budget.

    That would give a good indication of which buildings the public sets the most store by.

  8. laura, 28. September 2013, 12:40

    They can’t afford to contribute to strengthen them all. Do us owners a favour. Take the privately owned heritage buildings off the council heritage list and deal with only the public buildings for starters.