New Zealand Buildings
It's a senario being played out across New Zealand, beautiful heritage buildings are falling foul of stricter earthquake strengthening legislation and building codes, leaving their owners with difficult decisions to make. In the main centres, strengthening and refurbishment can be cost effective, but if you are out in the regions and don’t have the foot traffic of a Queen Street or Lambton Quay to rely on to boost business, then the numbers just don’t stack up.
The result is that many heritage buildings are being torn down, often to make way for generic, big box stores. And with the demolition of these buildings we lose our history and the ambience of our central business districts is often changed forever as art deco façade fade into the past and noble old stone structures are replaced with concrete.
In Whanganui however, plans are afoot to stem this tide. And with good reason: the town has one of the highest concentrations of European heritage buildings in the country, dating from 1860 to 1960, and they are an integral part of the town centre. Added to this are a number of significant Māori sites, including St Pauls Memorial Church Putiki and others along Whanganui River Road, so this is a district steeped in history, history that the locals are keen to keep alive and well and as a functioning part of the town.
And that is exactly what the Whanganui District Council and the independent Whanganui Regional Heritage Trust have made a priority. And as local councillor Helen Craig – who is also a member of the Trust – says, the time to act is now.
“New Zealanders are starting to appreciate they have a architectural heritage worth saving, and with the availability of funding support for private owners through the MBIE supported Heritage EQUIP Fund, and the extreme age of our buildings, the time to put a 100% effort into saving our buildings is now. We can’t wait any longer or New Zealand and Whanganui will lose the reminders of our past, as well as massive potential to attract tourists and residents to our provincial towns.”
The Trust is holding the inaugural Whanganui Heritage Month to hero heritage buildings in August and September, and they are also rolling out “Blue Plaques” signage and Heritage Awards in 2020 to recognise those who make the special effort to save the town’s heritage. The Blue Plaques are affixed to buildings with a brief history, similar to those in London, to raise their profile and tell the stories of the past. The council has also established a Façade Enhancement Fund that has seen a number of privately owned heritage buildings have their facades repainted, and as council’s Principal Planner Hamish Lampp says, it’s a process that does more than just brighten up the CBD. “This should lead to a raised awareness of the number and quality of heritage buildings in the CBD,” he says. “A number of façade have been altered over the years and can now be returned to their former glory.”
Another initiative from the town’s regeneration strategy was the Whanganui Walls Street Art Festival, which saw eight murals created in four days in the town centre by internationally recognised artists. One shows Edith Collier – a renowned Whanganui painter, at her easel – and it’s an arresting image, dominating a prominent wall in the old town center and nicely blending the past with the present.
A Heritage Strategy and support for a private trust to undertake restoration projects is also under serious discussion, but clearly the biggest issue to be addressed is earthquake strengthening. This is a costly and timeconsuming process, but so far council has successfully strengthened the Royal Wanganui Opera House, the Whanganui Regional Museum, the Alexander Heritage and Research Library and the Whanganui War Memorial Centre. Funding has been set aside - and significant fundraising efforts are underway - for the strengthening and redevelopment of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui, which is to start later this year. And taking it to the next level, council has also lobbied central government on policy changes, including the reinstatement of a depreciation allowance on any strengthening work undertaken.
“This is a challenging time,” says Helen, “but also an exciting time for our district and New Zealand – we can save the reminders of our colonial and Māori past, or let them go without a murmur. The latter wont be happening in Whanganui – we’re making a 100% effort, and we’re on this 24/7.”