Design Review: Volume 4, Issue 2 (September-May 1951-52)
Are We Neglecting the Past? — The Preservation and Restoration of Old Buildings
Are We Neglecting the Past?
The Preservation and Restoration of Old Buildings
Readers of architectural magazines, as well as the casual tourist, might be forgiven for thinking that there are, in New Zealand, no buildings worth preserving. Compared with the architecture of Europe, that is true enough. But it is worth remembering that a building has three aspects—the historic and social, as well as the architectural. And, although we cannot lay many claims to fine architecture, we do know that to us, if to no one else, the historic and social aspects are important.
Many of our old buildings have been the scenes of events which form a significant part of our short history, or have housed or been built by notable personalities, or merely show us the manner in which our pioneers lived and worked. If they are architecturally presentable, so much the better. There are in most of our towns and scattered through the country, houses and churches, shops and halls that are worth keeping. One can recall houses and public buildings in Napier, Nelson, New Plymouth, Timaru, Queenstown, even in Palmerston North and Invercargill, which, in their quiet and modest way, evoke a sense of the past. They are, though most of us do not realise it, monuments. The hundreds who pass them daily take them for granted. Like other sights and monuments of a town they are significant, though seldom looked at twice.
What are we doing to preserve these buildings? The Internal Affairs Department and the Lands and Survey Department have certain limited and apparently conflicting powers, rarely evoked and tentatively used. There is no special fund to draw on, and preservation can be a costly business. We are, in fact, doing next to nothing. The only exceptions one can think of are the Waitangi Treaty House (a questionable piece of restoration), the Maori church at Otaki (which has had its elegant Gothic leadlights replaced with ‘functional’ lavatory glass), and Bishop Pompallier's house at the Bay of Islands. There is also a small cob cottage standing in downcast isolation on the Sumner road.
As most of our buildings are of wood, the rot begins to set in early. Any number of them have long ago decayed and collapsed, and finished up at the knackers. One wonders what is happening, even at this moment, to Lavaud's house at Akaroa, to the Kemp's house at Keri Keri, to Thurlby Domain at Queenstown. The steps of our predecessors are page 32 rapidly disappearing.
1, 2 and 4: Cob and wood houses in the Nelson district in various stages of repair.
But what shall we preserve? Who shall advise us? How shall we pay?
At the present time, the Director of the Dominion Museum, Dr. Falla, and others are trying to answer these questions. Dr. Falla has invited associations and persons to discuss the matter and prepare a report for presentation to the Government.
Some suggestions have already been made. One is that a central council to advise the Government should be set up. This would be directly linked with a series of regional committees comprising architects, historians, and departmental and local body representatives. Their first duties would be exploratory. Members of the regional committees would mark those buildings which should be preserved. The buildings could be bought and restored, or they could be photographed with their plans and details recorded, or models could be made, depending on their importance and state of repair. Money is another matter, and so is the legislation needed to enforce preservation. New Zealand is almost alone in having neither. Great Britain, France, Austria, Italy, the United States, Canada, even Tasmania, have arrangements which work, however creakingly, to preserve their most worthy buildings.
And having restored them, what then? The buildings must be occupied or used if they are not to fall prey to vandals or to become mere ghosts of the past. Pompallier House is occupied by a caretaker, and opened to the public, and there is a small return from a donation box and through the sale of postcards. But the high cost of restoration and subsequent upkeep cannot hope to be met out of revenue — even an admission charge would not cover the costs.
Operating an old house as a museum has great value, but it can be carried too far. Think of houses in England, where even the linen from Queen Victoria's bed is still in position between the very blankets that kept her warm. But it is not necessary that the old buildings we wish to preserve should be open to the public at all. A preservation order with statutory power could be issued on buildings to be preserved. This would prevent owners or occupiers from altering or changing the building in any way without prior approval. It would allow for compensation if the restrictions were found irksome. At the moment mere preservation is our aim.
5: Keri Keri, the oldest house in New Zealand, continuously occupied by the Kemp family.
6: A sitting-room in the Keri Keri house. The Georgian furniture is contemporary with the house.