Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 1, Issue 6, March 1964
Preservation of Historical Buildings
Preservation of Historical Buildings
Apart from honouring our forebears we should study the past to better understand the present. The past provides us with a background of events, of achievements, of failures, of human relations, of social habits and culture of our own kith and kin that enables us to evaluate current events. It is unthinkable that we should ignore the record of the past.
Let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that we should repeat what has been done in the past, that we should accept standards set in the past, least of all design buildings like those of the past; heaven forbid! but, having studied what has gone before, understand more clearly where we now stand and in which direction we want to go. page 10The significance of current events can be measured against the background perspective of the past.
Buildings form an integral part of our history. They are tangible evidence not only of the technical resources and craftmanship of a particular period, but also of social habits and of culture. Buildings can be read as well as textbooks by those trained to do so. They can record the courage, the high aspirations, the determination of a people; they can record the sloth, the degradation of others.
They can record the economic slumps, and the prosperous times. They can record spiritual faith and mercenary characteristics. They can be read like an open book. Recording and/or preservation of buildings is essential to the historical record. The question then arises, what should we preserve? It is obvious that not all buildings are worthy. And this is followed by the question, how should we preserve those selected?
This evening you have seen how our friends in the United States have handled these questions, how, with unlimited resources they have preserved and replaced a wonderful collection of buildings representing the whole township of Williamsburgh. They have undertaken this work primarily as an educational exercise. They have thought of the restoration of a township rather than the preservation of old buildings.
There is a somewhat similar example, that of the Cryslers Farm (Battlefield Memorial Park) in Canada, initiated by the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
In England there has been considerable activity on the part of the Government, acting through the Ministry of Works, and on the part of private organisations such as the National Trust. Policies and procedures there are well established.
Under the Ancient Monuments Acts the Ministry of Works is called upon to advise on method of preservation, to accept guardianship of monuments and to maintain them at the public cost. Grants of money may also be made to owners of buildings to assist in repair work.
A comprehensive list of ancient monuments is maintained and buildings listed thereon cannot be demolished or altered without official consent.
In New Zealand, the central Government, local authorities and private organisations share the responsibilities of preservation. The National Historic Places Trust, officially charged with the task of recording and preserving historic buildings, has set about compiling a list of all buildings considered to be of architectural or historic significance. The result to date has been very disappointing; very few Regional Committees have supplied the basic information to the Trust as requested.
This work was, and still is, of primary importance. Until a national assessment can be made of the whole position it is very difficult for the Trust to relate the merits of any particular building, either to the conflicting claims of other historic buildings elsewhere, or to other historic features such as pah sites or geological points of historic significance.
New Zealand local authorities are raking an interest in the preservation of historic sites and buildings. Under the Regulations of the Town and Country Planning Act local authorities are charged with the responsibility of registering historical buildings and marking their location on their District Planning Schemes for all to see. Some authorities are prepared to make funds available, particularly where the land is vested in the authority. In some cases they provide materials and labour for restoration purposes. Unfortunately, there are cases on record where preservation is restricting local engineering projects with the inevitable conflict.
I think it can be said that as each year goes by the local authorities can be relied upon for greater support. I trust that will be so in Nelson. Private organisations are also active throughout the country. And there is much to be said in favour of this, especially where the buildings are only of local importance. A local organisation with enthusiasm for preser-page 11vation will probably have enough interest to follow up with maintenance and caretaking.
By far the greatest work in preservation is, of course, being carried out by the churches. Then come special Trusts, such as that in charge of Waitangi, Historical Societies, and finally private individuals.
Provisional lists from Regional Committees would be acceptable. They are likely to be changed as the years go by anyway. The task of collecting and collating the initial data is not easy, admittedly; there is much to be done in the searching of old plans and records. Reaching agreement on the list may be more difficult.
It is here that the assistance of the Historical Societies can be so valuable.
More precisely such a list should include the following: The name of the building, its location, the date of its erection, the name of the designer and the present ownership, together with notes as to the present structural condition. If the building has already been registered as an historical building on the local District Town Planning Scheme this too should be recorded.
From a comprehensive schedule the Trust could distinguish between those of national and those of local importance. It could determine priorities and thus act with greater confidence.
Now let us consider which buildings are worthy of preservation. I would classify them in the following manner:
|(1)||Because they were directly associated with some significant historical occasion, for example, the Treaty House at Waitangi; alternatively with some historical figure such as Bishop Pompellier.|
|(2)||Because of their intrinsic aesthetic merit. Here it may be difficult for us to reach agreement as the yardstick of merit is little understood. Let us remember that the merit of pioneer architecture should not be directly compared with the sophisticated urban architecture of today, and further, judgement must be made against a background of local historical knowledge, remembering the materials available and the skill of the labour at hand. As an example let me quote Prov. Council, Christchurch. This is where the experienced architect can make his contribution.|
|(3)||Because their preservation would be of educational value. Because they would demonstrate the way of life, the social habits and the culture of a particular period. Let us analyse our true feelings in relation to every example in this category; let us beware of sentimentality for 'Ye Olde Cottage'. Blockhouses of the Maori Wars may qualify.|
|(4)||Because they are unique; not that this of itself is significant. For example, the last windmill, Partington's in Auckland.|
These last, you will understand, are the least worthy of preservation.
In every case, of course, historical authenticity is essential. Having described the types of buildings worthy of our attention, I would like to outline the ways in which we could proceed. It will be clear to all that full restoration or replacement is not justified for all examples; in fact it woud be quite impracticable in many cases.
For convenience, I should like to identify four procedures:
(a)—Recording; (b)—Retention; (c)—Restoration; (d)—Replacement.
Taking these in order:
(a)—Recording: It is inevitable that some old buildings must surrender their sites for new buildings that can develop a much higher return for their owners or because the old building no longer fulfills its function. There are many, too, so weakened structurally that restoration or replacement is out of the question. For many of these complete documentation is the right answer. This means a full survey, measurements taken and a set of drawings prepared to record the design. These should be accompanied by photos and notes describing the materials, the finishes and any other pertinent details. This sort of work is already in hand in many districts, architectural students giving considerable assistance.
On completion copies should be lodged with the N.H.P.T. This is the least expensive procedure.page 12
(b) Retention. In many instances there is no question of demolition and preservation is possible—preservation in its present form. This means annual expenditure on maintenance and, lest we forget, annual expenditure on caretaking.
Fire protection and fire precautions are important aspects of building maintenance. All this calls for money. Fund raising must be carefully planned over a long period of years; if it fails all previous sums expended are lost.
From whence will the money come? This depends on the enthusiasm of the local community in the first place. It may value an old building like an old acquaintance and produce its own funds. If its preservation is considered of national importance no doubt a grant will be sought from the local authority or central government.
(c) Restoration. Retention becomes restoration when an attempt is made to make the building appear as it did originally, or in its heyday and this may well entail extensive changes at considerable expense. However, the importance of the building, historically, may justify this.
The N.H.P.T. has adopted this procedure for the Vicarage at Te Waimate. The roof will be changed back to its originally dipped form with dormers and with wooden shingles. Unsightly 20th century watertanks will be removed.
The question will arise, how far should we take restoration, and I can only answer that every project must [unclear: be] considered on its merits. Here there is ample room for disagreement. The bigger the sub-committee to consider it the more complex it will become.
Then we should inspect the building from foundations to chimney top. May I run through some of the technical matters that we should consider—it is highly desirable that the historian take an interest in these technical matters too, if he is to help frame a programme of preservation.
By the way, there is need, in very many instances, for two programmes; the first a short term one to stop further deterioration and the second a long term one including any major repairs, restoration and furnishing etc. Both will be dependent upon the physical needs of the building and limited by the pocket of the owner.
May I suggest that this problem of determining the degree of restoration be left in the hands of two people. First, an historian who can undertake research into old records and can evaluate its historical importance; and the second an architect who can assess the merit of the architectural features, can determine how much repair must be done to the structural frame of the building and assess the cost of same. Sympathetic collaboration between these two should produce a sound scheme.
(d) Replacement. This term is self-evident. Some exceptional case may occur where complete replacement is defensible. It is unlikely in New Zealand. A case may be put forward based upon educational value but it could result in an absurdity: Onehunga Military Cottages.
If we are considering a case of replacement we should set ourselves the question, should we replace an old building with something that looks like the original when new or retain a genuine old building despite its delapidated appearance.
Thinking of the sub-committee of two, it would be most impertinent of me to tell you in greater detail of the historians contribution but you may be interested to hear in greater detail of the architects contribution. First of all he must learn from the historian the full history of the building, as a building, and then the history of events and people associated with it.
Who was the original owner? Who designed it and who built it? What functions has it served? Has it been altered or extended? Has it been associated with any historical event or personage? Is it unique in design or construction? He should know its whole history. He must also know something of the local architecture of the period to which it belongs.
To be continued.