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Design Review: Volume 5, Issue 5 (April 1954)

A plea for the preservation of — St. Paul's, Wellington

page 105

A plea for the preservation of
St. Paul's, Wellington

“Dominion” Photograph.

“Dominion” Photograph.

Her Majesty's laying of the foundation stone of the new Cathedral would seem to have sealed the fate of Wellington's loveliest church. Its historic association and architectural merit are recognised to the extent that it is proposed to remove and re-site the eastern portion of the church for use as a Lady Chapel within the new Cathedral. This article is a plea for the preservation of the church as it stands, for it is worthy of preservation, historically, architecturally, and for its usefulness.
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It Has Historical Importance

The first church of St. Paul's, Wellington, was built in the middle forties and stood on what is now the south-west corner of Parliament Grounds. When the land was acquired for Government House the building was removed to Bolton Street cemetery where it still stands. The following story is told of how the present site was acquired: “Sir George Grey, Bishop Selwyn, and the Hon. A. G. Tollemache were travelling along the East Coast near Ahuriri. In the course of the day they had been talking to the natives about the duty of reserving certain of their lands as educational grants for the benefit of their children and posterity. In the middle of the night they were woken up in their tent by a deputation of three natives calling to Sir George Grey, and asking him whether he himself acted upon the plan he recommended to them and whether he gave tithes or any portion of his worldly goods to the Church of God. The Governor was bound to admit that he had not done so in the past, but undertook to do better in the future. The result was he bought a piece of land in Wellington which he gave as a site for a church. Bishop Selwyn added an adjoining section and the Hon. A. G. Tollemache yet another. Thus the diocese acquired what it had long sought for in vain—a central site for its cathedral church, diocesan offices and a Bishop's residence.”*

The foundation stone of the church was laid by Sir George Grey on 21st August, 1865, and the church was consecrated by Bishop Alveham on 6th June, 1866. The architect was himself the curate of St. Paul's, the Rev. Frederic Thatcher. He is also named as the architect of St. Matthew's, Auckland, St. Mary's, New Plymouth, and St. Paul's, Nelson. Born about 1820, trained as an architect, ordained in 1848, he was incumbent of St. Paul's from 1861 to 1864. The Cyclopaedia of New Zealand, Volume 1, published in 1897, states that “the design of St. Paul's Church came from London, having been prepared by the celebrated architect, the elder Pugin.” At all events, Thatcher altered the original design because of the wind and the church is six feet lower than had been intended. It was necessary to make additions at an early date. The South Transept was added in 1869 and the North Transept and aisle in 1873. The contract price for the building was £3,471, but additions made the actual cost £4,300. This did not include any of the furniture or ornaments. These were all gifts to the Church.

A contemporary wrote to Frederick Thatcher in a report on the Third Synod of the Diocese of Wellington: “The Report from St. Paul's Parish, Thorndon, is in all respects but one satisfactory. I need hardly say that the one exception is the resignation of the cure by the Rev. F. Thatcher, the state of whose health has obliged him to retire from a duty which he has fulfilled to the great satisfaction, not only of the Parish, but of the community and Diocese. I will not trust myself to say how strongly I have felt the blessing of his presence amongst us and with what deep regret I look forward to the prospect of his departure. He will, however, leave a record of himself in many hearts, and, I trust, visibly in the Parish Church, the building of which he has so steadily set himself to accomplish, and the plans for which he has drawn and most carefully worked out. When he leaves us he will carry with him the honour and respect of all who know him, and the grateful remembrance of his parishioners.”

Subsequently the building has been enriched by gifts of stained glass, furniture and fittings, some of which are memorials to our historical figures. It is surprising that none of the enrichments are out of character. The chancel windows are the gift of Bishop Alveham and the west window was erected by fellow officers in memory of those who fell during the Maori wars. The pulpit is a memorial to Richard Seddon presented by his family. The carved bench ends of the Vicar's prayer desk come from Wells Cathedral and are about 300 years old.

Since the early days of Wellington, our Governors, Premiers and Statesmen have worshipped in this church as have many of the founders of this city. Belonging to a distinctive period of colonial architecture of which it is one of the best survivals, St. Paul's has now considerable importance as a monument. In Britain, which is rich in historic and beautiful buildings, the National Trust steps in to save lesser buildings than this from destruction. Good Georgian houses and even Victorian pubs are considered worth the saving if they have architectural merit or sufficient historic association. There is no doubt that this building is historically worth preservation.

page 107

It Has Architectural Merit

It is also a building of considerable architectural merit. Its design is so absolutely right for its purpose that it has not ceased to satisfy contemporary taste for eighty-seven years. Externally, it is by no means perfect, its spire is squat and ill proportioned, but in the main it is a straightforward expression of its use and structure. Internally it is a delight. Each generation of parishioners has loved St. Paul's—that mellowed interior in which posts and rafters, studs and braces make a harmonious composition in timber, enriched by stained glass and brass plaques. It is an intimate church in which each object—altar, lectern, pulpit, font and organ is most appropriate to its setting. It is architecturally worth preservation.

It fulfils a real need today

St. Paul's still fulfils its role. There is a peace here which only old churches have acquired. It is not so large as to seem desolate with an average Sunday congregation. It is not too small to accommodate its parishioners at the festivals of Christmas and Easter. It is, however, too small to accommodate all who would wish to attend during the Queen's visit or on those occasions when Officers of State and the Armed Services fill the church. Westminster Abbey is not large enough either.

Visually, a service in St. Paul's has decorum and aesthetic appeal. Acoustically, the church is as good as could be for the spoken word; the music is sweet and in character with the church, without the lofty echoes of stone vaults.

Preserve St. Paul's Intact

Although it is a timber building in need of repair, St. Paul's appears capable of preservation. Timber need not be temporary. It does not disappear but it is subject to attack and has to be maintained. It is the oldest building material in the world and together with stone and brick, if properly maintained, it grows old with dignity. In many countries the most notable historic architecture is of timber. There are the twelfth century Stave churches of Norway, the hammerbeam roofs of England, and the historic shrines and temples of Japan.

It need hardly be said that the church's historic association and visual delight will be damaged by its dismemberment and the retention of the eastern portion only as a Lady Chapel. The vistas, the contrast of light and shade, and the harmony, will all be lost. It is proposed to encase, the Lady Chapel within new walls so that it will remain no longer a direct expression of what it is.

It can not be convenient nor economical to use and maintain two churches within the parish and this plea to preserve St. Paul's intact would not have force if our heritage in St. Paul's were not a real one. This building, like all classics, has not dated, and many of us believe that by its replacement our loss will be greater than our gain.

The proposed trust for the preservation of historic places may yet be able to help save this building. It has been proposed that the trust will be able to enter into agreement with corporations and societies for the maintenance of properties of historic interest owned by them. But St. Paul's must not be preserved as a dead thing. It should remain a church, useful and alive.

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* The English Church in New Zealand by T. Purchas, publ. 1914.