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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 8. 19th April 1973

U.S. Fortress for Thorndon

U.S. Fortress for Thorndon

The Americans are going ahead with their plans to knock clown Thorndon houses to build a new embassy. Despite protests from the Tenants Protection Association and other bodies the Yanks will make no concession to the housing shortage and only a kitsch concession to the history of the area. They intend to set aside a room in the new embassy as a memorial to Katherine Mansfield, who used to live in one of the houses they are knocking down.

Last week Hilary Watson and I went to the present U.S. Embassy in the IBM Building as a delegation from the Tenants Protection Association.

At the Embassy, we saw Mr Romano who is the Administrative officer. The Embassy has been lacking an Ambassador for some months and there is no sign that one is on the way from Washington in the near future. Mr Romano is very embarrassed by this situation. It means that there is no one in New Zealand able to make a decision on things like the simplest TPA demand: that the house be used to house people until it is actually pulled down. The house, which is actually a sprawling mansion with an uncountably large number of rooms, is currently lying idle with only a couple of rooms used for storage. As well as there being no one in New Zealand capable of deciding to open the door and let the homeless people in, Mr Romano didn't know if anyone in the Stale Department in Washington would be able to make such a decision.

It may be comforting to learn that the greatest military/capitalist machine in the world is but a faceless, incompetent, bureaucracy but it would be premature to conclude that the State Department in Washington has forgotten that New Zealand exists. They are keen, or at least the Embassy staff hopes so, to build a new Embassy here. In Mr Romano's account they are keen to show their goodwill and businesslike intentions towards New Zealand. The way they do this is to knock down houses and erect a monument to imperialism like a gravestone.

Actually, it's more in the shape of a fortress. We were graciously allowed to look over the plans. I could not help feeling that I had seen pictures of a similar building — could it have been Fort Knox? The plans show an awesome combination of acres of slab concrete, barely relieved by tiny windows. Mr Romano told me he was unhappy that the Embassy had to be built in such a rundown area as Thorndon. He was disconcerted when I said that I thought Thorndon to be quite an attractive area, with its quaint old houses, and the lovely Katherine Mansfield Park opposite to which the Yanks plan to build their embassy. This discussion was getting a bit aesthetic, but the planned concrete monstrosity is undoubtedly going to be an eyesore and the rest of Thorndon a picture in comparison.

It was at that point that the political realities of the Embassy's plans began to unfold. The idea of small windows is, and I kid you not, to present as small a target as possible to throwers of rocks and explosives. "The planned Embassy is less than a stone's throw from a number of points including an obvious getaway trail, Murphy St. Mr Romano candidly admitted that the architecture of the Embassy had been influenced by the possibilities of missiles. Hinting at the plans in the minds and armouries of the new-look demonstrator, I suggested that according to his logic he might as well go all the way and build a fortress in the Rimutaka hills. He didn't seem keen to go along with this. The reasons for the Embassy's shift from the IBM building also emerged: IBM are kicking the Embassy out. They say it's because they need the space and after all it's their building. But when we asked why the Embassy insists on having its own 2 storey building and not sharing in a multistorey building which would be far more efficient usage of land, the real reason came to light. The yanks, can't share with anyone else because they're so embarrassed when they have to ask everybody in the building to whenever there's a bomb Scare. "Whenever anybody happens to disagree with one of our policies", the Ambassador disarmingly explained.

The situation was getting so candid, I was moved to ask the man whether he would mind being quoted, "Well", he simpered, "if you want to make us Americans look like foots, I guess it isn't too difficult. It's been done before. I suppose I can't stop you doing it again".

Drawing of a man with a buzz cut

..."If you wanna make us Americans look silly I guess it Aint hard."

The Administrative Officer's general line about the house was very diplomatic. "I sympathise with your position, I really do, I just wish I could help". But he couldn't. Only that morning he had been ringing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which administrates embassies), complaining that his embassy was embarrassed to be put in a position between the TPA and the government. But just as he wasn't able to help us, they hadn't been able to help him. Only the day before Norm Kirk had replied, to a TPA telegram requesting a government enquiry into the situation, that TPA direct its demands to the embassy.

Mr Romano spent most of the sessions with his brow knit, bemoaning the Americans unpopularity, but he only succeeded in making it all too easy to despise them more. He couldn't even consider our other requests. No. the location for the new embassy couldn't be changed — after all, the plans had been drawn for the Thorndon site, and soil sample had been taken! And while a was true that the new embassy was displacing not only vacant houses but also a block of flats currently housing embassy guards they would just rent other houses for their sprawling staff of sixty or seventy. Build stall quarters rather than compete with kiwis for their flats? No, they didn't want to do anything as constructive as that. The embassy building came first, the kiwis could always go and live in Featherston.

When he wasn't revealing his discomfort, the administrative officer seemed to regard us as the ultimate test of his diplomatic skills. After a few minutes of our talk, patently prearranged telephone call came through — "No", said Romano, muffling his voice, "everything okay in here, no trouble at all".

Actually it was nice to have him to usher us in and out — otherwise we could well have tripped on the plaster eagles and star spangled banners that perched on the walls and drooped in every corner of the embassy. At the end of the interview, Mr Romano offered to conduct us around the building, to show us the sue of his operation. On the eleventh floor, he glided us through the combination locks on passage doors and into the sanctuary where the Ambassador hangs out, when they've got one. The room was empty but for one gigantic desk, the luxurious carpet, and the "breath-taking" views over the city. We were being told of the embassy's size and why they would need more space but it was hard not to think of how many people could make their home on the thick white pile of the Ambassador's carpet. Then we were being ushered out, past the faithful Andrew Wyeth (Nixon's favourite painter) reproductions, past more flags and eagle crests, and past the coded door locks. Whisking down the lifts and onto the street, and still suavely by our side the glib Romano, by now no more than a refrain, "I'm sorry, we'd like to help, but . . ."