Story: Historic places

In a young country, it took Pākehā a while to realise that New Zealand had historic places that were worth protecting. Later, people came to realise the importance of preserving history and some campaigned to save threatened buildings.

Story by Ben Schrader
Main image: New Zealand's oldest European stone and wooden buildings: the Stone Store and Kerikeri mission house

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Māori ideas of historic places

Māori consider places wāhi taonga or wāhi tapu (of special or sacred value) if they are connected with whakapapa (genealogy). These include burial grounds and landscape formations.

Pākehā ideas of historic places

At first European settlers didn’t think there were any historic places in New Zealand, except possibly Māori sites. Replacing old buildings with new ones was generally seen as a sign of progress. Opinions began to change in the 1890s, as towns celebrated their 50th anniversaries. Some people wanted to save buildings that were connected to New Zealand’s early colonial history.

Beginnings of preservation, 1900s to 1920s

In the early 1900s scenery preservation societies worked to save the natural environment from development, and some were also concerned with historic buildings. The New Plymouth society saved a former hospital (built in 1848), and moved it to Brooklands, next to Pukekura Park.

Some historic buildings were restored, such as Rangiātea Church at Ōtaki, which had become rotten. Government House in Auckland was going to be demolished, but opponents managed to save it. Other buildings saved included the Upper Hutt blockhouse and Acacia Cottage in Auckland.

Some Māori taonga such as meeting houses were placed in museums for safe keeping.

Reinventing historic buildings, 1930s to 1970s

After the Hawke’s Bay earthquake in 1931 the government introduced stronger regulations for buildings, and some historic buildings had ornamentation such as towers removed.

The Historic Places Trust was founded by the government in 1955 to record and preserve historic buildings and sites. It bought many historic buildings and was given others. The trust gave grants to owners of historic buildings and maintained a register of historic buildings.

In the 1960s and 1970s some important heritage buildings and sites were destroyed. This led some people to try and save others. Some historic buildings were used in heritage theme parks, such as Shantytown on the West Coast, which give an impression of colonial life. Other historic buildings have been reused as cafes and shops, or as arts centres.

Destruction and renewal, 1980s to 2000s

Many old buildings in Auckland and Wellington were destroyed as new office buildings were built. There were more protests against demolishing important historic buildings – some were successful and others were not. Sometimes buildings were moved to save them.

Some towns used their historic streets to encourage tourism, for example Napier with its art deco architecture and Ōamaru with its Victorian stone buildings.

Recent developments, 2010s onwards

In the 2010s the Historic Places Trust was restructured and in 2014 it was renamed Heritage New Zealand. The register was renamed the list.

The Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 led some to change their attitudes about historic buildings. Some buildings had collapsed and killed people, and most others were deemed unsafe. It became harder to argue for saving them, and sometimes it was too expensive to repair and strengthen them.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Historic places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 22 October 2014, updated 19 August 2016