Story: Historic places

Page 4. Destruction and renewal, 1980s to 2000s

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Rebuilding in Auckland and Wellington

The 1970s and 1980s saw the rebuilding of large areas of Auckland and Wellington’s central business districts. The main reasons for redevelopments were:

  • the growth of tertiary industries, such as finance and business services, increased demand for office space
  • rising property values intensified redevelopment pressure
  • the mid-1980s deregulation of financial markets made new office buildings an attractive investment
  • in Wellington, a council ordinance demanded property owners strengthen or demolish earthquake-prone buildings.

Ornate two- and three-storey Victorian and Edwardian shops, factories and offices were demolished and replaced with austere modernist skyscrapers. The legal weight given to private property rights meant opponents were largely powerless to halt the process.

Increasing activism

But this was not always the case. In 1986 the planned demolition of Wellington’s Mission to Seamen building led to one of the largest campaigns to save a historic building in New Zealand’s history. Fearing its imminent destruction, protestors linked hands and encircled the building, preventing demolition workers from moving in. In Auckland, an equally strident campaign to save the ornate His Majesty’s Theatre (1902) failed and it fell to the wreckers’ ball in early 1988. Both campaigns were instrumental in raising public awareness of the need to stop the indiscriminate demolition of historic buildings. Ironically, the fallout from the 1987 stock market crash delivered this result when investment finance dried up.

Wellington Town Hall

When the Michael Fowler Centre was built in the early 1980s the plan had been to demolish Wellington’s old town hall right next door. This prospect appalled many. The acoustics of the old auditorium were world-class and the structure had huge historical significance; demolishing it would amount to cultural vandalism. The council eventually backed down and the old town hall was saved and refurbished in 1991.

Cultural tourism

Redevelopment pressures had been weaker in the provinces, meaning places such as Napier and Ōamaru retained whole streetscapes from a particular period. Entrepreneurs saw opportunities to attract cultural tourists. After the 1931 earthquake central Napier had been rebuilt in art deco and Spanish mission architectural styles, but by the 1970s these were viewed as dated and unfashionable. In 1985 the Art Deco Trust was created to turn this perception around. Property owners were encouraged to restore and repaint their buildings in heritage colours while the trust organised art-deco-themed cultural events that attracted thousands. Within a few years cultural tourism had revitalised Napier.

The survival of so many of Ōamaru’s colonial buildings had long symbolised the town’s decline. But in 1987 the Whitestone Civic Trust was formed to buy, restore and lease some of them. Many tenants developed enterprises that emphasised Ōamaru’s Victorian heritage. The town also organised cultural events, such as the annual Heritage Week and, more recently, the Steampunk NZ Festival, drawing visitors and re-energising the town.

Department of Conservation estate

The creation of the Department of Conservation in 1987 saw the heritage estate of the old Lands and Survey Department placed under the stewardship of this new body. These historic places were mainly located in rural areas and included sites, old industrial, defence and mining sites, lighthouses, bridges and huts. Its most prominent urban site was Old Government Buildings (1876) in Wellington, leased to Victoria University of Wellington’s law school.

Bypass compromise

Wellington’s historic upper Cuba Street had been in the path of a proposed motorway since the 1960s. When the government moved to build the road in the 1980s there was widespread public protest about how it would destroy the area’s heritage values. Following a lengthy legal battle a compromise was reached in the late 1990s. A smaller road was built and heritage buildings along its route were removed to other sites.

Legislative changes

The new Historic Places Act 1993 stressed the importance of cultural landscapes and historic districts, as against individual sites and buildings, which had been the emphasis until then. Greater attention was also given to 20th-century historic places and there was increased support for the preservation and restoration of marae and Māori wāhi tapu sites. Equally important was the passing of the Resource Management Act 1991, which accorded some protection to historic buildings and sites through territorial authority district plans.

Urban archaeology

Until the 1980s archaeological investigation had been concentrated on rural pā and other Māori habitations. Since then urban sites have also attracted attention. Among the most dramatic finds was the 1997 discovery, during renovations to Wellington’s old BNZ Bank, of hull timbers from the Inconstant (also known as Plimmer’s Ark). The ship had been beached in 1849 by businessman John Plimmer and used as a bond store before being buried. Some of the remains are presented in situ in the Old Bank Arcade; most of the hull was relocated to a warehouse for preservation. In 2003 Auckland archaeologists uncovered timber piles from the original Queen Street jetty (1846) under Queen Elizabeth Square. The destruction caused by the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes also provided rich pickings for archaeologists, including the discovery of a Māori midden (ancient rubbish site) in Lyttelton.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Historic places - Destruction and renewal, 1980s to 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 22 Oct 2014, updated 19 Aug 2016