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Historic places

by Ben Schrader

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.

Colonial ideas and practice

Māori ideas

In Māori society historic places are linked to whakapapa (genealogy), and are described as wāhi taonga and wāhi tapu (places of special and sacred value). Examples are landscape formations or burial grounds. Buildings such as wharenui (meeting houses) were also wāhi taonga and wāhi tapu because whakapapa was embedded in their physical fabric through carvings and panels, and symbolically through their structure. Because pre-colonial Māori buildings were constructed of non-permanent materials, they tended to rot or be replaced. Accordingly, knowledge of such places has been derived from kōrero (oral history) and archaeological research.

Pākehā ideas

For European settlers historic places were associated with the likes of castles and cathedrals, and existed in the ‘old world’ (Europe) rather than the ‘new world’. While some acknowledged the importance of Māori historic places such as sites, few considered New Zealand old enough to have Pākehā equivalents. The capitalist idea of creative destruction (where buildings are demolished and replaced with more profitable structures) and the Victorian belief in material progress (which championed creative destruction because it showed progress was occurring) also hindered the retention of historic places. Those that did survive usually did so only because redevelopment pressures were weak, as in regions such as Northland. As the first area to be settled permanently by Pākehā, it included New Zealand’s oldest wooden and stone buildings: the Kerikeri mission house (1822) and the Stone Store (1836).

Progress before preservation

Buildings in fast-growing cities were more susceptible to demolition. Reasons included:

  • the land was needed for another use
  • rising property values warranted the erection of a new building
  • the building fabric had deteriorated and become unsafe
  • fire had damaged the structure.

On these occasions a newspaper might detail the history of the condemned structure but little thought was given to keeping it. In 1885 Auckland’s Anglican St Paul’s Church was demolished because it stood in the way of plans to excavate Britomart Point. The masonry and timber building had been built in the early 1840s and its position above the town had made it an immediate landmark. Its foundation stone was laid in 1841 by Governor William Hobson and it was consecrated by Bishop G. A. Selwyn in 1844. The governor, his officials and the military all worshipped here. It was arguably the city’s foremost historic building, but no attempt was made to save it because it was perceived to have no value.

Loss through neglect

Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) near Tauranga included a series of underground trenches, which Ngaī Te Rangi and Ngāti Ranginui forces used to ward off a British attack during the New Zealand wars in 1864. It has been argued such pā were the genesis of trench warfare and a scale model of Gate Pā was exhibited in London as an example of a famous fortification. But its importance was unrecognised by locals and the site was successively filled in to protect grazing cattle.

Shifting sentiment

By the late 1890s there was a growing public awareness of the significance of historic places and the need to preserve some of them. This was in part due to Pākehā historical consciousness being awakened by 50th anniversary celebrations of New Zealand’s first towns, but also because there was growing recognition there were ever-fewer buildings left that dated from the first period of colonial settlement.

The shift in sentiment was highlighted in 1898 when the gatehouse of Auckland’s Government House was razed so a more ornamental structure could be built. The gatehouse was a former blockhouse and had been erected to shelter townspeople in case the 1840s northern wars spread to Auckland. A local newspaper attacked the demolition because the gatehouse ‘spoke of a time when the city of Auckland was in danger of being attacked by the Natives … [requiring] a place of retreat which could be easily defended in the last resort.’ Another critic was blunter: ‘What disgusting vandalism to efface this relic of bygone days.’1 However, although some might have lamented its demolition, most would have seen it as the price of progress.

    • New Zealand Herald, 2 June 1898, p. 5. Back

Historical awakenings, 1900s to 1920s

Preserving scenery

A growing public appreciation of New Zealand’s historic places was evident in the Scenery Preservation Act 1903 (and its later amendments). It emphasised the protection of natural over built heritage, but some historic reserves included and battle-site remains. These were placed under the control of the Lands and Survey Department.

Urban-based scenery preservation societies were also influential. The New Plymouth society broke new ground in 1903 when it called for the preservation of a building: the town’s picturesque and historic former hospital at Te Hēnui. Opened in 1848, it was one of four hospitals commissioned by Governor George Grey for poor Pākehā and Māori patients. Among those supporting its retention was Mary King (wife of businessman Newton King), who purchased it for £10 ($2,000 in 2022 values) and moved it to Brooklands, next to Pukekura Park. It was probably the first Pākehā building to be specifically kept for historical reasons.

A gruesome end

Reports that Carl Völkner’s body had been mutilated after his hanging caused a ‘thrill of horror’1 in Pākehā society. The detail that the Pai Mārire leader Kereopa Te Rau had swallowed the missionary’s eyes, describing one as Parliament and the other as the queen and English law, enhanced his mana among Māori but appalled settlers. Völkner’s remains were buried in the church cemetery and the church was later dedicated to St Stephen the Martyr.

Early restorations

During the 1910s some communities restored historic buildings that had fallen into disrepair. In 1910 the rotten timbers in Ōtaki’s Rangiātea Church (opened in 1851) were replaced, its pillars and roof strengthened, and it was given a concrete foundation. Ōpōtiki’s St Stephen’s church, built in the early 1860s by the missionary Carl Völkner, was also restored. Völkner became a Pākehā martyr following his 1865 execution for being a government spy by members of the Māori prophetic movement Pai Mārire. The event increased the church’s historical significance. Examples like these showed how restoration was a viable alternative to demolition.

Saving Government House

The idea that old buildings should give way to the new was challenged in 1910 when the government minister George Fowlds proposed demolishing Auckland’s Government House (1854) for a new university. Fowlds claimed the structure was in ‘a hopeless state of disrepair’, but his opponents showed this was untrue. They presented a 16,000-strong petition to Parliament against the proposal. The local member of Parliament, A. E. Glover, stated the petition showed it was ‘ridiculous to say the people of Auckland were not genuine in their desire to prevent the Government filching away what they had a right to regard as a heritage.’2 The debate simmered until 1916 when, following a fire in the building, the government decided to restore it and offer the university part of its grounds.

Historic sites

The preservation of historic sites also gained more prominence. In 1896 the government made Ship Cove in the Marlborough Sounds, where James Cook had refitted his ships and rested his crews during his late-18th-century explorations of New Zealand, a reserve. A commemorative monument to Cook was unveiled on the site in 1913.

In 1916 a debate erupted over the future of the Māori rock art sites in South Canterbury and North Otago. One idea was to remove them and place them in museums, but this was resisted by Canterbury Museum director Robert Speight, who successfully argued to preserve them in situ.

Preservation picks up

During the 1920s further historic places were preserved. These included:

  • Acacia Cottage (1841), the former home of John Logan Campbell, one of Auckland’s founding fathers, which was relocated to Cornwall Park in 1921
  • the Upper Hutt blockhouse (1860), which was acquired in 1916 under the Scenery Preservation Act and was preserved in 1927
  • the Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers (1865), which was the first building to get specific legislative protection, in 1928. Its fate was uncertain after the 2010-11 earthquakes.

Taonga in museums

At the same time some Māori iwi and hapū placed valuable taonga in museums for safe keeping. Among these was the wharenui (meeting house) Hotonui (1878), built by Ngāti Awa and placed in the Auckland Museum in 1925. Other taonga were taken by the Crown. This included the Rongowhakaata wharenui Te Hau-ki-Tūranga (1842), which was confiscated in 1865 and placed in the Colonial Museum – now Te Papa. Under a 2011 Treaty of Waitangi settlement the wharenui was to be returned to the iwi in 2017. It was still in Te Papa in 2023.

    • Marlborough Express, 16 March 1910, p. 2. Back
    • Auckland Star, 2 September 1910, p. 7. Back

Re-inventing historic buildings, 1930s to 1970s

Earthquake risks

The 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake not only destroyed many historic buildings in the region, but led to stricter building regulations that impacted on earthquake-prone areas elsewhere. Towers, parapets and other ornamentation from old buildings were removed as safety measures.

Bishop’s façade

In 1943 the government bought a house at Russell that had once been Bishop Pompallier’s printery in his Kororāreka mission station. It then began to transform the building into Pompallier House, misleadingly representing it as the bishop’s residence. Some 50 years later the Historic Places Trust spent $1 million fixing the mistakes.

Treaty House

In 1932 Governor-General Lord Bledisloe and his wife gifted to the nation the decaying former house of British Resident James Busby at Waitangi, and the grounds surrounding it. It was here that the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed in February 1840. As the birthplace of the nation, and with New Zealand’s centenary coming up, it was a well-received gesture. It was renamed the Treaty House and transformed from a utilitarian dwelling into a monument of state – deemed appropriate at the time but later criticised as poor conservation practice.

Historic Places Trust

The 1950 demolition of Auckland’s iconic Partington’s Mill (1850), and the threat posed to Wellington buildings including Bethune and Hunter’s warehouse (1843) and Old St Paul’s (the former Anglican cathedral, completed in 1866), increased public pressure for an organisation to highlight the importance of the nation’s historic places. This was linked to a wider cultural movement focused on creating a New Zealand identity that was distinct from that of Britain. For example, colonial buildings such as cottages and shearing sheds were seen by emerging architects as the roots of a vernacular architecture and therefore worth keeping.

The National Historic Places Trust (which became the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1963, and renamed Heritage New Zealand in 2014) was created by the government in 1955 to do just that. It initially focused on recording and marking historic places, much of it done by volunteers within 17 regional committees.

Oldest building flattened

In 1958 the Bethune and Hunter warehouse, built in 1843, was Wellington’s oldest building. The city council wanted the site for a car park and announced plans to demolish the structure, claiming it was too rotten to keep. The Wellington regional committee of the Historic Places Trust launched a spirited public campaign to save it and showed its timbers were still sound. Fearing it was losing the public relations battle the council sent in bulldozers one dawn and flattened the building.

In the early 1970s a classification system was created where buildings were rated according to their historical and architectural merit and placed on a register. In 1975 archaeological sites over 100 years old were given legislative protection, but this was not extended to buildings. The trust also offered grants to building owners to conserve properties and between 1959 and 1982 it purchased or was given about 50 of its own sites and properties. Reflecting the trust’s (then) fixation with early colonial history, all of these places were built before 1880. Some were turned into museums and others were leased to businesses. The desire of Māori to manage their own places meant few Māori properties were purchased. Instead, the trust offered iwi and hapū advice on how to conserve them.

Heritage theme parks

From the 1960s a growing public interest in colonial history was reflected in the rise of heritage theme parks such as Ferrymead Heritage Park near Christchurch, the West Coast’s Shantytown, and Howick Historical Village in Auckland. These consisted of collections of old buildings, machinery and artifacts that gave visitors impressions of colonial life.


From the late 1950s government-driven urban-renewal projects in Auckland and Wellington destroyed hundreds of inner-city historic houses. The destruction of important public buildings such as Nelson’s 1861 Provincial Council Building and Dunedin’s 1868 Exchange Building (both demolished in 1969) raised public anger about the loss of heritage fabric. So when a motorway was driven through Thorndon’s Bolton Street cemetery (Wellington’s oldest) campaigners became determined to save the rest of the historic suburb. Their efforts led to the adoption of the ‘Residential E Zone’ ordinance in 1976, the first in New Zealand giving protection to a historic district. Other councils followed this lead. State and municipal subsidies were also provided to property owners to restore and renovate colonial dwellings. This process encouraged the gentrification of historic districts.

Adaptive re-use

The adaptive re-use of historic buildings – where a building is saved by adapting it for a new use – became more common from the 1970s. Among the first examples of this conservation method was Parnell Village in Auckland, where several old dwellings were converted into cafes and shops. In Christchurch the former colonial-era university became the popular Christchurch Arts Centre.

Destruction and renewal, 1980s to 2000s

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.

Recent developments, 2010s

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga

In the 2010s the New Zealand Historic Places Trust – Pouhere Taonga underwent a restructuring process aimed at further professionalising the organisation as the government’s advisor on historic heritage matters. The volunteer regional committee structure was disbanded and some affiliated to a new organisation called Historic Places Aotearoa. The change was aimed at relieving the inherent tension between the trust’s statutory and advocacy roles, where the trust’s ability to lobby for the retention of historic places had been restricted by its regulatory functions. Henceforth, Historic Places Aotearoa would focus on advocacy. Under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 the trust was renamed Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. The register was renamed the list. The act also introduced a National Historic Landmarks list in which New Zealand’s top historic places would be placed and accorded greater recognition and prominence.

Wāhi tūpuna

The Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act created a new category of wāhi tūpuna, 'places important to Māori for their ancestral significance and associated cultural and traditional values'. The Waitangi treaty grounds became the first wāhi tūpuna in November 2014.

Canterbury earthquakes

The Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 changed the social, political and economic environment for historic places. Collapsing old masonry buildings killed 42 people in Christchurch and most such buildings still standing were deemed unsafe by authorities. Heritage advocates argued that many of these structures could be strengthened and made safe, but the government did not want to override private property rights to support this approach and favoured the construction of a brand new city. Arguably, it was a return to the progressive mentality, where new buildings signalled a city’s advance. This was supported by insurance industry policy, which made it near-impossible for property owners to re-insure earthquake-prone structures. Hundreds of historic buildings were therefore flattened, providing a largely clean slate for the city’s rebuilding. A few important historic buildings such as the Christchurch Arts Centre were saved as monuments to the city’s colonial past.

Who owns the cathedral?

The Anglican Christchurch Cathedral had long been the city’s symbol, but it was severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake. Church authorities thought it best to demolish the structure and build something new, but were forced to reconsider this position by those wanting the building restored. The ensuing debate raised the question as to whether such an iconic building belonged not only to its legal owner but the city as a whole.


How to ensure public safety while retaining the valued heritage of cities and towns has exercised the minds of decision-makers since the Canterbury earthquakes. Most communities support the strengthening of earthquake-prone historic buildings but not all have the resources to undertake such measures quickly. Compromises over timeframes to complete such works may be necessary if such structures are to remain standing.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Historic places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

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