Kōrero: Historic places

Whārangi 3. Re-inventing historic buildings, 1930s to 1970s

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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.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'Historic places - Re-inventing historic buildings, 1930s to 1970s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/historic-places/page-3 (accessed 22 February 2024)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014, updated 19 Aug 2016