Valued landmark to get $6m upgrade

Scott Gibbons, who has commissioned a $6 million upgrade of the block that was built in the 1920s by his great-grandfather.
Scott Gibbons, who has commissioned a $6 million upgrade of the block that was built in the 1920s by his great-grandfather.

Yet another of Wellington's old landmarks - the Hope Gibbons building - is to be given a new lease on life.

The nine-storey block on the corner of Dixon and Taranaki streets is to get a major seismic upgrade and refurbishment.

The year-long project, set to start in the middle of next year, is expected to cost $6 million, with half of that being spent on lifting the building's seismic strength from about 30 to 100 per cent of the new-building standard.

The other $3m will be spent on refurbishing the building, putting in new lifts, wiring, toilets and upgrading the office space.

The project has been commissioned by Scott Gibbons, a great grandson of Hope Gibbons, the entrepreneur who hired Joseph Dawson to design the building in the 1920s.

Designed to Louis Sullivan's prescription for the Chicago skyscraper and built in 1926 by J W McKeown, it was the tallest building in Wellington for about 20 years.

Wellington City Council's heritage listing describes it as a stripped classical design with a marked base, shaft and crown featuring doric columns and a pronounced cornice.

It was constructed using rivetted and bolted steel columns and beams encased in concrete to protect the frame from fire.

The design took into account the best information available at the time based on knowledge gleaned from how similar buildings performed in earthquakes in San Francisco and Japan, said Gibbons.

But 90 years on a lot has been learnt about earthquake engineering. Detailed analysis and design work has been done by Adam Thornton to bring it up to code.

Investigations began in 2008 when concrete was removed from around one of the column/beam joints to check the structure. Testing of structural models has since been done by Auckland and Canterbury universities.

A key element of the project will be removing the concrete casings around the building's 18 perimeter columns, welding the beam and column joints and then re-encasing the columns with thicker reinforced concrete.

The work will be done in stages to ensure the building is not weakened during the process.

New anchor piles will also be sunk under the basement and an old water tower will be removed from the top of one of the lift shafts.

The rear wall of the building, where it butts on to a neighbouring block, will also need to be moved so the two buildings do not bang into each other in a quake.

Gibbons was somewhat bemused that some of the work involved cutting through and weakening beams and wall sections to make the building more flexible.

The project was spurred in part by a five-fold increase in insurance premiums since the Canterbury quakes, coupled with growing tenant concerns about earthquake ratings.

Insurance bills now accounted for almost a third of gross rental and he said it was fortunate the building was freehold, which meant he could raise the finance to do the work.

Even then the cost was well over the property's latest rating value of $4.5m.

"But if I had a mortgage - if I had bought the building 10 years ago for $12m and had a big mortgage on it - I just can't see how it would work."

Gibbons said he was looking to raise the rents from $200 to $240 per square metre, and while the premium for offering code- compliant space was not that great, he hoped it would ensure he could keep it fully leased to good tenants.

Major tenants include the Four Kings tavern, Icebreaker, Designworks, Springload and Tennent and Brown - which is doing the architectural work - and Gibbons said they were all keen to come back into the building when the work was done.

Tennent and Brown principal Hugh Brown said it was a wonderful old landmark building, with high ceilings and good light which made it ideal for an architectural practice. It also had great views right down Courtenay Pl to the Embassy Theatre.

Partner Ewan Brown said it had some of the features of modern sustainable-design buildings and was still largely original - it had not been mucked about with lowered ceilings or air conditioning systems.

Besides, it was comfortable enough without air conditioning - heaters did the job in winter and if fresh air was required they could open the windows to catch a breeze.

Hope Gibbons is one of Wellington's old merchant names.

The first Hopeful Gibbons senior, who arrived in New Zealand in 1861, made his mark in business when he established the Patea Brewery. He later bought the Wanganui Brewery and served as mayor of Whanganui.

His eldest son, Hopeful Barnes Gibbons, expanded the business to Wellington in 1910.

The firm bought a stake in J B Clarkson in 1916 and acquired the Colonial Motor Company in 1918. Its fortunes were founded on importing, assembling and distributing Raleigh bicycles and Ford cars, which were put together in a factory in Courtenay Pl. Other plants were established in Dunedin and Auckland.

The first company building, a five-storey block which is now a Les Mills Gym, was built in 1916 in Inglewood Pl, the small lane running parallel to Taranaki St. The firm was renamed Hope Gibbons in 1920.

The Hope Gibbons buildings were damaged by fires in 1937, 1940 and 1952 when a lot of historically valuable immigration and other government records were lost. Early tenants in the block included the Labour Department and 2ZB.

Hope Gibbons Ltd was put into receivership in 1997.

Contact Hank Schouten
Property reporter

The Dominion Post