New stoush brewing over Erskine College

Earthquake prone building - do not approach" warns the cherry-red notice.

Through the wrought-iron gate the Reverend Mother's Garden would have the good nun turning in her grave.

Century-old pohutukawas spread splendidly above, but weeds smother the plantings, broken glass flecks the path. Even a water pipe has become a canvas for bored taggers.

The path's destination is Island Bay's Erskine College - the imposing Gothic building that for 79 years housed several hundred schoolgirls, moulding some of New Zealand's top female minds: former Environment Court judge Shonagh Kenderdine; broadcaster Maggie Barry; comedienne Ginette McDonald; politician Winnie Laban; photographer Anne Noble.

Its gables stretch for the sky as they did when the building was opened in 1906, but sparrows now nest in the decaying eaves, windows are blocked with roofing iron, curtains are yellowed and ragged remnants. Inside, photos show pooled water and a box of historic hymn books turned pigeon's nest.

On April 16, Wellington City Council declared Erskine College unsafe, reigniting a two-decade-old debate about the future of the four-storey college building and its adjoining chapel, which both carry the Historic Places Trust's highest heritage status. The chapel is recognised as one of New Zealand's finest Gothic spaces, its 14.5-metre rib-vaulted ceiling ranking with Old St Paul's for architectural splendour.

The site's owner, developer Ian Cassels' The Wellington Company, wants to demolish the old school to build something usable, and vest the chapel in a trust, saying it's no longer economically viable to strengthen the buildings.

Critics argue Cassels knew what he was getting when he bought the 1.2-hectare site in 2000 - it was already protected by a heritage order. To allow the company to now bowl the building for commercial gain, because it's been left to moulder long enough to be deemed unsafe, would set a disturbing precedent of demolition by dereliction.

It's a stoush that will be mirrored nationwide, as owners of heritage buildings ponder ways to fund tough new seismic strengthening requirements at a time when spare dollars are being rapidly consumed by soaring insurance premiums prompted by the Christchurch earthquakes.

Erskine's latest champion is an unlikely campaigner. Young photographer Steven Buck is fast realising he has stepped into an argument as tangled as the college's neglected garden.

Buck, 21, fell in love with Erskine while studying at the Learning Connexion art school, which leased the site from 1997 to 2009. He was struck by the rich history inscribed on the building's fabric - schoolgirl graffiti dating back to the early 1900s; piano cells still hung with composers' pictures; religious crosses and icons.

When he needed a project to complete his photography diploma at Massey last year, Buck was drawn back to the college's evocative spaces. He got permission from The Wellington Company to enter the abandoned building and document the traces left behind.

So when he found out it might be demolished, Buck was incensed.

"It's one of my favourite places on earth. I saw it had been red-stickered. I thought 'Whoa, something needs to be done about this, it's an important heritage site'."

In April he started a Save Erskine Facebook page, which has more than 700 "likes". Last month he lodged an e-petition calling on the city council to do everything in its power to avoid the demolition of the main block and chapel, and ensure the site is strengthened and restored. He even got Occupational Overuse Syndrome from sending emails to supporters. But his voice was heard - he was invited to meet Cassels.

Buck took a representative of the Save Erskine College Trust (SECT), which was established in 1992, when then owner the Hibernian Society threatened to demolish the main college building to develop a retirement village.

Led by author Alan Brunton, SECT was the country's first non-government Heritage Protection Authority.

The site's heritage values were enshrined in the council's district plan and a heritage order gave the authority veto rights over any development deemed inappropriate.

That tense meeting between Buck, SECT and Cassels demonstrated how fraught the situation is.

"Most of the time was spent in attacks back and forth - very unproductive. You've got two parties - they need to work together ... As it stands they're not budging which is really frustrating because we're running out of time to save the building," Buck says.

The antagonism is barely veiled. Cassels says SECT has stymied every idea he's had. If he'd had to deal only with the council and the Historic Places Trust he might already have been able to save the buildings, he says.

On legal advice, SECT refused to talk to Your Weekend but sent a statement saying the trust had "endeavoured to advocate community use to the current landowner" and "attempted to have the landowner carry out maintenance ... with little result".

Erskine College began as the Convent of Sacre Coeur Catholic boarding school for women.

Wellington architect John Swan designed a four-storey, £15,588 building, which opened in 1906. There was a farm and grotto and girls were taught Christian doctrine and needlework; logic and ethics. It was both school and convent.

Photographer Anne Noble, who attended Sacred Heart for five years in the 1960s, remembers a blend of spiritual and intellectual development mirrored in the building's architecture. In its heart - the enclosure - the nuns would contemplate and sing divine office. On the perimeter, girls would learn music, wax and polish the enormous central staircase (and then slide down the banisters) or train their voices at choir practice in "that extraordinarily beautiful chapel".

"I can't sing, sadly, otherwise I'd have got greater benefit from it."

The chapel, also designed by Swan, was added in 1930. In his 2001 conservation plan, architect Chris Cochran calls it "one of the finest Gothic spaces in the country", with its fine marble statuary, soaring vaulted ceiling and German stained-glass windows.

"It can be compared with Old St Paul's for the architectural splendour of its interior."

Noble calls it a "rare jewel".

"Its scale, its materials, from the windows to the works in marble: it's a little gem. I think it would be criminal for that to disappear."

Former politician Winnie Laban, now assistant vice-chancellor (Pasifika) at Victoria University, is another supportive Erskine old girl. The influence of her three years there 40 years ago was profound - she studied history under the first New Zealand woman to attain a Masters in law, Sister Pabst, and thrived in a culture that held women could do anything.


Save Erskine campaign

College unstable

Save Erskine petition

Last wedding at Erskine

Building faces demolition

The Dominion Post