Wellington's Broadcasting House burns after heritage wrangle - 150 years of news gallery

ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY Ref: EP/1959/2326-F DAVE HANSFORD/FAIRFAX NZ ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY Ref: DW-5105-F ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY Ref: EP/1976/2814-F CRAIG SIMCOX/FAIRFAX NZ ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY Ref: EP/1955/1836-F

A group of women inspects an architectural model of Broadcasting House, left, and neighbouring Bowen House in July 1959.

Broadcasting House smoulders after a devastating arson attack in September 1997.

A brand new Broadcasting House in the 1960s.

Radio host Doreen Kelso, right, interviews Margaret David for her programme Person To Person at Broadcasting House in August 1976.

A sculpture park now sits in the space once occupied by Broadcasting House on Bowen St.

The future site of Broadcasting House on Bowen St in 1955, when it was a boggy water reservoir behind Parliament.

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The sweetest soundwaves in Australasia sang out from Wellington's Broadcasting House for three decades before being reduced to radio silence in 1997.

A raging fire ripped through the modernist studios on Bowen St in September of that year, although broadcasters had already moved out ahead of a controversial demolition. Grand schemes to build a government "palace" on the site, or to shift the Beehive there, eventually fizzled and today the space is a sculpture park.

Broadcasting House was opened to fanfare on September 16, 1963, and was trumpeted by The Evening Post as "a declaration of faith in the future of sound radio".

The site behind Parliament had been earmarked for studios since before World War II, but for 25 years had languished as a hole in the ground, filled with water in case of emergency. Urban legend had it that piranha lived in the pond to keep mosquito larvae under control, Parliament being built on former swampland.

Governor-general Bernard Fergusson could not contain his excitement while touring the new studios on opening day in 1963, playing a piano in one studio and a harpsichord in another. He was fascinated by a room full of sound effects, including a staircase designed to mimic footsteps on carpet, concrete or wood.

"Forgetting his tall stature, he raced up the steps and banged his head into the acoustic tiled ceiling. The dent he created was kept intact as a souvenir," the Post recalled in 1996.

Fergusson was more composed for his official speech, saying the public would be well served by the six different radio stations housed in Broadcasting House – Radio New Zealand plus regional stations 2YA, 2YC, 2ZB, 2YD and 2YX.

"There will always be a tug-of-war between those who want rugby and those who want Rachmaninov; those who want Racine and those who want racing," he said.

The four-storey building was "a construction triumph", the Post said. It contained seven studios in a central concrete core, surrounded by "a colossal amount of soundproofing".

"Raucous plays and full orchestral concertos could be practised almost side by side without interfering with each other."

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Japanese sound equipment gave Wellington the world's first all-transistorised radio centre, its studios said to be the best in Australasia.

Not everyone was enamoured with the building, however. In 1996, when its demolition was first proposed, Broadcasting House was pronounced an eyesore by Russell Walden, associate professor in architectural history at Victoria University.

"In my professional opinion it does not even rank as architecture," he told the Post.

"Is it just a secret sound-box, or merely a faceless building in mirror glass promoting the needs of the forgotten minority?"

Jim Bolger's government wanted to bowl Broadcasting House in order to build a $94 million ministerial office block quickly dubbed the "Parliamentary Palace".

Radio fans and broadcasters formed a lobby group called Save Broadcasting House.

"I cannot imagine without a shudder of horror those beautiful studios with their magnificently grained and polished woodwork interiors being smashed to matchwood, along with the suites and other facilities which give our country a radio broadcasting service equal to any in the world," Radio New Zealand's first director-general Jim Hartstonge told the Post.

"It would be a tragedy to destroy it."

Former staff poured out their memories to the newspapers. There was the time sports announcer Grant Nisbett had his bulletin set alight by a cheeky colleague.

"You're on air and the thing is disappearing before your very eyes," he told the Post.

Newsreader Hewitt Humphrey recalled the excitement when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. A hundred members of the public crowded outside the studio and watched through the soundproof window as Humphrey announced the news to New Zealand, he told The Dominion Post in 2013.

Three packed tour groups a day would traipse through the building in those days.

"It was the most advanced, glamorous, radio building in the world," Humphrey said.

A 196,000-signature petition derailed Bolger's "palace" plans, but a new scheme, costing twice as much, was hatched to move the Beehive west and complete Parliament buildings to their 1911 design.

Accordingly, 235 Radio New Zealand staff were moved to The Terrace in July 1997, and demolition began stealthily on Broadcasting House in the dead of night one day in mid-September.

A fortnight later, on September 28, Broadcasting House was torched by a mystery arsonist, sparking an inferno stoked by the thick insulation inside. Sixty firefighters gave up trying to save the building after an eight-hour battle.

"A hell of a wall of flame rolled at us and pushed us on our arses. It just kept coming and coming," Johnny Andrews told the Post.

Plans to move the Beehive were now shelved, and by year's end the wreckage was cleared and the site was again a boggy pond.

"The only legacy of the Broadcasting House controversy – other than the hole in the ground – is a lingering feeling of bitterness and deep resentment," the Post said in January 1998.

"It seems the most the taxpayer can now hope to gain from the shambles is a small park, which is hardly adequate compensation for the purpose-built broadcasting studios that were razed."

GET THE BOOK

The Dominion Post - 150 Years of News is available via dompost.co.nz or 0800 50 50 90.

Priced at $34.95 + $3 postage and handling or $29.95 + $3 p&h for subscribers.

 - Stuff

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