Erskine College's long, sad road to decay

Erskine unsafe and left to decay

AMY JACKMAN
Last updated 12:42 05/06/2014

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The Wellingtonian

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Erskine College is red-stickered, empty and dilapidated, with the only visible changes to the site in recent years being more broken windows and graffiti.

The former Catholic girls' school in Island Bay is listed as a Category One historic place by the Historic Places Trust, declaring it has "special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value".

There is graffiti on the gothic stonework, windows and doors. There's graffiti in places that would have involved a determined person, who was probably channelling Spiderman, to create.

The windows are boarded up, broken or covered in dust.

The once beautiful Reverend Mother's Garden is overgrown and full of weeds.

On April 16, 2012, Wellington City Council declared Erskine College unsafe and the buildings were not allowed to be occupied.

The Wellington Company managing director and owner of the buildings Ian Cassels said he was not at all happy with the state they were in, but doing something about them had been difficult.

"The buildings are deteriorating with age, weather and some vandalism," he said.

"The tide is going out on these types of assets.

"A little bit like a stranded pod of dolphins - you simply must have the enthusiastic support of the whole crew or you will not achieve a good outcome.

"The [building] code only gets tougher, time only takes its toll, our resources are limited.

"If there are interest groups that want to slow us down, increase the cost or put hurdles in the way, then the good result is going to quickly fade."

Cassels said he had plans that included putting the chapel and parts of the main school building into a trust.

"We should then be able to assure the long-term sustainable use of that heritage for the benefit of the community."

But with Erskine protected by a heritage order, any work would need the written consent of its heritage protection authority, the Save Erskine College Trust.

Trust secretary Maggie Kennedy said the trust assessed proposals for the site on how they protected its heritage.

"On the back of the lessons learned from [the] Christchurch [earthquakes], the impetus is to find a solution which retains and protects the heritage for the community," she said.

"Heritage New Zealand has research where restoring and re- strengthening is a more cost- effective option than demolishing and replacing.

"Once the heritage at Erskine College is lost, it is gone forever - that indicates our priority for the site."

She did not specify what the trust's vision was for the site, but said there needed to be a collection of uses that did not split the site and ensured the community still had a connection with and reasonable use of the buildings and grounds.

Wellington City councillor Nicola Young attended Erskine College from age 7 until she finished school. She was head girl in her final year.

She said the state of the buildings was a disgrace and progress was being blocked by "fundamentalists".

"It was eight very happy years of my life," she said. "Now it's just rotting. It's such a tragedy. If nothing is done about it soon the buildings will be lost.

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"Then in a few years people will be saying they were lost because nothing was done to save them.

There are people who care about the buildings who are trying to save them, but some fundamentalists are blocking the progress of the site and want the whole thing saved.

"They have no idea of the cost of something like that.

"I live in the real world and think we need to get something done that works.

"We need a pragmatic solution. Let's save the parts that matter - the chapel." Editorial, P10

THE STORY SO FAR

1905-06: Built by the Society of the Sacred Heart.

1907-1985: Serves as a Catholic girls' school.

1929-30: Chapel of the Sacred Heart built.

1960s: Name changed from Convent of the Sacred Heart at Island Bay to Erskine College.

1992: Save Erskine College Trust formed and given approval as New Zealand's first non- government heritage protection authority.

1997-2009: Tenanted by Learning Connexion art school.

2003: Chapel refurbished.

2012: Buildings declared unsafe and red-stickered.

- The Wellingtonian

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