Memorial to a polar explorer

CHRISTOPHER MOOR
Last updated 05:00 30/03/2014
Byrd Memorial

American hero: Byrd Memorial, Mt Victoria, looking towards Antarctica.

Byrd Memorial
The lifesize bust of Rear Admiral Richard Byrd inside the Byrd memorial.

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Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd's memorial below the Mt Victoria lookout commemorates a famous American polar explorer's special connection with Wellington.

He visited the city five times between 1928 and 1956 on Antarctic expeditions under his command for the United States Government.

Wellington was his New Zealand base for the second expedition, which departed from Pipitea Wharf for the Antarctic on December 12, 1933. Byrd regarded the Antarctic as the great white continent of peace.

He worked tirelessly for international co-operation in the region, which came about with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959.

About 1000 people watched Prime Minister Keith Holyoake unveil Byrd's memorial on the blustery Sunday afternoon of March 11, 1962.

Byrd's elder daughter, Catherine Breyer, came from the United States to represent his family at the ceremony, held on the fifth anniversary of her father's death.

Byrd was born on October 25, 1888, and died from unspecified causes on March 11, 1957, aged 67.

Arthur Leigh Hunt, Byrd's friend and founder of the Richard E Byrd Fellowship in New Zealand, conceived the idea for the memorial.

He secured the site at the summit of Mt Victoria and worked on the memorial's design.

His original concept for a mound of uneven stones was later changed to a triangular Antarctic tent shape in white stucco, studded with large stones.

The establishment of the memorial was taken over by a committee of Byrd Fellowship members after Leigh Hunt had suffered a stroke. Tracey Simpson chaired it.

Orchiston Dowell and Associates were the architects and the construction was done by Wilkins and Davies Ltd.

A lifesize bronze bust of Byrd by sculptor Thomas V Johnston sits inside a triangle of rough-hewn rocks from the Antarctic continent. The bust looks towards Antarctica.

In 1992, the memorial was redesigned and restored.

By then the memorial had an almost derelict appearance, with stones missing from the walls, broken concrete slabs at the base, and disfigurement with graffiti.

Ceramic artist Doreen Blumhardt designed the tiled walls depicting Aurora Australis or southern lights, which replaced the original stone-clad walls in the new-look memorial.

Plaques commemorating Byrd's achievements were replaced, and one honouring climatologist Dr Paul A Siple (1908-1968) was added.

Siple accompanied Byrd on his 1928-30, 1933-35 and 1939-41 Antarctic expeditions. He later went on three other expeditions to the continent.

Mayor Fran Wilde facilitated at the re-dedication ceremony on June 21, 1993. Guests included Evelyn Bolling Byrd-Clarke, Byrd's second daughter, and Siple's widow, Ruth.

Doreen Blumhardt replaced 400 of the memorial's damaged tiles in 2001, and found the work harder than in 1993 because the colours had to be matched to the existing tiles.

The repairs cost the city council $20,000. It had earlier spent $14,000 to erect a fence to protect the memorial from skateboarders.

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Graffiti attacks on the memorial continue. City Council staff removed red lipstick from the mouth of Byrd's bust in mid-January.

- The Wellingtonian

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