Twenty years ago this week, Wellington's Museum Hotel completed its 120-metre journey on rails across Cable St. The engineering feat became a turning point for a city struggling to shake off the economic doldrums, while the man behind the bold move was named Wellingtonian of the Year.
The capital's Museum Art Hotel would have had a brief and forgettable existence were it not for Chris Parkin. In its original incarnation as the Michael Fowler Hotel, it was built in the 1980s boom on the waterfront location that now houses Te Papa. Opening on the day of the 1987 stockmarket crash, it was sold in a mortgagee sale a year later to the government, which was far more interested in the land required to build Te Papa.
With little hospitality experience, Mr Parkin stepped up in October, 1990, to turn around the fortunes of the deeply unprofitable hotel. He was successful, but two years later the government had made up its mind - it was to be torn down.
That was until an over-dinner remark from an engineering friend on the possibility of removing the building. It meant Mr Parkin couldn't just let it face the wrecking ball.
"I'd got the bug. I wanted to stay in the hotel industry."
So Mr Parkin bought the hotel for a song: Paying $140,000 upfront and 2 per cent of revenue for 10 years. He estimates the deal cost him a total of $740,000.
Having secured the building and deciding to move it in February, 1993, the "virtually derelict" Market Gardeners warehouse on the nearby corner of Cable and Tory Sts was fortunately left empty.
The former Railways Road Services depot and neighbouring sheds were demolished, along with the old warehouse, to allow the shift.
But how to move a 3000 tonne, four-storey building?
Contractor Mainzeal proposed four rather fantastical-sounding ideas: sliding, floating, rolling - or building a railway.
The hotel was too heavy to be floated on a film of high-pressure water and rolling it on ball bearings between steel plates came with a hefty price tag. The technology to slide a structure on teflon pads, commonly used now, was not yet sufficiently developed.
The option making the most sense was a rail line, especially as a local construction company, RB Steel, was collecting scrap metal from decommissioned railway lines to sell to Asia, company co- founder Richard Burrell recalls.
"We had all the surplus railway parts - bogies, wheels, rails and steel beams - sitting in a yard in Seaview.
"People have been moving buildings on railway lines for over a hundred years."
The task would be the biggest of its kind ever tackled in New Zealand, though not overseas - in 1888, the 5000-tonne Brighton Beach Hotel in New York state was moved 151 metres inland from the beach, pulled by six locomotives on 24 specially- laid tracks.
But the question for lead structural engineer Adam Thornton was, would the rail axles and wheels, known as "bogies", built to carry comparatively light rail carriages, stand up to the weight of a building? "We put on something like eight or 10 times what it would normally have," he says.
Tests showed the trolleys were equipped to handle the extra weight, providing speeds were kept slow. There was no real concern there - the hotel would be moved at a maximum speed of 25 metres an hour, compared to the 150kmh the axles might have handled on the main trunk.
Engineering-wise, one rather fortunate aspect of the $2.3 million project was that most of the hotel's ground floor was a car park, Mr Thornton says. That meant they could lay the rails between the ground and first floors, leaving the bottom of the building at the original site to be recreated at the new. "Trying to peel a concrete slab up off the ground, it's a much harder thing to do."
The Dunning Thornton engineer remembers well the day August 14, 1993 - the day of the first stage of the move, mostly because the weather threatened to upstage them. "It was a terrible, windy storm. A ferry broke loose in the harbour."
After travelling 80m east along Cable St came one of the critical feats of the shift: The 90-degree turn. Tracks for the second stage across Cable St needed to be laid below the first at right angles and all 96 bogie trolleys had to be individually jacked up, cut off the upper track, rotated, lowered on to the second track, and re-loaded again - all within a week.
It was during this time the biggest threat to the move emerged. Separate to the shift, Mainzeal contractors were preparing the waterfront site for what would eventually be Te Papa.
"They dropped these 30-tonne weights 30m down - they were compacting the ground on a massive scale," Mr Thornton says.
This pounding saw the hotel building sink up to 30 millimetres in places at its temporary location. The biggest concern was that the sinking could be uneven, putting stress on one part of the building, risking severe structural damage. The compacting was then halted, resuming once the hotel reached its new foundations.
During the second stage of the move, on August 21, pushing the building up out of the hole it had sunk into put some extra stress on the system.
"Only the bogies at each end of the eastern wall were taking the load, which meant it was an even higher load than we had calculated, but they still took it," Mr Thornton says.
And in the end, everything lined up.
Like the thousands of Wellingtonians who came down to watch, new owner Mr Parkin was more excited than nervous. "It was like a funfair. They were all cheering and clapping."
Though he had been told to expect some damage - perhaps cracks in the walls or a broken glass or two - the building came through looking like new.
"For a long time there were a couple of mirrors in the bar that had cracks in them. I used to tell people that was the only damage done in the move, but I was actually fibbing - they were cracked long before."
Work then began to attach the hotel to its final foundations, fit- out the ground floor and add a new extension at the side. The hotel re-opened for business on November 27, 1993 and was known as the Museum Hotel de Wheels, until the suffix was dropped in the late 1990s.
The hotel repositioning came soon after the city launched its "Absolutely Positively Wellington" campaign. Mr Parkin - named Wellingtonian of the Year for 1993 - saw the project as epitomising that mindset.
Mr Thornton agreed. "In some ways, it was quite a signal for Wellington. We'd had the terrible '87 financial crash and everybody was in the doldrums.
"This was one of the first things that happened and it really seemed to spark the imagination."
THE BIG MOVE
- 3000-tonne, four-storey building - the largest ever shifted in New Zealand.
- $2.4 million cost ($3.7m in today's dollars).
- 3 months of preparation for a 3-day move, in two stages
- 120-metre shift - 80m east along Cable St (August 14-15, 1993), a 90-degree rotation and 40m south across Cable St (August 21).
- 5-10 metres an hour - the average speed of the building when moved
- 3 kilometres of rail line on 8 tracks.
- 96 "bogie" rail trolleys pushed by 8 hydraulic rams.
- 120 tonnes of push needed to move the building.
- 48-hour closure of Cable St for final track-laying and relocation.
- 1000-strong crowds watching the various stages of the move.
"Probably the richest and most influential person we entertain from time to time is James Cameron," Chris Parkin says.
"One of our very good friends over recent years is James "Jimmy" Nesbitt , the Irish actor [Bofur from The Hobbit] - a good guy. The other two people who both loved staying here are Stephen Fry and Billy Connolly .
"While Connolly was living with us he'd often come down to the lobby and wander around and start talking to people. At breakfast, if he saw someone sitting alone, he would sit down and talk to them."
"Who would I like to come to stay? It would be really nice to entertain someone like [English artist] Damien Hirst . . . Of course, you'd always like to see an American president."
TOY TRAINS WRIT LARGE
Mark Woodham was a 6-year-old train lover in 1993, transfixed by the Museum Hotel move as he checked out the removal's inner workings.
He had better access than most children - his father was the project accountant and the Woodham family were close friends with R B Steel co- founder Richard Burrell. "From a little kid's point of view, it's toy trains on a large scale.
"I remember being fascinated seeing a building on railway carriages - it's something you'd design with Lego but you don't expect to see in real life."
Seeing the preparation for the move proved more of a thrill than the big shift itself, which he watched on both days from a specially placed railcar. "I think I was more excited there was food there, being a child. Honestly, it was too slow for a kid to really understand what was going on."
But the bug caught - the Hataitai boy later grew up to study engineering. Mr Woodham, 26, now works for Fonterra in Darfield, near Christchurch. Mr Burrell gave him one of his first jobs.
Project construction worker Tuana Akurangi said the crew felt the hotel move was a special project. "It was the first time it had ever happened in New Zealand."
An ex-railway worker, Mr Akurangi laid the tracks and worked the hydraulic rams used to push the building along. But the real effort came between the first and second stages of the move, as each trolley had to be rotated 90 degrees in under a week.
Mr Burrell said the team's commitment really came out at that stage. "That was a 24-hour project for seven days, with two or three crews working."
The whole group certainly had something to celebrate when the hotel pulled into its final destination, correctly positioned and on schedule.
"It was fantastic. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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