Rangi Ruru building restored to former glory

Last updated 10:30 04/08/2012
Te Koraha
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ

MOVING BACK: Furniture is moved back into the historic Te Koraha building at Rangi Ruru Girls' School after repairs following the earthquake.

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The reopening of one of Christchurch's oldest and grandest homes proves not all of the past has been lost to earthquakes. MIKE CREAN reports. 

While heritage buildings still lie in ruins from the earthquakes, one of Christchurch's grandest old homes has been fully restored. Te Koraha, the vast, two- storeyed timber house built for the Rhodes family at Merivale between 1884 and 1886, will be officially reopened next week.

A decade after major renovations had returned the building to its early 20th-century glory, the earthquakes of 2011 struck. They threatened its ruin but, 18 months later, the Tudoresque house has resumed its imposing stance at the heart of Rangi Ruru Girls' School. It is once more a jewel in the city's battered heritage crown.

The restoration and the removal of other buildings at Rangi Ruru mean this landmark can now be seen from Hewitts Rd and Merivale Ln. It stands by the stately St Andrew's Church, which was moved from its triangular site opposite Christchurch Hospital in 1986.

The name Te Koraha means wilderness. It refers to the native trees which first owner Arthur Rhodes planted around the house. It was said he was allergic to pollen from exotic species, although he did keep magnificent flower gardens.

Rhodes came from one of the earliest and wealthiest Canterbury families. After leaving Christ's College, he went to England for study and graduated in law at Cambridge. He headed a leading Christchurch legal firm, was a prominent sportsman and director of several companies, represented two South Canterbury seats (his family home was at The Levels, near Timaru) in Parliament, and was a Mayor of Christchurch.

Rhodes sited Te Koraha at the centre of his large town section. Rhodes St is part of the driveway that swept in from Carlton Mill Rd.

Six years after the house was completed, Rhodes married Rose Moorhouse, glamorous and charming niece of former Canterbury Provincial Superintendent William Moorhouse. The couple became social leaders in Christchurch. They enlarged the house, which was to host exclusive entertainment and high-class guests.

The future King George V and Queen Mary, as Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, stayed in the house on their 1901 visit to Christchurch, with governor- general Lord Ranfurly and Lady Ranfurly.

Later that year, Antarctic explorer Robert Scott stayed with the Rhodes family before heading south. Other notable guests included former New Zealand governor and premier Sir George Grey and governor-general Lord Islington.

Te Koraha was built of heart rimu, matai, and kauri, with a slate roof and stately brick chimney stacks. It included a sprung-floor ballroom and provided accommodation for eight servants. Stables and outhouses which stood behind were demolished long ago.

The Rhodeses had a son and a daughter. When Rhodes died, in 1922, his wife moved to England, while her son assumed ownership of the house. He sold it to the Gibson sisters, who had established Rangi Ruru Girls' School on Webb St, east of Papanui Rd. Their school was bulging at the seams and they needed a bigger property.

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The school moved into Te Koraha in 1923. The shift brought a happy meeting of Maori names at the site. As well as calling his home Te Koraha, Rhodes had given his children the names Tahu and Mairehau. The Gibsons had named their Webb St house and school Rangi Ruru (sky shelter) on the insistence of an old Maori friend.

With the addition of shower and toilet blocks and the enclosure of balconies and verandas for dormitories, Te Koraha provided boarding accommodation for up to 180 girls at a time, for nearly 80 years. Restoration in 2002 included the removal of such additions and alterations. Christchurch architect Alun Wilkie identified 1903 as the building's architectural peak year and recommended returning it to that stage to preserve its integrity.

Accommodation for boarding pupils was provided in new buildings nearby and Te Koraha became the administrative centre of Rangi Ruru. Then the 2011 earthquakes struck.

Fletcher Construction project manager Grant Findlay had led the 2002 renovations. He says the grade 2 category listed heritage building was badly damaged in 2011.

"When I saw Te Koraha soon after February 22, I wasn't sure if we could get her back to the condition we had left her in, back in 2002," he says. Several large brick chimney stacks had collapsed. Foundations had slumped and cracked, leaving floors approximately 160mm out of level, with extensive internal lining and timber trim damage.

"To have the opportunity to work on such a building once is one thing, but to have the chance to work on the same building again, and pretty much from scratch, was an incredible opportunity - an opportunity that the February earthquake presented," he says.

- The Press

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