There's a good reason why The Malthouse didn't collapse during the quakes, Sally Blundell reports.
The troll masks and puffin heads appear unshaken. The long-lashed papier- mache camel is intact and the ostentatious polystyrene mirror, from the sets of Xena and Hercules, stands in unperturbed pomp.
In the February earthquake, says Ian Beswick, 'wigs and hats went flying and some customers fled". "But it's safe. And it's still used every day - there are not many buildings of this age you can say that about.'
We're in the studio room of The Malthouse, home to Malthouse Costumes and the Canterbury Children's Theatre, close to the banks of the Heathcote River in Colombo St. A bulge in the floor shows where walls jumped up then landed further down than they were before. There is cracking in the ground floor, and the 1960s addition at the rear is wrecked. But engineer reports have given the historical building the thumbs- up, thanks to a comprehensive programme of earthquake strengthening completed less than two years before the September earthquake.
Beswick, a member of the Malthouse Theatre Trust, responsible for the administration and maintenance of the historical building and the former manager's cottage next door, pats the heavy stone walls surrounding the racks of custom-made gypsy dresses, Hollywood suits, knight attire and witch costumes.
'If they hadn't strengthened the building, the original structure would have collapsed. The walls would have flexed and the floors collapsed.'
Built before the completion of Christ Church Cathedral, and a category 2 registered historical place, the 145-year- old Malthouse is a large rectangular three-level stone building with two oast or kiln houses (only one has the original distinctive vent).
It was built by business partners Rogers Deacon and William Vincent in 1867 on the back of a [PndStlg]1200 mortgage to process barley for the City Brewery a mile up Colombo Rd. Described by the Lyttelton Times in 1869 as 'one of the finest malthouses in New Zealand', it remained in operation until 1953 when a new malthouse opened in Heathcote. With the brick furnaces removed, it became the new home of grain and seed merchants Aysons Seed Co and a depot for building firm S A England.
In 1965, amateur theatre group Canterbury Children's Theatre bought the building and named it The Malthouse. The distinctive building has since hosted a virtually unbroken programme of performances, cushion theatres and rehearsals and housed the extensive wardrobe and sewing rooms for the Malthouse Costumes hire company.
In the 1990s, through the persistence of former trustee Ann Worthington, the group initiated what was to become a $750,000 earthquake-strengthening programme to bring the building up to 67 per cent of the building code, a target the New Zealand Historic Places Trust has been advocating for many years.
With funding from Christchurch City Council, Lotteries Commission and the Canterbury Community Trust and a strengthening plan devised by Wilkie and Bruce Architects, new concrete walls were installed at each end of the rectangle and the exterior double walls of stone were filled with concrete. Part of the roof was lifted to provide more space - revealing ample evidence of the rats that ate the malt - and the whole structure was tied together with steel beams. 'And we only lost half a day's business,' says Beswick.
The survival of the building after the February earthquake won international attention when a team from the Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Atlanta, United States, came to Christchurch to study strengthening and retrofitting techniques in unreinforced masonry buildings. With its 'large steel hat truss' tying the structure together, the Malthouse was, the report concluded, confirmation of a 'very successful' strengthening scheme.
Despite years of additions and alterations, evidence of its original purpose is still visible. Downstairs, on a floor so smooth it was once used for dances, a Cinderella coach is parked close to the remains of the original brick bund. Here the barley, delivered through a chute in the wall, was steeped in artesian water (the old bore was back in use after the February earthquake, supplying water to locals through hastily put-together plastic piping). The grain was then laid out on the malting floors where it was regularly turned until it began to germinate. After about five days the sprouted barley was spread on to a drying floor in the oast where heat from a furnace flue developed the rich flavour and colour.
Upstairs, the theatre company's green room sits under the original high-pitched timber ceiling of the main oust-house.
'It's refreshing to see an early stone building in such good condition,' says Dave Margetts, heritage adviser for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. 'Being a malthouse, the building had to be designed to carry heavy loads and, importantly, the building has been well- maintained.'
As well as the building's strong construction and its position on a higher, drier spot above the Heathcote River, Margetts says ongoing occupancy and a seismic-strengthening programme have been key to the survival of The Malthouse.
'Working with owners every day, we understand the need for buildings to be economically viable. We want to see heritage buildings kept in use. If they're not, they won't get the attention they deserve.'
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