Lyttelton Timeball tower, but not the residence, to be rebuilt for $3.4m

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Stuff.co.nz

The tower of the earthquake-damaged Lyttelton Timeball Station is to be rebuilt, and the Historic Places Trust have sorted and stored the pieces.

The Lyttelton Timeball will be restored in an epic $3.4 million effort. Get your donations ready. WILL HARVIE reports.

Here's a unlikely tale of science, shipping and salvage – told through the lens of one of the irregular buildings in Canterbury, Lyttelton's Timeball Station.

Built in 1876, it was "mechanical Victoriana in action", the high tech of its day. From its site on a prominent hill overlooking  Lyttelton Harbour, the Timeball Station told mariners the exact moment it was 1pm each day. 

An artist's impression of how the timeball tower will look after restoration.
Stantiall Studio

An artist's impression of how the timeball tower will look after restoration.

Without going into too much detail, this time measurement ensured more accurate navigation. 

The Timeball Station was also a home. Timeball keepers, like lighthouse keepers, lived in the station. At one point, seven children shared one cold, draughty bedroom.

When radio technology made the timeball itself obsolete in the 1930s, the building carried on as a residence, eventually owned by the Heritage Places Trust, now called Heritage New Zealand. Former Banks Peninsula and Christchurch mayor Bob Parker lived there for a time.

HeritageNZ staffers who are restoring the timeball tower: Jan Titus,  Brendon Veale and Paul McGahan.
John Kirk-Anderson

HeritageNZ staffers who are restoring the timeball tower: Jan Titus, Brendon Veale and Paul McGahan.

Crown-owned HeritageNZ got the timeball working again, turfed out the tenants, installed a museum and was just polishing a many-year sprucing-up in September 2010 when disaster struck.

The station was damaged by that first quake, but it was repairable. The February 2011 quake left it "so severely compromised there was no way it could be repaired", says Paul McGahan, a South Island manager at HeritageNZ.

HeritageNZ quickly signalled it wanted to restore the Category 1 heritage building, but it was also immediately realistic. The talk in early March 2011 was restoring the timeball tower and the timeball itself. The three-storey, 79sqm  residence was probably a step too far. 

The timeball station after the February 2011 quake. The tower still stands, but the whole building is toast.
Fiona Goodall

The timeball station after the February 2011 quake. The tower still stands, but the whole building is toast.

Before much could be done, the June 13, 2011 quake finished the building entirely. 

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So here's the confirmed plan: Reconstruct the octagonal tower and the timeball on top, but not the residence. This is scheduled to start in July 2016 and will take 12 months. The new tower must comply with the Building Code, so there will be plenty of concrete, steel and block, says McGahan. But it will be hidden behind the salvaged heritage fabric. "We definitely want it to be authentic," he says.

The timeball and associated mechanisms will be restored, which will almost certainly involve casting new iron parts, rather than buying new gearing.   

The timeball station after the June 2011 quake. The whole thing is down and the timeball itself is visible in the lower ...
Don Scott

The timeball station after the June 2011 quake. The whole thing is down and the timeball itself is visible in the lower left corner.

The timeball will work, but probably won't fall every day. That will be reserved for special occasions or perhaps some schedule yet to be decided. How a fall will be triggered is also open. Perhaps computers will be used. Early on, a telegraph signal triggered a fall, but telegraphs no longer exist. 

The grounds and gardens will be put right and new signs will guide visitors through the purpose of a timeball, the history of the site and probably some earthquake yarns.

All of this will cost $3.4 million, which seems a lot for a 15-metre high tower. But heritage stonemasons don't come cheap. "And it's a difficult site, especially since there's no road access," says McGahan. "We're reliant on cranes." 

The timeball site in 2015. Flattened but the views are timeless.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF

The timeball site in 2015. Flattened but the views are timeless.

In any event, HeritageNZ has already has $2.6m in the bank. Of that $1.2m came from an Auckland foundation called Landmark that was winding down its efforts to preserve landmark buildings and whose backers thought rebuilding the tower "ticked all of the right buttons", says Brendon Veale, funding development manager at HeritageNZ.

Another $1.3m came from the Lottery Grants Board. And cement company LafargeHolcim, which has operations in the harbour, kicked in $100,000. So another $800,000 is needed and HeritageNZ will soon start shoulder tapping "significant donors" such as trusts, foundations and individuals for $10,000 or so each, Veale says. 

"We've got the project to the stage where it's absolutely doable," Veale says, and that's a good story to tell trustees. He hopes that effort can raise about $300,000. 

Lyttelton Timeball Station, looking good pre-quakes.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF

Lyttelton Timeball Station, looking good pre-quakes.

Then in early 2016 he'll launch a public campaign that asks regular folks for cash. He might even agree to dreaded sausage sizzles. "We'll definitely be asking Lyttelton to support us" in that phase, he says. Indeed HeritageNZ hopes Lytteltonians will become guardians of the timeball, as they were in the 1960s and 70s. 

What's missing from this fundraising drive is a contribution from HeritageNZ itself.  A $1.3m insurance payout went into deconstruction, engineering reports, the new design and such. "We don't have this endless pot of money," says McGahan. Plus the crown entity owns 47 other properties around NZ and they need resources. "Ths is one of the biggest projects HeritageNZ has undertaken," he says. 

The station was designed by architect Thomas Cane, who had trained briefly under Christ Church Cathedral architect Sir Gilbert Scott in London. Cane's design, not really neo-gothic, used Oamaru limestone for the quoins (corners), windows, doorways and other key decorative features.

The timeball itself, in storage and awaiting repairs.
John Kirk-Anderson

The timeball itself, in storage and awaiting repairs.

These were carved by stonemason William Brassington, who all also worked on the Canterbury Provincial Chambers, Canterbury Museum and the Anglican cathedral. So the building's pedigree is Canterbury gold.

But for the main walls Cane used red volcanic scoria rock from nearby quarries. An early watercolour of the station painted by Cane himself depicts a warm red, almost glowing, building. That's not the colour recent timeball visitors will remember. Before its collapse, the station was shades of grey.

That's because volcanic rock turned out to be highly unsuitable in the station's exposed location. Southerlies drove water through the porous rock and within a year of its completion the Lyttelton Harbour Board, which had inherited the station by then, was seeking to waterproof it properly.  

Oamaru stone from the station in storage. They'll return to the site and form part of the restored tower.
John Kirk-Anderson

Oamaru stone from the station in storage. They'll return to the site and form part of the restored tower.

In time, an old Scottish method of throwing a concrete mixture at the walls, called "harling", was used. Try say harling with your best Scottish accent. 

Anyway, the result was a grey exterior that survived with occasional maintenance until 2011.

Longtime Timeball Station manager Jan Titus recalls "the place was looking fantastic" in 2010. It was one of only five timeballs in the world known to be working. People were getting married on the roof and the garden had come right. The museum included a boys bedroom that was possibly the most accurate boys bedroom museum in the world; that is, it was a mess.

The "Lyttelton castle" stood on the skyline of  the port town. This photo was taken in 2009.
John Kirk-Anderson

The "Lyttelton castle" stood on the skyline of the port town. This photo was taken in 2009.

There was talk the week before the September 2010 quake of getting the heritage minister down for a dedication.

The February quake was awful, she says. "It makes me sad. People got a lot of pleasure out of it."

Afterwards, a plan was struck to bring down the building stone by stone, labelling each with a unique identifier and mapping its return. A company called Archaeological Solutions even completed a 3D aerial laser scan of the building, which is still on YouTube.   

https://goo.gl/maps/y5t3SGSrjhP2

Unfortunately, "we didn't get to number everything before the June quake", she says.

"We salvaged as much as we could, not knowing what could be reused, but we left our options open regarding using as much heritage fabric as possible,"  McGahan says.

About 450 crates were shifted into a tunnel house at Ferrymead Heritage Park for storage. These were later sorted into about 85 crates that contain the remains of the timeball tower. Nearby are the timeball, its mechanism, plenty of timber, whatever survived of the museum and the like. It's estimated that about 2000 salvaged stones will be used to skin the new tower.

It will be good, promises McGahan. The old Timeball Station was "such an incredible landmark for anyone coming out of the [Lyttelton] tunnel and the people of Lyttelton," he says. The restored tower will do that too, he says.

What is a timeball?

Timeballs assisted mariners with more accurate navigation. In short, longitude was determined by reference to the time in Greenwich, England, aka the prime meridian. Ships carried marine chronometers, aka clocks, that with some math, told mariners where they were relative to Greenwich. Although extremely accurate for their day, these clocks introduced small errors. It was necessary to note the error when in ports. The Lyttelton Timeball dropped at exactly 1pm each day. Mariners compared the start of the drop with their clock and noted any difference. The Lyttelton Timeball apparatus came from German firm Siemens Bros, and the astronomical clock from London firm Edward Dent & Co, which had made the Big Ben clock.  

More rebuild stories by Will Harvie:

Going inside: the Christchurch Justice Precinct revealed

Christchurch's "Transitional" phase is over: Where now?

Strange's Lane: New bars, cafes in ultra-strong building

Chch to be city of lanes and courtyards

Whole House Reuse: Rethinking the demolition of a house

 - Stuff

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