Cantabrians' generosity rebuilds RSA

Lasting legacies: An artist’s impression of the Memorial Plaza forming the Armagh Street entrance to the new Christchurch Memorial RSA.
Lasting legacies: An artist’s impression of the Memorial Plaza forming the Armagh Street entrance to the new Christchurch Memorial RSA.
Peace ahead: New Zealand soldiers from 19 Armoured Regiment in Trieste, Italy, at the end of WWII.
Peace ahead: New Zealand soldiers from 19 Armoured Regiment in Trieste, Italy, at the end of WWII.
Family honour: Twins Ray, left, and Roy Taylor (both 91) are WWII returned servicemen helping to fund the new Christchurch Memorial RSA with plaques paying homage to their father and uncle who fought in WWI.
Family honour: Twins Ray, left, and Roy Taylor (both 91) are WWII returned servicemen helping to fund the new Christchurch Memorial RSA with plaques paying homage to their father and uncle who fought in WWI.
United front: From left, Ben Bridge, director Mainland Capital, Pete Dawson, president Christchurch Memorial RSA, Simon Brown, Warren and Mahoney principal architect, and Tim Glen, site manager for Fletchers, survey the view from the new RSA building.
United front: From left, Ben Bridge, director Mainland Capital, Pete Dawson, president Christchurch Memorial RSA, Simon Brown, Warren and Mahoney principal architect, and Tim Glen, site manager for Fletchers, survey the view from the new RSA building.

At 6pm on the evening of February 17 next year, Pete Dawson hopes to be standing in silence facing the west wall of the Christchurch Memorial RSA.

Head bowed, he will wait for the bugle to start playing The Last Post and as the final note lifts into the twilight air, he will join the assembly in reciting the Ode to the Fallen:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

This RSA tradition is especially poignant in our city. Nearly 100 ago, a Canterbury man was returning wounded from Gallipoli.

On the ship, surrounded by hundreds of his countrymen affected by the terrors of trench warfare in Europe, Captain Donald Simson vowed to champion the setting up of an organisation to provide assistance to the soldiers beside him and those still to return.

New Zealand's first RSA started its life as the Christchurch Returned Soldiers Club on December 22, 1915.

"It has always been about people helping people," says Dawson, currently President of the Christchurch Memorial RSA.

Dawson says the nature of war has changed and today many people in the armed forces don't consider themselves veterans.

"Whether they have gone overseas or served their country here, we are providing a place of comfort and reflection for all people who have worn the uniform."

He describes many ways the RSA is involved in the community, from the distribution of the poppy funds to help veterans and their widows to the merit-based grants from the non-services fund provided to young New Zealanders.

With the new building, Dawson believes they will be honouring history with a living museum.

"The Christchurch Memorial RSA has tended to be conservative but I am really proud of the membership, as it was always going to be a huge risk coming back into the city, but they have backed it all of the way," he says.

Funding the building has also been a risk to the organisation and they are still facing a significant shortfall to complete some aspects of new building.

Dawson says they are reliant on Cantabrians' generosity and support for their fundraising and especially with the drive to get plaques highlighting the names of local defence force members on the Memorial Plaza wall.

"We also appreciate any funding donations and sponsorship from individuals and businesses to help with our new building costs," he says.

"There has been tremendous support from the professional teams with the likes of Fletcher Construction, and since day one we've had architectural services from Warren and Mahoney and investment advice from Mainland Capital.

"We will be an important part of the arts precinct and intend for our memorabilia to be professionally exhibited. We also have treasures to display, like the Bill Sutton murals, and we are looking to access support from the Te Papa intern working at Wigram for showcasing documents like Copy No 5 of the Axis Forces Surrender.

"We are saying to the people of Canterbury - this is your heritage. This is a place where people can discover more about the men and women involved in the New Zealand Defence Forces.

"Some people's image of the RSA is you've got to have sand coming out of your ears to be in there, but we will welcome members and non-members to our new Armagh St home.

"The licensed bar and restaurant will be open to the general public and is intended to be a place of genuine Kiwi hospitality, serving food and beverages in a quality venue.

"We also welcome new members and make it easy for anyone to become a guardian of remembrance," Dawson says.

There are more than 100,000 RSA members nationwide. Nearly two-thirds of these are termed associates with no military service but these people are proud to support their local RSA.

The benefits of membership range from hospitality, social and sporting activities to special discounts and offers, as well as access to the recreational facilities of more than 120 licensed RSAs throughout New Zealand.

The annual fee to become a member of the Christchurch Memorial RSA is $40.

Legacy for families

One of the fundraising projects supporting the construction costs for the new RSA building in Armagh St is the creation of a commemorative wall in the Memorial Plaza.

Individual plaques on the wall are available for a $500 donation and are engraved with the man or woman's name, rank, serial number and the war they served in.

Find out more about the new building and how you can contribute by cilcking here.

President of the Christchurch Memorial RSA, Pete Dawson, says he sees the plaques as a legacy for families.

''Our relatives gave many years of their lives to ensuring the freedom we have today,'' he says.

Paul and Linda O'Connor also have an inter-generational connection with the armed forces and are supporting the development of the Christchurch RSA Memorial Plaza by taking several plaques to honour family members.

Currently holding the role of treasurer for the Christchurch Memorial RSA, O'Connor says the male members of his immediate family have dedicated much of their lives to New Zealand's armed forces.

His grandfather, James Patrick O'Connor, served as a regular force soldier from 1912 until 1948, and his father Jervois Bryan O'Connor followed in those footsteps for nearly 30 years from 1939 to 1970.

"My brother Philip and I joined up in 1964 and I finished in 1992. Philip retired as a captain. My other brother, Mark worked in marketing at the National Army Museum in Waiouru and he met his wife Lynne Smith there. She worked for the army as a psychologist for around 20 years and also served in Afghanistan as a major working with the local provincial leaders and the New Zealand forces," O'Connor says.

Linda O'Connor's father, George Samuel Boanas, served in the Army Service Corp in WWII and her grandfather Robert Riley Richards served in the Boer War, completing two tours in the 3rd and the 9th contingent to South Africa.

Her uncle John Henry Weir was killed in France and the couple have visited Belgium where his name is recorded within the Tyne Cot Cemetery memorial wall under the inscription:

"Here are recorded the names of officers and men of New Zealand who fell in the Battle of Broodseinde and the First Battle of Passchendaele October 1917 and whose graves are known only unto God."

"I think the Memorial Plaza will be iconic for Christchurch and something a lot of people visiting will also appreciate. It is on the tram route and we hope people will take time to visit and pay their respects.

"For us, it will become a family legacy, somewhere our military history is recorded," O'Connor says.

Designed to host 1000 plaques with removable panels for the engravings, the question of where the families' names will be sited on the wall is yet to be determined.

O'Connor suggests if all of the plaques are ordered before the building opens in February then the memorial wall names will be arranged in chronological and alphabetical order. The alternative is to have random placement on a first-come-first-served basis with names growing as supporters for the Memorial Plaza come on board.

The Christchurch Memorial RSA President, Pete Dawson, says the plaques are not only for families to remember deceased personnel of WWI and WWII, as they would also like to see men and women serving in the New Zealand Defence forces here and in the Asian conflicts of Malaysia, Korea and Vietnam, as well as in peace-keeping missions in the former Yugoslavia, East Timor and the Middle East.

Ninety-one year old twins, Ray and Roy Taylor, have also committed to honouring their father and uncle with plaques on the wall.

Ray says their father John Taylor served in WWI and afterwards in Germany with the occupation forces. Their mother's brother, Lance Sergeant Fred Watts, was killed in Passchendaele in 1917.

The brothers were also involved in the military for WWII. They were conscripted in 1941 and after several months of training returned to their boilermaker apprenticeships in Addington.

They were called back into Burnham on the 22nd join the defence force at Stewarts Gulley.

The pair were then moved up to Blenheim based at Landsdowne Park. In 1944, Ray was sent to Italy with the New Zealand Army.

"It was pretty much over by then and we were in the last attack heading up as far as Trieste. I was 12 months in Italy and then went on to Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. Altogether I was away five years and then came back home to finish my apprenticeship at Addington," Ray says.

Roy was sent into the Pacific with the New Zealand Air Force.

"It was a very small island and it was near the end of the war. I was a flight mechanic but I don't think we were in any real danger. It was quite an experience," Roy says.

A place to share experiences

Before the building was severely damaged in the February 2011 earthquakes, committee members of the Christchurch Memorial RSA headquarters were considering how best to make the most of their assets including land, building and valuable memorabilia.

Seeking advice and support from leading architectural company, Warren and Mahoney, discussions were well underway to develop a new facility.

Principal and executive director Graeme Finlay says Warren and Mahoney are delighted to be playing their part in this project.

Like many organisations in the city, the RSA had an extended period of uncertainty with their insurance claims but Warren and Mahoney continued to support the association with professional help and advice during this phase.

"We have a passion for the work of the RSA, as all of us are affected in some way by having family members touched by war. They are a valued client whose endeavours we strongly support," Finlay says.

Once the RSA had confidence in the insurance, there was increased urgency for the architects to deliver a suitable place to house their members and to create an environment attractive to the general public.

"The Christchurch Memorial RSA is very keen to take the opportunity to become a more open and family-orientated organisation, to make the RSA a public venue and a destination to meet in attractive surroundings where people can share their experiences and consider the rich military history on display," principal architect on the project Simon Brown says.

The company sought to create a building with capacity to ensure long-term revenue streams for the RSA as well as to improve the members' experience, attract more visitors and showcase the considerable collection of memorabilia.

To use the north-facing aspect of the site, Brown moved the building back from the front of Armagh St, designing multi-use board, seminar and function rooms for traditional RSA use and public hire on the first floor. A warm and welcoming restaurant and bar completes the interior on the ground floor.

The space in front of the new building allowed for the site's key feature marking the valuable role of the RSA.

In homage to the men and women who have served in the armed forces, a framed public courtyard features as a Memorial Plaza.

At the street front, 11 statuesque columns refer to the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, when Armistice Day is celebrated.

At the western end of the plaza, a wall of recognition provides a place for family and friends to honour the role of men and women who have served or are still serving in New Zealand's Defence Forces.

Forming an intimate gathering space for memorial occasions with a ledge and brass railing to host wreaths, the Memorial Plaza will also be used on a daily basis as a break-out dining space for the restaurant.

"Maori concepts of welcoming and entry are visible in the raised steps leading to the courtyard, which serves the function of a marae atia. The pool together with the inlaid stone paving refers to the braided rivers of the Canterbury plains," Brown says.

Cornerstones from the old building are incorporated into the complex and the material palette for the building includes limestone, black steel, terrazzo and glass.

"We consider the Christchurch Memorial RSA is an important organisation for the city and we all need to recognise the brave people who fought for our freedom and allowed us to maintain the way of life we have today.

"The World War One centenary observances are in place all around the world. Next year this will manifest in Christchurch, and as a city we need to make sure that we are ready to play our part and have the Bridge of Remembrance and the new RSA clubrooms complete to mark this important occasion.

"This is also another step in the progress of rebuilding our great city. It is really starting to take shape particularly on the west side of the river with several projects coming up together. We will soon see this whole area transform from construction zone to new activity of daily life," Finlay says.

Corporate support key to success

It would be fair to say New Zealanders prefer to think we are a match for the Australians in most arenas, but many would be hard pressed not to admire the success of their Returned Services League (RSL).

The "Razza", as it is casually referred to, is not where you would expect young urban dwellers to be spending a Sunday afternoon, but the Australian celebration of national pride is well established, and the RSL is considered a great venue for meeting with friends over a meal and a few beverages.

When Mainland Capital's Director Ben Bridge worked in Sydney, he saw firsthand how successful the RSL was. As a specialist development and investment manager, Bridge has proved an effective member of the professional team supporting the establishment of the Christchurch RSA's new building.

"They were in need of strong commercial advice and their ambitions for a multi-purpose gallery, museum, cafe bar and restaurant open to the public meant the new facility would cost more than double what they were given by the insurers for the rebuild. It is an ambitious project, but one which will serve both the membership and the wider public well when operational in 2015.

"We might seem like unlikely bedfellows, but it has been very rewarding to see it through. I've thoroughly enjoyed it. Russ Baron, the former Christchurch RSA President, passed away in May 2013, and he was instrumental in establishing the project team and setting in play some interesting challenges.

"One of the ideas to free up capital and help toward funding part of the building shortfall was to subdivide and sell part of the property. We negotiated the sale through Colliers International with Amherst Properties Ltd to purchase the section for the development of commercial offices," Bridge says.

All of the directors at Mainland Capital felt strongly about this project and Bridge says their company and the other professionals contributing support to the project believe it is important to help the RSA get back on its feet and that being in the central city is key to its ongoing success.

"The new RSA will contribute to the recovery of the central city and form an important part of the Arts Precinct," Bridge says.

The Press