Trust 'devastated' as fire destroys landmark

FRANCESCA LEE
Last updated 05:00 09/12/2012
Daniel Tobin

The scene of Friday night's suspicious fire on Christchurch's High street.

Christchurch central city fire, 7 December 2012
Richard Cosgrove Zoom
UNDER INVESTIGATION: Fire inspectors examine the scene.

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The destruction of the historic England Brothers Building in central Christchurch by a suspicious fire is "devastating", the owners say.

The building, also known as the Billens Building, was destroyed in a blaze around 9.20pm on Friday.

It was one of two suspicious fires in central Christchurch that night, with the old Konica Minolta building, which was in the process of being demolished, going up in flames on Moorhouse Ave less than an hour later.

The buildings were still smouldering yesterday morning and one side of Tuam St was closed off to pedestrians, while High St was completely blocked. Fire risk management officer Shane O'Brien said both fires were suspicious.

"There was no power in either building, no hot work [welding, grinding], and both buildings were under demolition or stabilisation," he said. "In the Konica Minolta building on Moorhouse Ave, there was some cutting being done but the area where work was being undertaken was not the area involved in the fire, so there's no legitimate cause for that other than that it was deliberately lit."

No further investigation would be carried out on the Billens Building because it was too dangerous to enter it, he said. The historic building was purchased by the Christchurch Heritage Trust in May.

The trust had intended to spend more than $4 million to rescue the brick facade.

"Upsetting is when you burn your toast," said trust director Anna Crighton. "This is devastating. Architecturally, it was one of the best buildings in the area. It's just beyond repair. It's completely collapsed. There's very, very little of the facade left."

The McKenzie & Willis building and the Duncan building on either side of the Billens Building were saved. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority would be removing any loose bits from the building and clearing the rubble off High St, said Crighton, but the trust had not decided what to do with the building yet as it was too sudden.

The board would meet to decide the building's fate, she said.

A spate of suspicious fires have plagued Christchurch's central city in the past year. O'Brien said while it was possible they could be linked, there was nothing definite.

"They have similarities, being buildings that are unoccupied and that don't have power, so there should be nobody in them," he said.

Police were investigating the two fires. Detective sergeant Ross Tarawhiti said while it was unlikely to be able to determine what and who caused the fire in the Billens Building from a scene investigation, police were following other lines of inquiry and were looking to speak with people who were in the area at the time.

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