Treasures from 1860s revealed

CHARLIE GATES
Last updated 09:53 28/11/2012

Efforts to make one of the most important heritage buildings in New Zealand safe have revealed secret doors and facades hidden since the 1860s.

The Provincial Council Buildings in Christchurch were badly damaged in the February 2011 earthquake, with the stone chamber and one of the towers collapsing.

The badly damaged stone towers had to be deconstructed to secure and weatherproof the building. However, the work revealed historic treasures.

When a plasterboard wall in the women's toilets was taken down, it revealed a large steel door that formerly led to a safe dating back to about 1860. Historic wooden facades with small neo-gothic windows were also revealed for the first time since the 1860s.

The securing and weatherproofing will have taken two years when work ends in the next few months. The $2.7 million cost is covered by Christchurch City Council's insurance for the buildings.

Councillors will consider future restoration next year.

The gothic revival buildings were designed by Benjamin Mountfort and built between 1858 and 1865. They are the only surviving purpose-built provincial government buildings in New Zealand.

Heritage consultant Jenny May said discovering historic treasures in the building had cheered her up.

"When we have been doing this work, it has all been pretty depressing, so you have to find cheer from exciting finds. These are the things that you have to smile about," she said.

"Like a lot of heritage buildings, it has its way with you. I have a more-than-20- year association with this building. I find myself reduced to tears. When we started to deconstruct the Durham St tower, I couldn't come to the building."

May said the buildings were part of Christchurch's history.

"It is probably one of the most important buildings in terms of the social and architectural history of New Zealand."

When parts of the buildings were deconstructed, all the masonry and timber were carefully catalogued and were being stored in thousands of custom-made pallets in a Christchurch warehouse.

Council community services general manager Michael Aitken said the whole complex was insured for about $35m.

"It's an important building so we moved as urgently as possible to stabilise and weatherproof. Water is death to buildings. The cost was less than 10 per cent of the insured value of the building, so it is a bloody good investment.

"It will go to full council to debate what they do next. We will work up options, cost estimates and when they might want to do it."

- The Press

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