Heritage heartbreak looms

The destruction of Paddy Snowden historic home in Linwood Ave.
Paddy (3rd left) and men from his demolition crew. From left, Clarrie Beran, Mark Cosgrove, paddy, and James Tuhikarama
The destruction of Paddy Snowden historic home in Linwood Ave. Paddy (3rd left) and men from his demolition crew. From left, Clarrie Beran, Mark Cosgrove, paddy, and James Tuhikarama

Paddy Snowdon looks up at the broken building and delivers the crushing verdict. It's a goner, but he delivers the message with kinder words.

As harsh as this prognosis might be for the couple who call the lovely 1934 convent overlooking Lyttelton port their home, it's an accurate assessment.

In their own hearts they already knew this.

Paddy Snoden retrieves what he can from the ruins of his heritage Linwood Ave home.
Paddy Snoden retrieves what he can from the ruins of his heritage Linwood Ave home.

That's why they brought Snowdon here in the first place. The news comes better from someone who cares about heritage buildings.

Normally it would seem to be blurring the lines in calling a man who makes his business knocking down homes a heritage advocate, but it's true.

Snowdon's a demolition contractor in the salvage game and retrieves house parts from fallen buildings, although this has been made more difficult by extensive damage from Christchurch's 6.3 earthquake to his business site, the old Pump House.

Like many in the city, the owner of City Salvage Contractors and his wife have not come through the big shake unscathed. Their historic home on Linwood Ave will have to come down after the latest quake.

Until just over a week ago it was Christchurch's oldest brick home - an 1856 Georgian-style beauty and the original homestead of Linwood Farm built of bricks from ship ballast and stone from Charteris Bay. That's it. In one fell swoop Snowdon's lost his home and business. But he is talking of rebuilding a lodge on the site of Linwood House with recycled doors and fireplace surrounds.

This could take some time because Snowdon, "a small player", and the city's major demolition men are going to be kept busy.

Central city is in lockdown at this stage, but soon a big chunk of the business district will have to be flattened to foundation level. Old suburban shops, churches and many homes including century old villas will join them. The quiet port town of Lyttelton, which was at the epicentre of the quake, and other eastern parts of the city have not come through this event well.

Snowdon forsees the demolishing of the central city will go beyond the estimated one-third of all buildings to be downed. Much of the city's heritage fabric is torn and beyond repair.

"Yeah mate, it breaks my heart to see these old buildings go. It's just a job in hand and you have to keep yourself busy and keep yourself occupied." A big job lies ahead.

It's Wednesday. Snowdon's morning begins with meeting earthmoving contractor Paul Taggart. In his truck, they pass through silt-choked streets and a levelled Linwood church. Soon wind gusts will start to whip the silt brought up by liquefaction into a choking cloud.

Snowdon warns cleaning up the quake damage will be no quick fix.

"We could be busy for the next two to three years I guess in the CBD. Last night they started cleaning the roads and in due course we will not be far away." Taggart, managing director of Taggart Earthmoving, nods in agreement. "I think it's worse than it looks on TV. It looks like a war zone without soldiers."

His pay roll was at 120 workers before the recession and is expected to rise from 70 now because of the enormity of the task ahead.

After the September quake, there were demolition delays, but the bulldozing of dangerously caved-in buildings must come sooner this time round. Salvaging beautiful doors, windows and other architectural gems will be secondary to public safety. There will be heritage casualties.

The pair travel past the entrance of Lyttelton tunnel, protected from falling rocks by rows of containers.

After a nervous negotiation of the tunnel, sunlight opens out to Norwich Quay, the main street of the port town. It's a shattering sight. Almost every building seems irretrievably damaged as they pass by and head up the hill.

Stopping on a gently sloping street they step out for a first glimpse of the convent. It's still standing and, at first glance, seems to have made a miraculous escape. A closer examination of its front will reveal sagging brickwork and terminal cracks. The back of the building is worse.

With high-viz vests and hard hats on, the pair meet owner Christian Carruthers. There's no small talk today and it's straight down to business. The authorities have yet to make a final decision about the convent's future but Carruthers wants to know what can be salvaged from the building if its time is up.

Snowdon gives him his professional opinion, pointing out that a supporting plinth has prevented the front from crumpling. The rear wing is in a worse state and at risk of collapsing.

"This isn't saveable," he tells him. "Once the foundations are broken that's it and the ground is slipping."

The triple brick convent which formerly housed Sisters of Mercy nuns and has an older chapel is the dream home of Carruthers and wife Rebecca Lovell-Smith.

When it got through the September earthquake they celebrated by bringing the family around and planting an orchard on its large section.

Its future today rests on the decisions of their insurance company and structural engineers. "We really, really loved that building, but it could go," says Carruthers.

The Press