Christchurch Earthquake 2011
The Knox Church has farewelled its bricks but the famous timber interior lives on. Sally Blundell reports.
It is Christchurch's most famous interior. Once hidden within an armour of brick, the vaulted ceiling and timber columns of Knox Church in Bealey Ave became the regular backdrop to television news broadcasts in the aftermath of the February earthquake.
Following the deconstruction of its remaining brick walls, the decision to light up the ornate ceiling in time for Christmas last year made the church 'a prominent symbol of warmth and hope', the Rev Geoff King says.
"Some people said the money would be better spent helping people in the east of the city, but we are doing that, too. It doesn't have to be either-or. The idea was to provide a symbol of hope for the city: to say, we are still here.'
More accurately, the roof, the interior and the more recent hall next door are still here.
In the September earthquake, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust category 2 church suffered some brick loss and substantial cracking around the window frames.
In February, the brick walls collapsed to window height, limestone finials fell through the roof and windows - including a large stained glass one designed by stained glass conservator and artist Graham Stewart - shattered.
While the faade of the 1902 Gothic Revival church, once described as 'the prettiest in Christchurch', was in tatters, inside the dado panelling was still intact, pews were tossed around but largely undamaged and, apart from a few splintered sections, the timber ceiling appeared to have simply shrugged and flexed on its elegant columns.
Despite an initial $600,000 shortfall between insurance and the cost of refurbishment - and the church is still awaiting costings for foundation options - the goal, King says, was always to rebuild. 'The answer was not to change the structure but nor was it to rebuild a replica of a past building and a past theology. The aim was to keep as much of the timber as possible - that was non- negotiable.
"We are trying to preserve the heart of the building, and the heritage part of the building is the beautiful timber form that everyone has seen. You can lament the loss of brick, but that's gone. Our plan now is to retain about 95 per cent of the remaining building and the internal panelling, but to encase the whole building in a seismically safe envelope.'
A pledge of $300,000 from the Canterbury Earthquake Heritage Buildings Fund and a $30,000 donation from Christchurch law firm Lane Neave will take this goal from aspiration to actuality.
The new plan, designed by Wilkie + Bruce Architects, includes an entrance way in Victoria St - King has been working with local business and property owners on a cohesive Victoria St streetscape - and larger windows so passersby as well as the congregation can appreciate the original vaulted ceiling.
The design for the new exterior remains sympathetic to the original plan devised by architect Robert West England.
Pre-cast concrete columns allude to the original brick buttresses and the new copper cladding is expected to age to a more gentle patina. The footprint will be the same and King says the sense of symmetry will be retained.
Inside, the sloping floor - used in Presbyterian churches to improve line of sight and, more importantly, to discourage dancing - will remain; the organ and communion table, once restored, will be returned; and the familiar limestone Celtic cross, damaged during removal in September, will find a new home inside the church as a 'symbol of brokenness and hope'.
For King, the refurbishment is also an opportunity to broaden the role of the church.
"We are only now becoming aware of the amount of goodwill in the community to retain the church. We have been a bit under the radar but that changed with the news broadcasts from our corner. What has changed now is the realisation that we can do things with the building that we couldn't do before.
"Beautiful as it was, it wasn't very welcoming. Now we realise we can do something creative that can serve the community better. This is an inclusive, progressive, liberal church - there's an opportunity to build something significant, beautiful and functional - not necessarily connected just with Sunday worship. I hope this is the beginning of a whole new era for community involvement in this church.'
While the church has long been used for public lectures, King is hopeful the new exterior and the revamped lighting and sound systems inside - previously considered a threat to the aesthetics of the original building - will now enhance its role as a venue for theatrical and musical productions.
King is pragmatic. If the building could not be restored safely and affordably, he would not be chaining himself to the pillars to defend it.
"But I'm also a romantic and knowing where you come from is important. There are ways to remember the past without recreating it, but that continuity is important."
- © Fairfax NZ News
Are you happy with progress towards recovery?Related story: September 4: Three year report card