'Uplifting' restoration nearly complete
Expert British craftsmen are returning Riccarton House to its former glory - with improvements for safety and convenience. MIKE CREAN reports.
Tradesmen restoring Riccarton House have so far reported no sightings of Granny Deans' ghost.
They may not have noticed the spectre, said to have haunted the house. Their focus has been on the $2.5 million earthquake repairs and upgrade. The two-and-a-half years project has four months still to run.
If Granny Deans (Catherine, daughter-in-law of John and Jane) could see her former home, an approving smile would surely break across her stern Victorian face. Woodwork, bricklaying and plastering in her nearly completed sitting room reveal workmanship of supreme quality.
Experienced artisans, mostly from Great Britain, are reproducing the original house, as far as possible, while adding improvements and structural strengthening against future earthquakes.
For plasterers Mick Brady from Scotland and Paul Smith from England, this is no ordinary job. It is a heartfelt dedication. With 50 years experience, Brady turns bleak walls into glassy surfaces with deft strokes of his trowel. Smith, with 35 years experience, says he is "just the boy".
Soon a paperhanger will arrive from England, where he recently completed heritage work on Leeds Castle. Such is the calibre of craftsmen attracted to the job.
Riccarton House and Bush Trust manager Rob Dally has steered the project since the earthquakes left Christchurch's premier heritage home badly damaged. Each time he inspects progress, he finds it "uplifting to see this work being done".
"It has been like a personal project for me. I have fallen in love with the place, come under its spell. The house, the bush and the Deans' history - it means a lot to me. It has been a huge task, a labour of love," Dally says.
Catherine died in the house in 1937. She was the wife of John Deans II, son of the original John Deans.
Scotsmen John and his brother, William, established the first permanent farm on the Canterbury Plains at Riccarton in 1843, seven years before the first shipments of organised settlers arrived. Both brothers died young but left a legacy that includes three All Blacks, a noted painter, other esteemed artists and many worthy members of the Canterbury community.
After John's death, wife Jane supervised the building of the first 10-room wing of Riccarton House. It was completed in 1856. Later stages followed in 1874 and 1900. By then, the family had bought and developed Homebush Station, in the Malvern hills west of Christchurch. Descendants still farm there.
The Deans were conscious of the need to preserve trees. While patches of native forest were felled for timber to build early Christchurch, the Deans kept a patch of bush beside the house intact. In 1914 they gifted it to the people of Canterbury and a trust was established to administer it. Riccarton Bush remains a relic of pre-European vegetation on the Canterbury Plains.
After Catherine's death, Christchurch City Council and the former councils of Riccarton, Heathcote, Paparua and Waimairi shared the cost of buying Riccarton House from her estate. Purchase was completed in 1947 and the house has been a museum and function centre since. It has the highest heritage rating and is Christchurch's most notable Victorian dwelling place.
The September, 2010, quake did little damage to the house other than seven large brick chimneys fracturing. However, the February, 2011, quakes caused $2.2m of damage.
The chimneys were further damaged, with one collapsing and spewing bricks across the room. Lath and plaster ceilings and walls split and cracked, while some collapsed. Exterior weatherboards wracked and paintwork fractured. Doors and windows were damaged.
Excess on replacement insurance left a shortfall of $55,000. The trust faced also $10,000 worth of contents damage - mainly from period pieces falling off shelves and breaking.
Restoration was planned with military precision. A thousand items of furniture and chattels were removed and stored so repairs could be carried out. All pieces were photographed and packed in boxes. All timber panelling, architraves, door frames, banisters and carpets were protected with sheets of plywood and plastic film. An engineering analysis showed structural work was necessary in some parts, where strength was as low as 10 per cent of new building standard. The trust considered upgrading to 100 per cent but settled on 67 per cent. As well as being the cheaper option, this would cause less damage to the heritage fabric. A grant of $128,000 from the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust made structural strengthening possible.
The trust decided to use the opportunity presented by the repair and strengthening project to improve the building's safety, lighting, heating and insulation. Pink Batts, underfloor heating and polystyrene insulation were installed where suitable. Additional power outlets were provided and lighting was upgraded. A fire sprinkler system and an intruder alarm were installed.
Meanwhile, existing insurance cover expired. New cover could not be obtained as the 100-year-old electrical wiring was regarded as a fire risk. A $47,000 grant from the city council's Capital Endowment Grant Scheme paid for these changes, which made re-insurance possible. Rotten timbers in wall studs and floor plates became evident when ceilings and wall linings were removed.
An application for about $50,000 was made to the council's Heritage Grants Scheme to pay for this work.
A new commercial kitchen for catering and restaurant facilities to attract potential lessees was also added at the cost of $160,000 and replacement wallpapers sourced from around the world, cost $24,000.
Riccarton House now complies with all building consent conditions except for a lift. An exemption was allowed on this, as: "A lift would totally compromise the heritage values", Dally says. All other changes were considered by heritage experts to have insignificant effect on the fabric.
Dally says negotiations with insurers, the council and other agencies were challenging but his long experience as a senior staff member of the Christchurch City Council, before taking on this job, was "critical" to success in these dealings. He praises the efforts of Jenny May and the council's Heritage Team for their support through the Resource Consent processes.
Riccarton House will re-open early next year. Perhaps then Granny Deans' ghost will re- appear. Perhaps then plasterer Brady will take his deferred retirement. Certainly the house will be stronger and safer than before, while retaining its heritage value.
Christchurch people should appreciate it, Dally says - "They own the building".