Editorial: Public should know reasons for levelling building

Last updated 05:00 08/02/2014
Christchurch's heritage-listed Public Trust Office
DANIEL TOBIN/Fairfax NZ
IN THE BALANCE: The heritage-listed Public Trust Office building on Oxford Tce.

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OPINION: Cecil Wood was one of those notable architects who contributed so much to the old Christchurch.

He ranks alongside people such as Benjamin Mountford, Samuel Hurst Seager, Sir Miles Warren and Peter Beaven.

Born in Christchurch in 1878, but influenced by the Arts and Craft movement while in England, Wood designed several fine buildings for Christ's College and brought a traditionally-influenced look even to his commercial structures, which included the former State Insurance Building at 116 Worcester St and the now-demolished postal centre at 93 Hereford St.

His 1920s Public Trust Building on Oxford Tce was not intended to be seen in the round - that opportunity has happened only with the demolition of its neighbour after the quakes.

From some angles, it presents an unprepossessing series of concrete planes and the top storey is not original.

However, it was graced with a classical facade which gave it a stately presence on the street, and served to enhance the frontage of the terrace as a whole. It is the only earthquake survivor in its block.

The Public Trust Building is a Group 3 protected heritage site in the Christchurch City Plan and a Category 2 historic place in the New Zealand Historic Places Trust register. It now belongs to businessman Ben Gough's company Tailorspace Investments, which has applied to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) for a "Section 38 notice" to allow demolition.

Section 38 notices have been used as a tool to allow Cera to force the demolition of an imminently dangerous building - but a spokesman points out that they might also be used for "enabling the recovery", which allows other factors to come into play.

Without the Cera Act, Gough would be discussing his plans for the building with the Christchurch City Council and the Historic Places Trust.

An engineering report says that the building is "earthquake prone" but repairable.

The Historic Places Trust wants the building saved, saying that it is an important contribution to the Avon River precinct and, together with the nearby Canterbury Club and former Municipal Chambers, "will invoke the past [in] this part of the central city for future generations".

The trust points out that 47 per cent of the heritage buildings in the city centre have already been lost.

The building is not one of those "old dungers" so described by the Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. Its survival to date is possibly due to the earthquake strengthening that was done to it in 2009.

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Unfortunately, the public cannot at this stage know just yet why precisely Tailorspace wants it down because the company is not talking. According to a representative it will be "going through a PR company".

With so many heritage buildings lost after the earthquakes, each one still standing now is more precious than before. Buildings such as the Public Trust Office might be in private ownership, but the public still has an interest in them which should not be ignored lightly.

A sense of unease is growing that many buildings have been demolished which could have been saved.

As each heritage building comes down that sense of charm and history that so marked the pre-quake city is steadily and surely eroded.

Sometimes buildings, inevitably, will be lost and sometimes the economic reasons to not repair them may be valid. However, even when private companies are involved, it is useful to the community if the decision-making process is open, honest and transparent.

We don't need PR company spin around what is happening to the Public Trust Office building; we would like Tailorspace to explain very simply why they don't want the building (or at least the facade) left standing. And if Cera agrees to their request, we will want to know their reasons too.

- The Press

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