Destruction of historic buildings a form of barbarism

PETER DORNAUF
Last updated 10:30 08/12/2012
Sacred Heart High School
Fairfax NZ

Spiritual resonance: Euphraise House at Sacred Heart High School in Hamilton. The Church holds itself up as champion of the highest moral standards, but when it comes to the principles associated with the preservation of beauty, history and legacy, it is often found wanting.

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OPINION: Near the bottom rungs on the ladder of rectitude, just above criminals, used to be the space occupied, in the common mind, by politicians and used-car salesmen. That position has now been seriously threatened and overtaken by people euphemistically calling themselves "developers".

What that moniker frequently amounts to is simply the blatant destruction of buildings which often possess heritage value, history and old world charm. Knock it down and put up something cheap and nasty in its place epitomises all that's mercenary, base and soulless in the New Zealand psyche.

One can speculate as to why so much architectural beauty and buildings of historical character in this country have simply been destroyed by the careless swipe of a swing-ball or bulldozer blade. Some have suggested it's to do with the fact that New Zealand is a young country. We're mere adolescents in historical terms and thus behave accordingly. Unlike other more established European nations, Pakeha culture adds up to a paltry 170 years. We are shallow in the soil, as New Zealand commentator Monte Holcroft once observed, the consequences of which are we haven't grown up, matured or developed a strong sense of time and place and its importance to us as a people. We're opportunists, incapable, like teenagers, of either looking forward too far or back.

Others, in an attempt to explain our cavalier attitude to heritage, point to our rough and gruff nature, the "she'll be right" attitude that goes with a certain careless stance or the more brutal, "put the boot in" call.

Thuggery on the field is matched by thuggery off the field when it comes to mindless annihilation of much of our past, embodied in buildings and historic sites. It's a vandal mentality that goes with a callow puerility, which has only recently begun to change.

But it does come as something of a surprise, even shock, when one sees this ruthless disposition exhibited by the church. We've witnessed it in Christchurch with the proposed demolition rather than restoration of the Cathedral and now in Hamilton with resource consent being sought by the Catholic Church to knock down Euphraise House, part of a heritage site listed on the district plan.

The Church holds itself up as champion of the highest moral standards, but when it comes to the principles associated with the preservation of beauty, history and legacy, it is often found wanting. There's a serious moral myopia here. We've seen it in the demolition of the old manse, once used by Link House in Aroha St, owned by the Presbyterians, witnessed it in the fight to stop the planned destruction of the building complex out at Temple View by the Church of the Latter-Day Saints and now the proposed destruction of Notre Dames des Missions by the Catholics in Clyde St.

What these pious people seem not to comprehend is that these architecturally significant buildings, over time, become for the residents of a community and a city, part of the furniture of the mind. Their physical presence has spiritual resonance, embedded as it is in memory that contributes in a fundamental way to the heart and soul of a people. Destroy the building and you destroy part of the person, part of the collective memory of a community. To commit such an act is seen by mature societies as a form of barbarism. It is the equivalent of walking into a museum and setting fire to manuscripts and artefacts that are part of who we are.

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Buildings like Euphraise House have the quality of an artefact, which is why it was included in the Hamilton East Heritage Trail (No 6 on the map).

Like those residents who stood outside the barrier fence in Christchurch and shouted "shame!" to those who would wield the hammer, this proposed action by the Catholic Church will further alienate and discredit the institution in the eyes of the public, who already regard the Church as backward in other ethical matters.

- Waikato

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