Monumental failure if old courthouse is left to rot

PAUL BARLOW
Last updated 09:48 12/03/2014
old courthouse, hamilton
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OLD COURTHOUSE: A direct window on the final days of the British Empire.

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OPINION: Sitting atop a hill in the CBD, occupying prime real estate, is a monument that must burn a hole in the heart of those Right-wing politicians who hate both wastage and spending money on things that aren't core services.

In 1931, the amazing new Hamilton Courthouse, a behemoth designed to showcase the might and stretch of the British Empire, was opened. Housing a High Court and a Magistrate's Court, it perched on one of the highest spots in the CBD, under the watchful eye of God, the Anglican Cathedral being right next door. Together the two of them sat on what was once a Military Redoubt designed to protect the European population from an attack by the Maori. Church and State now worked hand in hand to show the region how to move forward in a thoroughly British way during the Depression after World War I.

But as time marched on, this grand old monument to a world gone by the wayside changed and stumbled. In the mid-70s, an arson attack gutted the magistrate's chamber, so the room was renovated in state-of-the-art shades of brown to match the 70s aesthetic then, ironically for a building opened the same time Napier was floored by a quake, the building was shut down because of earthquake-damage risk - earthquakes obviously not being the sort of thing Britons between the wars considered as a threat to the empire.

And so, for as long as we've been without the Soviet Union, we've also been unable to use this historical building, though the courts still technically use one lone corridor of the place as a passageway to get from the current High Court to the new courthouse. So to gain access to the building that still houses some of the nation's most confidential information requires permission, which was given to a Wintec film crew in the mid-2000s.

I just happened to be on that crew and what we found was shocking. Inside this building were the rundown corridors, the wooden floors you expected to be rotten and crumbling. Warped walls with water damage and two decades of dust and grime covered a stunning art deco-inspired paved entranceway. The empty rooms sit deathly still and no wind goes through the place. One crew member still swears to this day he saw a ghost wandering the large empty corridors.

Each of the courtrooms still stands. The smaller magistrate's court looks like a scene straight out of a period piece, where flares and afros are the costume of the day. The High Court sits resplendent in grandeur - the massive polished wood moniker of George V's Royal seal. Looming over a courtroom that looks like the sort of courtrooms you think of when you imagine how these rooms should look. The polished dark wood creates something unlike anything else in Hamilton - a direct window on a period we don't see a lot of: the final days of the British Empire.

And it sits there to this day, untouched and unused, a massive chunk of prime land in the middle of a CBD craving a revival of some sort - or an identity of its own, at the very least.

But the answer is not to destroy this building. The simple fact that it is a recognised historical place by the Historic Places Trust means that we should not do anything to get rid of it. But in an economy of belt-tightening at every level of Government, the priority to spend funds on a building we've seemingly proven we can do without by doing without for 23 years is pretty low. Then the question of who should pay for it comes into play as well. It wouldn't be just a lick of paint and a quick exorcism for this one - it needs earthquake proofing on a scale Hamilton hasn't really seen before and that won't be cheap.

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What we have here, though, could be a beautiful re-addition to our city. The premises could be something wonderful, like an art gallery - a feature our bustling metropolis sadly lacks. A lick of paint wouldn't go astray, either.

- Waikato

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