Britomart, Auckland High Court, and St James Theatre: Heritage Buildings as Social Media

A brief note: apologies that this has taken so long to complete. Other deadlines compelled me more urgently!

The International Day for Monuments and Sites

What’s heritage? One facet I’m interested in is how the answer to that question changes with time. It seems inevitable (and proper) to me the contents of the basket labelled ‘heritage’ will change through the century, as New Zealand’s demographics change. I quite like the idea that heritage is a curated selection of the past, chosen by the present, on behalf of the future. And who’s curating will change.

Heritage is not interesting to everyone. But certain people, at some point in their lives, get interested in the remnants of the past that surround them. Heritage advocacy groups try to help more people to get bitten by the bug, and, with the long view in mind (always!), they want to reach out to younger generations, who’ll have to choose to take up the responsibility for looking after the old stuff.

With this aim in mind, ICOMOS (the International Council for Monuments and Sites) runs an “international-day-of-“. This year, the intention was to use social media to reach out to younger generations and foster all those warm fuzzies. Yours truly got involved in helping to organise some events to celebrate the Day, and, in discussion with the Auckland organising group, we came up with idea of going out to look at some Monuments’n’Sites and discussing the buildings themselves as pieces of social media.

You what mate? Bear with me. It’s not quite as nutty as it sounds. Public buildings don’t spring unbidden from the earth. They’re always, naturally, built with an end in mind—to communicate something about their purpose and the intentions of their builders. With that thought in mind, and with some wise guides to help us, we went to have a look at three prominent Auckland buildings. What were the messages that the buildings were made to communicate? What are they saying now, in their current context? What might happen to them in the future? When I finally finish writing this preamble, you might find out…

Jeremy Salmond and site visitors pause outside the CPO to examine the surrounding buildings: no longer “an oasis-of low-rise”?

Britomart (the CPO), with Jeremy Salmond

The Britomart story is somewhat circular, which seems fitting, given that the City Rail Link is all about completing a loop. The Britomart site was one of Auckland’s first train stations, built atop land reclaimed from the sea with the spoil from the demolition of Point Britomart. When the Central Post Office (the CPO) was built there (starting in 1909), the train tracks had to be shortened to make room. This left heavily-laden steam trains without enough flat runway to build up the speed they’d require to get up the hill to Newmarket; so, in a huff, the Railways moved to Beach Road, demolishing a couple of commemorative brick archways as they went —”out of spite,” said Jeremy.

So what does the CPO communicate? I asked. “It’s a typical Government building,” was Jeremy’s reply. Grandeur was the word he used to characterise its effect. Speeches were made in front of it, troops paraded there on their way to war, and punters meekly approached the grand elliptical counter to buy a stamp or two. The CPO was the face of government: reassuring, vigilant, stable.

Only, of course, nothing’s stable. The Post Office changed—radically—and moved on. After a period of neglect, and the threat of demolition in the 1990s, the CPO was repurposed. At last, the Railway got their station back! In the meanwhile, the warehouses of the Britomart precinct had come under threat from development, offering to turn what Jeremy called “an oasis of low-rise” into a field of tall towers. Jeremy was instrumental in developing a precinct plan, preserving some of the smaller buildings amongst their new neighbours.

The CPO’s looking a little dowdy around the edges right now, but we feel assured that it’ll get prettified when the CRL works are done. Once again, it’ll stand over an open square, projecting authority, but with far taller company looking down affectionately upon it.

Site visitors arrive at the High Court

The Auckland High Court, with Harry Allen

Up the hill, then, to the High Court. As we walked, Harry pointed out that the court’s location had been a significant choice, a signal of its prestige. It was finished in 1868, as British troops were leaving the fort at Albert Barracks. It’s vaguely military in tone. with its castellated tower, but this is clearly a fortress of justice, not of arms. We’re taking over now, was the message. The war in the Waikato had been fought. Pākehā power was here to stay. Nestled between churches, the Court asserted secular power and social order. Later the merchants of Princes St and the Northern Club came to shelter under its reassuring flanks.

The waiting room outside the main courtroom, Auckland High Court

Ecclesiastical was Harry’s term for the building. I’d be tempted to go as far as penitential. It doesn’t photograph well on a phone, but the waiting room outside the main courtroom is a clearly designed to induce a certain state of mind in witnesses or prisoners.  The Law is mighty. Do not try to fool us.

Site visitors in the waiting room outside the main courtroom, Auckland High Court

Roselle House with Peter Reed, and the Melanesian Mission with Jeremy Salmond, Andrew Clarke and Dave Olsen, April 2017

Visitors on the terrace at Roselle House...
Visitors on the terrace at Roselle House...
Visitors… on the terrace at Roselle House…
...and in the attic at the Melanesian Mission.
…and in the attic at the Melanesian Mission.

WHAT I DID ON MY HOLIDAYS

Over the Easter break, heritage enthusiasts from the U of Auckland visited building works at two 19th-century masonry buildings. The first was the 1870s mansion Roselle House, now part of St Kentigern Boys’ School. Next was the 1850s ecclesiastical training school, the Melanesian Mission, which gives its name to Mission Bay.

Melanesian Mission. Dressed-stone sill and jambs (?) around small attic window, photographed from the scaffold.
Melanesian Mission. Dressed-stone sill and jambs around small attic window, photographed from the scaffold.
Roselle House. Brick “relieving arch” built to ease strain on large internal lintel. (Note, this was hidden in the original by plasterwork, and will be covered up again.)
Roselle House. Brick “relieving arch” built to ease strain on large internal lintel. (Note, this was hidden in the original by plasterwork, and will be covered up again.)

RE-USE

One of the major topics of discussion at both sites was re-use, and how making the buildings useful for their current occupants supports their preservation. Renovating a building usually means making changes to its fabric and there are consequent losses of heritage material. To make such changes, consent is required from heritage authorities, and this has to be negotiated. Part of the negotiation comes down to demonstrating the overall benefits to the building that can be expected from the project, even if those benefits come at some cost to what is currently there.

The Roselle House tour
The Roselle House tour

At Roselle House, the school is on- trend, transforming library space into learning commons. There was a discussion of the decision-making and consenting processes that were required to allow a large opening to be cut in a wall for a new entry. Cutting the hole meant losing some heritage fabric, but the future use of the building required it. Peter Reed and his colleagues discussed how the building’s elements were classified through its conservation plan, and how the Heritage Impact Assessment (for the new aperture) was devised. (In other parts of Roselle House heritage material that has been removed has been stored for re-use when the building is made good.)

At the Melanesian Mission, a new restaurant housed in an adjacent contemporary-style building provides the financial oomph required to care for the heritage site. At the Mission, there are fewer obvious changes to the building itself than at Roselle House, but its aspect will be significantly altered by its newly-built neighbour. Jeremy Salmond termed the Mission (and other built heritage) “vertical archaeology”: a record of the past, its people, their hopes and their achievements. That’s what makes it worth the care we lavish upon these buildings, he said. Jeremy’s belief is that you best complement a good old building with a good new one, rather than attempting to replicate an older building style and thus fudging history. Yes, the Mission’s visual surroundings change, but that’s the price of maintaining the history it embodies.
Roselle House. Preparations for pouring the shear wall. Above, note existing timbers, which have been included in the design calculations. See also, for interest, the plaster oozing through the laths—this is how the plasterwork adheres to the walls.
Roselle House. Preparations for pouring the shear wall. Above, note existing timbers, which have been included in the design calculations. See also, for interest, the plaster oozing through the laths—this is how the plasterwork adheres to the walls.
Roselle House. Looking down into the cavity for the shear wall. It will sit on a slab broad enough to avoid overloading soil bearing capacity, which could lead to overturning.
Roselle House. Looking down into the cavity for the shear wall. It will sit on a slab broad enough to avoid overloading soil bearing capacity, which could lead to overturning.

HOW TOUGH IS OLD STUFF?

Both Roselle House and the Mission are being strengthened against earthquakes. There’s a good deal of new material going into each site, but, interestingly, the pre-existing fabric of the site is also having its strength recognized and used. U of A research on heritage fabric was mentioned in dispatches, and no doubt a number of you site visitors (and your professors) are working on how to assess the strength of old materials.

At Roselle, new concrete bearer beams span under the floors, and the walls, floors, and ceilings are being strapped together and connected to these beams. Plywood diaphragms at floor and ceiling are the order of the day. But the main earthquake-resisting structure will be an internal shear wall. This will be poured anew, but it incorporates pre-existing timbers, and their strength was calculated and incorporated into the shear wall’s design.

At the Mission, a good deal of new steel has gone in, to secure the gable ends and the long walls against out-of-plane loading. Jeremy Salmond and Andrew Clarke described sending their design drawings for the steelwork back and forth to each other, and they both stressed the importance of designing every detail sympathetically to the building’s original programme. For example, the 200mm beam that spans the top of the walls in the Mission Hall has been custom-welded with an angled rear flange: instead of looking like this |____| in section, it looks like this |____\ . Why? So that it fits under the slope of the roof: thus the beam will not protrude over the edge of the wall. The beam has the same dimensions on its exposed face as a now-removed timber strip that used to run around the top of the walls. When the walls are refinished, the steel beam will have the same visual effect as what has been lost.

Melanesian Mission. An internal wall is drilled at regular intervals. The Mapei grout is pumped into the holes, starting at the bottom, until it begins to flow out of adjacent holes. The process is repeated three times.
Melanesian Mission. An internal wall is drilled at regular intervals. The Mapei grout is pumped into the holes, starting at the bottom, until it begins to flow out of adjacent holes. The process is repeated three times.
Melanesian Mission, detail of another internal wall, showing the insertion tube. The hole will be re-grouted with lime mortar, so it won’t be noticeable.
Melanesian Mission, detail of another internal wall, showing the insertion tube. The hole will be re-grouted with lime mortar, so it won’t be noticeable.

But to return to the strength of the existing materials at the Mission: the engineers made an assessment of the capacity of the masonry walls, using for their calculations some results from Jason Ingham’s research. An initial plan to tie the wall together with threaded rods was abandoned in favour of a Mapei- brand lime-based grout or slurry. Regularly spaced holes were drilled in the mortar, and the sludge was pumped into the wall. (Pumped by hand, so that the pressure didn’t get high enough to pop off the other side of the wall!) The result: the void spaces between the rubble are filled, and the inner and outer skins of the wall are bonded together. And it’s invisible. So the original material, supported by some chemical wizardry, gets retained, and can now resist greater loads.

Efflorescence on the bricks, internal walls at Roselle House
Efflorescence on the bricks, internal walls at Roselle House
The highly porous volcanic stone of the Mission. The lime mortar has been renewed as part of the project, but the Mapei-grout holes are yet to be filled.
The highly porous volcanic stone of the Mission. The lime mortar has been renewed as part of the project, but the Mapei-grout holes are yet to be filled.

WATER WATER EVERYWHERE; or, THE CONSEQUENCES OF DESIGN DECISIONS

Water in the walls was a recurring theme. At Roselle House, a chain of unfortunate decisions caused considerable harm to the fabric. First, wooden verandahs were replaced with terrazzo in the 1930s, sealing off the underfloor without ventilation, and causing the timber bearers to rot. Next, sagging timber floors were replaced with concrete. Uh-oh! Now the ground water, under pressure, wicked up the rendered plaster internal walls, moving between the brick and plaster, or between the plaster and its hastily re-applied paintwork. Wherever the water went, efflorescence remained, in the form of salty stains and crystalline growths. One of the major tasks of the project is to remove the old concrete floors and to draw the moisture out of the bricks with a special clay, in a process known as poulticing. The terrazzo stays, but it will be ducted to allow proper underfloor airflow. Peter made the point that the consequences of the 1930s renovation decisions took decades to become obvious, but have also created problems for occupants for many more decades. Earlier attempts to fix the problem only made it worse. Think twice about messing with an original design!

Water has a more subtle place in the walls at the Mission. The walls are made from chunks of basalt, taken from Rangitoto, and piled up in random courses, held in place with a lime mortar. Dressed blocks of scoria form the quoins. Both scoria and basalt are highly porous, and so, in wetter months, the walls have always been permeated with damp. This, says Jeremy, is not really a problem: the walls were made to be wet—notwithstanding that water entry did ruin the original plasterwork and create efflorescence. Problems have been caused by later attempts to “solve” the dampness, in particular by repointing with Portland cement, by plastering the inner face of the walls, and by treating with an “invisible chemical raincoat”, the latter occurring in 1977. These treatments tending to combine to retain moisture within the walls—the opposite of what was intended—and deteriorate the lime mortar, so much so that Jeremy described the walls as being “two dry stone walls with sand between them.” That doesn’t sound like a structure that would resist earthquake shaking very well! In combination with the Mapei re-grouting and the steelwork, the walls have been re-limed, and will surely be much the better for it.

The Main Hall chimney at the Mission. Steel rods run down the stack to the fireplace.
The Main Hall chimney at the Mission. Steel rods run down the stack to the fireplace.
Looking up from the ground floor at Roselle House to the stub of chimney. At some stage in the building’s life, the chimney was removed from the ground floor, but the rest was left to hang on in there... somehow!
Looking up from the ground floor at Roselle House to the stub of chimney. At some stage in the building’s life, the chimney was removed from the ground floor, but the rest was left to hang on in there… somehow!

A NOOK ABOUT CHIMNEYS

Two contrasting treatments for chimneys deserve mention. At the Mission, an elegant brick chimney stands above the rock wall on the western side of the hall. The chimney has been post-tensioned with steel rods, which connect an upper plate to the floor slab, holding the stack firmly together against shaking. The solution allows space for a flue to be inserted, so that a gas fire can simulate the cozy effect of a real one.

At Roselle House, the project team discovered that in some long-forgotten she’ll- be-right renovation, a chimney which poked out of the roof had had most of its lower extent removed. This is a trick somewhat akin to climbing out on a tree branch and then sawing it off behind you—expect things to start going downhill fast! As Peter explained, there were six tons of bricks sitting up in the roof and upper storey with very little holding them in place. In this case, the majority of the remaining chimney material has been removed, and a lightweight replica will be installed to keep the roofline looking the same. A steel brace for the chimney-stump was discarded, as it would have needed to be excessively large.

Roselle House. A ceiling rose clings on to its lath, awaiting the re-finishing of the room.
Roselle House. A ceiling rose clings on to its lath, awaiting the re-finishing of the room.
Melanesian Mission. The roof sarkings, seen here from above, have been exposed by the removal of the shingles. The sarkings are being nailed off as a diaphragm, stiffening the structure of the Mission. Note the bolted connections between sarkings and purlins.
Melanesian Mission. The roof sarkings, seen here from above, have been exposed by the removal of the shingles. The sarkings are being nailed off as a diaphragm, stiffening the structure of the Mission. Note the bolted connections between sarkings and purlins.

I very much enjoyed the visits, and I’m sure that other site visitors felt the same. We’re extremely grateful to Jeremy Salmond and Peter Reed of Salmond Reed, and to Andrew Clarke and Dave Olsen of Mitchell Vranjes, as well as to the contractors and project managers who allowed us to come on site.

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