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

St James Theatre with Anthony McBride, August 2016

On Friday a few of us visited the St James Theatre in central Auckland, where a major refit is taking place. Anthony McBride of Compusoft Engineering took the group around the site.

Anthony McBride describes the structure of the theatre.

The major theme of the talk was how to deal with a large, crumbly, but precious building. The theatre is an inherently tricky shape: a large, empty box, with high slender walls, and a big span between them. It’s also inherently high-risk — if the building fails, a lot of people could be inside. (Anthony noted that the live load of the circles (galleries) is five times the dead load.) And, as it happens, the St James Theatre is a weak structure. Its concrete is drummy and crumbling–more on that in a moment. However, as is likely to be the case with heritage buildings, the fabric is beautiful, unique, and carries its own value. Trying to brace this big crumbly box with steel would mean obliterating a good deal of that fabric.

​View from backstage through the proscenium to the upper and lower circle.
​View from backstage through the proscenium to the upper and lower circle.

The solution that the engineers have decided upon is base isolation. If it’s impractical to strengthen the walls to resist strong shaking, the logical step is therefore to reduce the loads they experience by dissipating the quake energy. Anthony described the state-of-the-art triple pendulum bearing system which is being installed at the St James, which will allow the building to move up to 250mm in any direction. (Or perhaps it might be better to say, the ground moves and the building doesn’t move with it–its period is increased considerably.)

Looking down into the excavated floor from the upper gallery--the view from the gods.
Looking down into the excavated floor from the upper gallery–the view from the gods.

To illustrate the parlous state of the building, and also its charm, we had a thorough walk through the site. Starting in the lower circle, we filed down to the ground upon which the building stands. To get at the foundations in order to install the isolation, the floor has been removed. As I noted in the invitation, what was uncovered beneath the floor was a large section of nineteenth-century cobbled street, and what appeared to be the brick foundations of the butcher’s shop that stood on the site long before the theatre was built. A number of artefacts have been removed from the site, including bottles and china, and we were told that the floor slab of the restored theatre will include glass windows allowing visitors to inspect the cobblestones. It was eerie to stand right next to the paved street, while 25 metres above your head is an ornate ceiling complete with dome — the shabby-grand remains of a vaudeville house —  and to think of the different lives that have been lived inside this bubble of space. It’s true of any space in any city; but the enclosure and the contrasts are what make the thought hit home.

​​​The cobblestones, seen from the lower circle.
​​​The cobblestones, seen from the lower circle.
​​Looking up from the floor to the dome.
​​Looking up from the floor to the dome.

Looking up from the floor we saw the precarious south wall and the bulging brickwork of the proscenium arch. Looking down, Anthony showed us the foundations. The original design drawings of the theatre specified 6 metre deep solid foundations; but what was really built was more like 2.5 metres, tapering irregularly in a hand-dug caisson, and filled with building rubble. A real “oh shit” moment for the refit team. Even digging beneath these foundations looks like a no-go, as it might disrupt the skin friction between pile and soil, and you wouldn’t want to be there when that happens!

​The foundations as revealed by excavation.
​The foundations as revealed by excavation.
Passing through a basement that pre-dates the theatre, we climbed the scaffolding on the north wall, and paused to inspect the steel reinforcement that has been exposed by exploratory drilling. In a number of places, it was corroded, poorly interconnected, or simply inadequate, and considerable repairs will be required. We emerged onto the roof, where we could see the demolition crew working on the adjoining apartment tower, the profit from which is making the refit possible. I’ll spare you the detail of this, but we did get to hear (from the developer Steve Bielby) a little about the way that the development deal funds the heritage project, which was most interesting. From the roof we entered the upper circle, from where we could better see the ornate detailing of the decorative plasterwork and the dome. One day, but not soon, it will all be finished, and it will be glorious.
​Inspecting steel on the north wall.
​Inspecting steel on the north wall.