Cheeky long weekend: Christchurch

By Liz Light

Liz Light admires the heritage architecture of central Christchurch and discovers there’s still much history to enjoy on a weekend break.

Gothic Revival architecture of Christ's College, Christchurch. Photo / Liz Light
Gothic Revival architecture of Christ's College, Christchurch. Photo / Liz Light

The Heritage Christchurch hotel in the Square, Christchurch, looks gorgeous.

Many of the gross glass and concrete towers that outsized this elegant old lady have gone, deconstructed by wrecking balls and jack hammers, and she stands regally on her corner looking as smart as she did in her glory days 100 years ago.

She was built in 1909, in Italianate Renaissance style, to house government departments and was converted into a boutique hotel in 1996. Like many other old government buildings, she was over-engineered and survived the rocking mayhem well, but was closed as she was in the heart of the Red Zone.

There is a belief, in Auckland, that there are no heritage buildings left in central Christchurch. This is wrong. Though many have gone, there are still 180 remaining and it is heartening that many of them, like The Heritage, are open for business again.

New Regent Street is back in business, Christchurch. Photo / Liz Light
New Regent Street is back in business, Christchurch. Photo / Liz Light

Across the road, New Regent St reopened in April. It's a 1930 Spanish Mission-style pedestrian precinct with 30 shops, and on this sunny day a crowd enjoys al fresco lunch in the mall between the ornate, pastel-painted facades.

The Wizard is here. He's 80 now and a fair-weather wizard; he came out of retirement to help Christchurch through hard times and, being a traditionalist and a patriot, he is passionately attached to heritage buildings, particularly the Cathedral. He doesn't have a good word to say about Bishop Victoria Matthews and her refusal to consider restoring this national treasure.

I agree with the Wizard; the Bishop shows an egregious lack of cultural and historical understanding and judgment. The Cathedral is lynchpin to a series of buildings built by the early settlers in Gothic Revival style. Christchurch was, and still is, a city world renowned for its Gothic Revival buildings.

This style was seen by settlers to represent Christian virtues and traditional values.

Benjamin Mountfort trained as a Gothic Revival architect in England and was in the first wave of Canterbury Association settlers. He supervised the construction of the Cathedral and designed many other of the Gothic Revival buildings, that the city is rightfully proud of.

Heritage Hotel Christchurch Reception.
Heritage Hotel Christchurch Reception.

I wish the Wizard luck on his Cathedral-saving mission and meet Dr Anna Crighton,
president, Historic Places Aotearoa. Crighton is a passionate and powerful advocate for the Cathedral and believes that the people of New Zealand would gladly donate the money for restoration.

Crighton shows me the sad old Trinity Congregational Church, 1874, next but one from the Heritage. It's a Mountfort Gothic Revival building, fenced-off with weeds growing in piles of stone that once were its exterior walls and tower. Crighton assures me that its wooden interior is in good condition and it will be restored. Meanwhile, it is mothballed and safe.

It's all action at the1906 Theatre Royal, with concrete trucks revving and hard-hatted men busy with construction. Its ornate Victorian façade is propped-up by steel supports and the marble staircase, fanciful dome, elaborate plasterwork and extravagant chandelier are all safely in storage. There will be a grand gala re-opening next year.

Across the Square, the Chief Post Office, 1877 Venetian Gothic, the building that housed the i-centre until the earthquake, is being government-built, a survivor. Like the Heritage, it will look splendid when the giant, overbearing modern building behind it has gone and that will be soon.

I cross the river and walk along Worcester St towards Hagley Park, passing Municipal Chambers, 1887. It has stained-glass windows, pointy towers and ornate decoration including two terracotta statues standing in niches. It is Queen Anne style, a radical concept in its day and hotly debated in the colonial city. Now it is much loved and will be fixed.

Wood is good in earthquakes and nearby the Canterbury Club (1872), is still happily being a club to Canterbury's gentlemen. Built of timber it creaked and groaned its way though the shakes as did the original hitching post and gas lamp outside the front door.

The Arts Centre, previously the University of Canterbury, is an extensive collection of halls, cloisters, chambers, quadrangles and educational buildings, mostly designed by Mountfort and all Gothic Revival. White Oamaru stone details complement grey stone surfaces and buildings are decorated with pointed towers, chevron-patterned slate roofs and magnificent windows. This was once the hub of the city's intellectual life and our most famous scientist, Ernest Rutherford, studied here.

The Heritage Hotel, Christchurch. Photo / Liz Light
The Heritage Hotel, Christchurch. Photo / Liz Light

Thankfully, there had been major strengthening of this superb collection of buildings before the quake and though parts of it were severely damaged restoration is well underway. Many Arts Centre buildings are open, with rent contributing to the cost of the restoration of the rest.

Mountfort was a busy man. Across the road from the Arts Centre and butting the Botanic Gardens, Canterbury Museum has three Mountfort wings, built over 17 years from 1870.

It was intended to be, and still is, a "palace of arts and sciences". It's a survivor, as is the city's other outstanding group of Gothic buildings, Christ's College.

Boys wearing black and white blazers set the traditional tone and complement the architecture. Classic buildings that harmonise with each other circle the quadrangle.

Mountfort, his son Cyril, and two other architects designed these buildings to impress students with, "massive strength, stability and simplicity of character".

Despite the unseemly haste of post-earthquake demolition, the ongoing to-be-or-not-to-be dispute about the Cathedral and the irretrievable loss of many marvellous old buildings in the city centre, 181 heritage buildings remain. Ironically, many of the old survivors around The Square, such as the Heritage and the Chief Post Office, look more magnificent now that most of their modern high-rise neighbours have gone.

Christchurch still has a world-renowned collection of Gothic Revival architecture and Crighton hopes eventually Historic Places Aotearoa will be able to continue with the proposal that was underway before the quake to have the Gothic heart of Christchurch declared a World Heritage site.

FACT FILE

The Heritage Christchurch was relatively unscathed in the earthquakes but remained closed inside the Red Zone. It was formally reopened in September by the Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae.

The Heritage has luxury suites with self-catering kitchenettes. A gourmet breakfast is available though the full restaurant has not yet opened. There is a gym, swimming pool, hot tub and sauna.

CHEEKY LONG WEEKEND

Getting there: With direct flights from Auckland to Christchurch up to 8 times a day, getting away for a cheeky weekend with Jetstar is easy.

Save your pennies: Enjoy the journey with Caltex. Use your AA membership card or pick up a free AA Smartfuel card (from AA or Caltex) and start saving on fuel. This rewards programme lets you accumulate fuel discounts as you shop. Swipe your free AA Smartfuel card or AA membership card at participating Caltex sites and save 6 cents per litre when you spend $40 or more on petrol or diesel. Terms and conditions apply.

Getting around: Spend Saturday by the New Brighton coastline, Sunday at Hagley Park and Monday exploring the long road home. With so much to discover in Christchurch, you'll need an extra day off. Take it all in with a Budget rental car, and take advantage of our long weekend deal. Book a Budgez rental today (0800 BUDGET) and get 1 day off a 3+ day weekend. Simply quote the coupon number TPNZ065 at the time of reservation.

Plan your holiday: Celebrate the warmer weather by heading to GoBook to plan your next Cheeky Long Weekend away. GoBook offers the best bits of New Zealand right at your fingertips. Browse and compare activities, attractions and adventures by hundreds of reputable businesses all over New Zealand. Book a time that suits you, enjoy instant email booking confirmation, then rest easy knowing your dream holiday is sorted. And with loads of options to suit every budget, GoBook has something for everyone.

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