Last-ditch effort to save historic Lake Waikaremoana building

Jacob Scott, son of the late Maori architect John Scott, holds a model of the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre his father designed, which is now facing demolition. Photo / Supplied
Jacob Scott, son of the late Maori architect John Scott, holds a model of the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre his father designed, which is now facing demolition. Photo / Supplied

Heritage campaigners have launched a last-ditch effort to save an historic Lake Waikaremoana building of "outstanding" cultural significance.

The Department of Conservation confirmed yesterday it would begin demolition of the Aniwaniwa Visitors' Centre on Monday.

Designed by renowned late Maori architect John Scott and built in 1976, the building has drawn a growing chorus of support for its salvation led by the New Zealand Institute of Architects and Historic Places Aotearoa.

The building was condemned by the Wairoa District Council, vacated and closed in 2008.

The Department of Conservation said the 41-year-old building had weather tightness and stability issues for many years. The cost to restore the building was estimated to be about $3m.

A petition to save the building had attracted almost 1000 signatures by this morning.

The architect's son, Jacob Scott, said the decision was "criminal".

"The cost of refurbishment, which is disputed, is only a fraction of an Auckland house price."

He said Wairoa District Council was one of the last hopes for the building as it was the only party that could take the matter to the Environment Court.

He the the visitors' centre had fallen through the gaps with the council.

It was not included in the council's district plan, formed in 2005, before it was listed by Heritage New Zealand with a level 1 classification in 2012.

The historic Aniwaniwa Visitors' Centre will be demolished from Monday. Photo / Supplied
The historic Aniwaniwa Visitors' Centre will be demolished from Monday. Photo / Supplied

"The council did not have any guidance regarding its heritage value in 2005.

"They probably did not consider it would be at risk of demolition but it is within the council's ability to introduce a plan change similar to what the Wellington City Council did to save the Futuna Building from a similar fate."

Records showed the council did not check or visit the building before it was condemned.

The decision was made on the basis of the original engineer's clarification and an independent engineer's report by Spencer Holmes commissioned by the Hawke's Bay Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

But in November 2015, the council sent its building inspectors to the building and they told the council the unsanitary and unsafe designation could be removed.

"However, that designation has never been removed."

Jacob Scott said a change to the building's status in the plan would allow it to be treated like any other existing building in New Zealand in order to be repaired and made fit for purpose at much less cost than would otherwise be the case.

DoC operations director Meirene Hardy-Birch said it had considered all practical options for the old building since it was condemned.

"This has been a difficult decision as so many parties have an interest in the building. We have had to balance those interests and it hasn't been easy," she said.

Prior to its closure in 2008, the department had spent a "substantial amount of money" trying to maintain the building, including re-roofing and re-cladding it, but the efforts were unsuccessful.

"We have explored a number of options over the years. We even sought proposals from parties interested in repurposing the building without success."

Conservation Minister Maggie Barry said she was confident the "correct process" had been followed.

"I understand both DoC and Thoe have formed the strong view this is the best outcome for the future of the condemned building," Ms Barry said.

A model of the John Scott-designed visitors' centre. Photo / Supplied
A model of the John Scott-designed visitors' centre. Photo / Supplied

Wairoa mayor Craig Little said it needed to be remembered the council did not own the building, nor the land it sat on, and the district plan was closed and could not be simply altered.

"The council cannot stop the demolition of the building because the work is exempt under the Building Act.

"When the centre was labelled as unsanitary and unsafe by the Wairoa District Council, this was based on a requirement to remedy the issues, not to demolish the building.

"I have sympathy for those trying to preserve the building, however, its co-owners are Tuhoe Te Uru Taumatua and they are the ones who have asked for it to be demolished."

He said Heritage New Zealand had the power to stop this demolition, yet they had been silent.

The New Zealand Institute of Architects slammed the decision and urged DoC to "remember that they're not leading the Department of Demolition".

Institute director President Christina van Bohemen said she was "shocked" at the decision.

"It's shameful that officials charged with responsibility for conserving New Zealand's heritage have initiated the destruction of a valuable part of that heritage," Ms van Bohemen said.

The decision was "entirely consistent with the department's long neglect of the building", she said.

Gisborne architect James Blackburne, president of Historic Places Aotearoa, which is behind the petition, said they had been encouraged by the number of signatories.

"We believe DoC has misjudged public sentiment on this issue, just as it has misjudged its responsibility over the years to care for a significant work by one of New Zealand's outstanding architects, John Scott," he said.

"DoC is now justifying its intention to destroy the visitor centre by citing the building's rundown condition. This is rich. DoC is blaming its decision to demolish a Category 1 listed heritage building on its own negligence."

Waikaremoana Tribal Authority chairman Lance Rurehe said he respected architects' views but he was equally determined to "truly reflect a tangata whenua personality to enable a genuine Te Urewera Waikaremoana visitor experience".

Te Urewera Board and Tūhoe representative Tamati Kruger said Tūhoe investment in a new visitors; centre allowed Waikaremoana's people to "express their world in the unique way they choose to do that".

"Timber from the old visitor centre will be used in the new wharehou. This will be a foundation upon which the visitors will come, and collaboration will occur."

An Auckland company will start making the site and building safe on Monday before dismantling begins.

The cost of dismantling the building, transferring the timber, removing, salvaging and disposing of any material at an approved landfill, and restoration of the site will cost around $180,000.

- Hawke's Bay Today, Wairoa Star

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