When we let our historic buildings crumble into ruins, we destroy not only our connection with our past but our sense of national identity, writes PENELOPE FROST*.

Herald columnist Brian Rudman revealed the University of Auckland's plan to build a commons block on the site of historic merchant houses in Princes St. But those houses are not the only Auckland heritage buildings suffering an undeserved fate.

A prime example of another neglected piece of history is the former Onehunga schoolhouse building, which has a heritage classification that means it cannot be demolished. But it is steadily disintegrating and, over time, the outcome will be the same.

This is despite the fact that conservation architect Graeme Burgess calls this the most elaborate and glorious of all the Education Department buildings constructed since 1872. It awaits a sensitive and enlightened buyer with plenty of financial backing to restore it.


Heritage is not just about conserving historic colonial buildings of architectural merit. To put the issue in context, it is equally about preserving historic marae, wahi tapu and other sites of historic significance.

These are all places that connect us to our past, yet many of these sites are also neglected and disintegrating.

There are places, for example, where important battles were fought during the land wars of the 1800s - that is, if you can find them. Such places should be preserved with more dignity and respect.

Admittedly, there are many logistical problems in preserving these tangible connections to our history. Historic archaeological sites are often on private land and are subject to the forces of nature and erosion.

In the case of historic buildings, restoration takes huge amounts of money, as anyone who has ever owned and renovated a wooden building will attest.

The conservation and preservation of heritage buildings is also specialised. The use found for them needs to be in the spirit of their original design and there must not be unsympathetic alterations.

There is also a lack of awareness and considerable confusion about who should be doing what to preserve our heritage.

As Rudman noted, the Historic Places Trust does not have the money to buy old buildings.

Even if it did, its main role is not to buy every derelict old building, but to encourage their protection, preservation and conservation. The trust has not made any new purchases for some years.

Local authorities also see it as their role to do this through registration schedules rather than buying properties.

The Department of Conservation owns and administers many historic sites but, as one observer noted, most of their historians end up doing weed control.

Ideally, we would be able to preserve everything. That is unlikely to happen, and there is no simple answer.

It would help if historic buildings and sites were comprehensively catalogued. This is being done, but in many cases is unfinished.

Government departments that own historic places could also be more active in identifying them. A few years ago New Zealand Post identified significant post offices, pinpointing Auckland Central and Ponsonby as worthy of preservation.

The Ministry of Education could do the same, and buildings such as the Onehunga schoolhouse would have to be saved.

Perhaps local authorities also need to buy buildings with important community connections.

These could be restored with the help of lottery, bank and other grants.

Auckland City did this with the Ponsonby schoolhouse. It is now a community centre. Local authorities in Coromandel and Thames are doing the same with their historic schoolhouses, although they are in worse condition and not nearly as elaborate as the Onehunga one.

Money is a constant problem but always seems to be found if enough commotion is created.

If buildings need to pay for their existence, the Bayfield schoolhouse in Herne Bay shows how this can be done. It is now a pre-school centre. But this is not always appropriate, especially if it means the building will be lost to the community. Councils can cover themselves by leasing buildings on a self-generating basis.

Perhaps part of the reason many of our historical treasures are disintegrating is not just a lack of money, or even a combination of bureaucratic and public apathy, but a fundamental lack of understanding and appreciation for our own history.

Much of that history is complicated - such as the Treaty of Waitangi or the workings of the Native Land Court. It is also vibrant and challenging, and certainly not safe territory. Some of it is so uncomfortable, even painful, that it has largely slipped from mainstream consciousness.

Much of it is marred by conflict, tragedy and injustice and many of the disputes from the 19th century still need to be resolved. Education could go a long way to creating empathy for historic sites. But when our history does not feature strongly in curriculums that is unlikely to happen.

Many believe that our history should stay in the background and that living with one foot in the past is unhealthy. But that is not possible, for it is only through knowing our history that we can deal effectively with the present and, perhaps more importantly, move forward.

British war historian David Chandler stated that "a knowledge of the wars of the past can assist with the understanding of the present". In the case of New Zealand, that is probably an understatement.

Our history is important because it is who we are, even including the unpleasant parts common to any post-colonial society. Without it we have no identity.

Although our history might make us feel uncomfortable, we need to fight what James Belich calls the suppressive reflex, or the tendency to forget.

Where does the Onehunga schoolhouse fit into this? Some cynics may think that such a monument to Victorian social control and colonial oppression should not be preserved at all.

Yet structures like this, as well as archaeological sites, connect us to communities that are still alive, as well as to the past.

Our lack of collective concern for all these tangible links to our history - whether they be places, structures or our stories - ultimately results in great holes in what should be the richness and depth of a shared past.

We might not have the ruins of Europe, but we do have history - a history that, because it is ours, is no less important than that of any other country.

Our failure to preserve what remains will eventually destroy our connections to the present and to a very real past, to who we are and where we have come from - and ultimately to our own sense of identity.

* Penelope Frost is a student of history at Massey University.