Some Aucklanders may have been surprised to see a demolition expert supporting the campaign to save three historic St Heliers houses from the wrecker’s ball. But, as Alan Perrott discovers, long-time demo man Mike Vickers is something of an enigma.
Mike Vickers was 15, bored, and walking round town with his mum when he saw his life's work.
"We were on Hobson St, the corner where [demolition company] Burrells were pulling down the beautiful old Manchester Building. I'd loved it, all brown stone with plaster animal motifs. Anyway, there were no fences around those sites back then, there might be a hose at best, and we were walking past when a young Ian Burrell came flying over the top of a pile of rubble on his D9 bulldozer and covered us in crap.
"Mum was furious ... I thought it was so cool. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life."
It wasn't long after that the young Vickers began catching the Devonport ferry to hang out at any inner-city demolition site he could find. The workers eventually tired of shooing him away, gave him something to do and Vickers soon found himself becoming a part-time labourer - but not for long.
Just four years later he would have his own demo company, North Shore Demolition, a project largely funded by a small but successful beach-cleaning company he had set up with a friend after leaving school.
More than a quarter of a century later, Vickers has become something of an engima for a demo man. It might be that there is little sentimentality to be found in the lizard-brained joy some get from destruction. But this 44-year-old's case is complicated by a romantic streak to match his matinee idol moustache. He can smile while claiming an unmatched record of home demolitions, then gets teary over the loss of our colonial past.
Some might have been surprised to see this demolition man's name linked with the doomed campaign to save the trio of unique Spanish-style villas in Auckland's St Heliers. But there it was. Within days, his own team was getting to work on a Mt Eden home dating back to the 1880s.
This contradiction makes perfect sense to him. "Look, demolition is my job, it's what I've always done, it's what I do well and I'll keep on doing it because I love it. Sure, it'd be great to save everything, but you've got to be realistic, that's never going to happen and, to be honest, some buildings just need to go. But even then there is something special in getting to walk through them. I can examine their bones and letting my mind wander, that's when the job gets really personal, even spooky."
This attitude hasn't always gained him nods of agreement from his colleagues and several run-ins with some smash-happy demo men helped nudge him towards starting his own team, if only to bring a little more respect to the process. There's also extra cash to be made from recycling the irreplaceable materials and artefacts he'd helplessly watched being atomised for landfills.
And, like some sort of Hollywood serial killer, Vickers keeps mementoes of his victims. His North Shore home is surrounded by a graveyard of chimney pots and stamped bricks. "I guess it's sad really, and I'm responsible for every single one of them. But I love these things, they're beautiful."
Then there are the photographs, or as he sees them, visual obituaries. They spill out of 30 albums and several boxes, each showing the buildings he has either helped destroy or simply attended as a witness to its final moments. From His Majesty's Theatre, to historic pubs like the Prince Arthur, and hundreds of homes of all persuasions, he was been on hand for every major demo job since the madness of the 80s.
"Those years were the killing fields, they really were. All that history, gone overnight, and a lot of times I mean that literally. I lost count of the number of times the call went out, 'this is a night job, boys'. We did more damage to Auckland than the blitz did to London but that was the Reagan era for you; everyone was making lots of money and that's all they cared about."
Yet, despite the scale of the carnage his most memorable job was also the smallest: a toilet block in Stanley Bay.
After admiring its cute Japanese pergola-style roof, his men got started. "Then we discovered the rafters, all kauri, and they'd been hand-planed for a perfect fit. No nails, no joins, nothing ... just amazing workmanship. As usual back then it was something that really didn't need to come down, but by the time the council got interested it was too late. She'd gone."
To better explain his point of view, Vickers walked me through his current job, that rapidly disappearing home in Mt Eden. The front yard was stacked high with corrugated iron and various types of timber cladding and beams for future sale at his Avondale yard. Inside, he introduces the flooring with a flourish: "Isn't that sexy? Eight-inch kauri boards ... that's the gold right there."
Then comes the case for the prosecution.
Yes, he says, the house dates back to the 1880s and was a gracious, two-storey home until being almost destroyed by fire in the 1920s. Then the top floor was ripped off and the house converted into a bungalow. While the structure remains strong, exposed beams in the walls show serious fire damage. New wall boards were nailed in place to hide the damage which would have done little to reduce the smell. Various extensions have since been put on and in all manner of styles, so, in effect the original home was gone long ago.
"As far as I'm concerned," says Vickers, "her time is up. Look at the scorching, it's been burnt throughout. And yes, the bones are sound, they built them to last back then, but now she's ugly and she's got to make way." Anyone thinking that buildings like this need saving is focusing on the wrong fight, he says. Not while Auckland still boasts a large number or bungalows and villas.
Unless it's something as unique as the St Heliers homes, if you want to stand in front of a bulldozer, Vickers suggests you do it when an old commercial building is threatened. That's where the scarcity lies, and developers have been knocking them down forever without anyone noticing or much caring.
"But then you'd be amazed at the stuff no one sees or knows about. There was an old bakery in the central city, completely intact with copper vats, two-tone jars, the lot. I told the guys that they should maybe save that stuff, but I was just a junior so they looked at me like I was an idiot, then put a digger through the lot and skipped it out. I've seen entire art collections get smashed up, just like that, and furniture, clothes, you name it. All junked. Even human remains. There was a site on K Rd where a leg bone was dug up. I asked this guy what they were going to do about it and he told me to f*** off, it was going on his mantelpiece. I reckon there should be someone on the ground just to look after the history, otherwise she's gone in half an hour."
Which is pretty much the role he's assigned himself now.
If his style isn't within a bull's roar of classical archaeological practice, at least he's saved many gems from the tip. Even if most get no further than his home: "Umm, yeah, I'd say I'm a collector. I'm not a hoarder though, don't ever call me a hoarder."
Clearly, some in his team still struggle with his interests. After setting aside a deco armchair at that Mt Eden house, he returned to find one of his workers had taken to it with a crowbar. He wasn't well pleased and briefly considered sending one chap deep into a skip to retrieve the bits.
This "collecting" bug has been part of his life longer than wrecking. As a young boy he'd wander off with his trusty spade and go digging for bottles. If his curiosity hasn't always remained strictly within the law, who could resist peeking inside a long abandoned warehouse when it offered only teasing, tiptoed peeks through dirty windowpanes?
"I think it was from growing up in Devonport. I'm a third generation Vickers there. People forget that when the harbour bridge went up that area just stopped in its tracks. It died. It was full of old, abandoned houses, almost slums ... It was a great area to poke around."
His bottle collection is now into four figures and he had some purpose-built shelves installed eight years ago to display his most-prized finds. It's still empty, a testament to his lifestyle. On one hand there's the kids to take care of and, on the other, there's no shortage of buildings needing the bash.
"I'd guess we've only dealt with about 10 per cent of the leaky homes, that's just the tip of the iceberg there. The other thing we're starting to see is we're now back at sites where we'd already pulled down perfectly good villas and bungalows, to knock down whatever replaced them. But what can you do? I've only ever turned down one job, a beautiful deco cottage in Ponsonby. She was a stunner inside and out. So they asked someone else and it was dropped in a day. My biggest worry now is over everything I've collected. In many ways it's a record of what Auckland was and could have been but my kids aren't remotely interested.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it follows everything else and ends up in a bloody skip."
Mike Vicker's top six lost treasures
1. Prince Arthur Hotel, cnr of Hobson St and Wellesley
It had the famous green door and as a place where you could have an "innocent' illegal drink alongside high-ranking coppers on a Sunday. The building had stunning exterior plaster work and a gold leaf public bar sign. Her sister, the Albion, still sits across the road.
2. National Bank, Karangahape Rd
A gorgeous, dome-topped gem with an interior at least as good as her exterior. Why did she come down? No reason except that she say on a valuable corner. Like many such buildings, it was replaced by a carpark for years.
3. Partingtons Mill, Symonds St
Holland still has thousands, we had just the one. She was big, dominated inner-city Auckland's skyline, and was all brick and kauri. Despite being gifted to the city, the mill was knocked down in the 50s.
4. Cook Street Market, Cook St
One of the earliest fleamarkets and a place where punks, hippies, rockers, goths, new romantics, and bohos met under a cloud of incense. Nothing has captured its spirit since.
5. Coolangatta House, Remuera Rd
An arts and crafts stunner that we lost to a combination of greed and Historic Places Trust/Auckland City Council blunders. She was one of Auckland's, if not New Zealand's top houses. The demolition exposed her yellowish heart kauri, an extremely rare sight.
6. Mon Desir Hotel, Hurstmere Rd, Takapuna
My idea of heaven and the best bar ever. The pool, the location and the layout were perfect. It didn't matter if you were a biker, a public bar patron or drank in the dress circle, that place went off.