Three sculpted ruins poke through the grass of Ponsonby Rd's Western Park. These are John Radford's sobering takes on our enthusiasm for knocking over our urban heritage, an asset-strip the artist has been documenting since he was 16 years old and videoed the destruction of three old brick homes on Victoria St.

Each fragment in his "TIP" sculpture corresponds to a building he saw fall during the great demolition boom of the 80s.

"I get quite worked up about this sort of thing," says Radford.

"It's like the people who do this damage have no idea how offensive it is. One of the most affecting experiences I've had was when I walked through the old Hall of Commerce. Not a building many would remember, it was bowled for the extension to the Victoria St carpark. But I got inside and checked it out before it was lost.

"I'm not really into ethereal things but I could really feel this weight of human industry and occupation in there, all those watchmakers and jewellers, all the artisans who used to work in there — there was something in the air and that feeling haunted me, in a good way I think.

"It was that the building was about to be levelled and everything that had happened there, all those people, none of it would mean anything anymore. You can get really emotionally sucked up into this, it can be really exhausting."

Hopefully, the worst damage has been done. Auckland City's annual Heritage Festival, which has been running since last month and finished on the weekend, is intended as a celebration of our past and as a prod so we remember to watch those who might tear down what history we still have.

One cause for concern is the future prospect of the mothballed St James Theatre complex.

On the bright side, the refurbishments of the Civic and Central Post Office show us what can be done to resurrect our fading glories, as long as the right people arrive at the right time with the willpower and the resources to do something.

Here are a few reminders of what we have lost in Auckland.

Victoria Arcade

"An astonishing building," says conservation architect Jeremy Salmond. "A symphony in red brick, absolutely heroic."

The arcade had an enormous Victorian turret that directed light into a central cavity until it was removed sometime around World War II. The rest of the building followed in 1978.

And what did its owners, the Bank of New Zealand, replace it with? Only one of the ugliest office blocks ever to grace Auckland's flagship street. It was so bad it has already gone, now replaced by the 25-storey Deloitte Centre.

The Victoria Arcade occupied the entire block marked out by Queen, Fort and Shortland streets and Jean Batten Pl. Designed by Alfred Smith and built in 1885, it has been described as one of 19th century Auckland's most artistic embellishments.

Admittedly, it wasn't the most economically practical commercial building with a four-level warren of low-rent offices and apartments splayed about the central light shaft, but back then it must have been beautifully eccentric.

As well as an odd collection of camera repairers, jewellers and haberdasheries, the arcade's character attracted a large chunk of New Zealand's art community.

At one time or another, notables such as C.F Goldie, Frank and Walter Wright, Charles Blomfield, Robert Atkinson and, briefly, Italian painter Girolamo Pieri Nerli had studios there.

To be charitable to the BNZ, once they'd made the usual excuses about the building being an earthquake and fire risk and lamented the unfortunately unaffordable repair costs, they had little choice but to move quickly.

After quietly spreading word of a design and build competition among local contractors in early 1978, they knew their lease agreement with Auckland City, who owned the land, dictated that any new building had to be up by 1982 or their lease would forfeit.

It was a process that offered little dignity to the 93-year-old landmark, even if only a few lonely voices spoke out in protest. The general sentiment seemed to be that it was all sadly inevitable.

Even so, demolition foreman Phil Coughlan told the Herald the arcade retained a "kauri heart as sound as a bell ... but it could have done with a fair bit of modernising. Some say that such a task would have been an architect's dream. I say it would have been an architect's nightmare. She's a pretty solid old girl."

In just four months, the site was an empty lot. The arcade's million or so bricks were reused on sites throughout the city, the kilometres of kauri timber became firewood, and the tonnes of concrete went into landfills.

If the arcade had managed to survive until today, it would have got the refit it deserved, says Salmond, a central figure in the refurbishments of the Central Post Office and Princes St Synagogue.

"I know that, commercially, undertaking such a mission back then would have made no sense to anyone, but that's stuff we do routinely these days — there's more awareness that we must keep these old buildings alive. The commercial bloodymindedness that killed Victoria Arcade was about that old belief that ownership confers absolute rights to do what you want and who cares what anyone else thinks."

His Majesty's theatre

Years of debate over this grand old theatre's fate ended when the electric saws started up in the early hours of Christmas Eve, 1987.

The contractors told police they were there only to remove the seats, but it wasn't too long until all that was left was a gravel carpark.

Since opening in 1902, His Majesty's Theatre, a sturdy beast built around enormous 0.5m x 0.25m beams of Oregon pine, had hosted everyone from The Beatles and Sir John Gielgud to Spike Milligan and Muddy Waters.

For those too young to remember, it was described as having a neo-classic facade with baroque interior ornamentation. But what really set her apart from her inner-city peers was the Victorian italianated arcade leading from the street entrance to its door.

This European-flavoured covered space hosted four art galleries, a handful of artists, three hairdressers, Pregnancy Help and the Prout Cultural Centre, making it a regular stop-off point for wide-eyed suburban kids who'd never seen such a place before.

In an interesting quirk, one of its last tenants was related to Sir Robert Kerridge, father of SPCA stalwart Bob Kerridge and head of the theatre's owners, Pacer-Kerridge.

Stefan Tengblad, Sir Robert's grandson, says the theatre debate split the family.

Now living on Waiheke Island, he says emotions boiled over when he tried to circulate a petition to save His Majesty's at a party thrown by his mother: "She was on the other side, well, she felt she had no other choice. You can imagine that started a bit of tension between us and I haven't spoken to my uncle [Bob Kerridge] since."

Tengblad was one of many supporters caught out when the demolition team sneaked on site and, while they don't make up for its loss, he did manage to scrabble through the wreckage to snaffle a few treasured mementos.

Architects refer to losses such as His Majesty's as "demolition by neglect", meaning owners ease up on maintenance work until a property reaches such a dilapidated state they can point to it and exclaim: "Look, what a mess. It's got to go."

It helped that Pacer-Kerridge had influential city councillor Phil Warren leading the public relations charge.

Better known as a larger-than-life theatrical entrepreneur who had put on more than 20 productions at the theatre, Warren slammed the venue in the Herald a few days after its destruction commenced: "His Majesty's Theatre? A rat-infested dump; aesthetically of no value; it leaks; sight-lines are appalling; electrically hazardous — how it has avoided enforced demolition orders over the past 10 years is beyond me ..."

Partington's Mill

Throughout its life, Auckland's first Sky Tower was the city's oldest and best-known urban landmark, and the only wind-powered mill in the country.

Few recognise the name now and of those who do, most probably think of Partington's restaurant inside the Langham Hotel, now perched on the mill's old site.

But if the windmill's last owner had had his way, the Langham would not exist, the windmill would have remained as the centrepiece of a park incorporating all the land bordered by Karangahape and City roads, and Symonds and Liverpool streets.

The original mill, known as the Victorian Flour Mills and Steam Biscuit Factory, was built in 1844 from tens of thousands of bricks made from the surrounding soil, and sat in the centre of a copse of teatree.

Initially, its sole purpose was to grind flour for the troops fighting the Land Wars, then after a short spell — during which it was shut down and the sails removed — its final owner-operator, Joseph Partington, renovated everything, installed a back-up electric engine, and began the mass production of wheatmeal biscuits.

By then the surrounding buildings had caught up with it, so during World War I Partington raised the mill from 18m to 24m so the sails would tower over the neighbours.

You can still see them in the background of many photographs from the time. The mill was a source of such civic pride that there was considerable anguish on both occasions it suffered serious damage — in 1924 a storm destroyed two of its sails, while in 1930 thousands turned out to watch as fire gutted its 10 storeys.

But the biggest threat to its future came in 1936 when the site was considered for a new fire station.

Not to be blindsided, Partington revealed he had rewritten his will so that the mill and surrounding properties would be bequeathed to the city on condition that the windmill was maintained and the land laid out with paths, lawns, gardens, shrubs and trees and named Partington's Park.

The rents from several associated properties were supposed to cover maintenance costs. When Partington died on November 18, 1941, a search of his home uncovered a stack of books on windmills and dozens of envelopes, some that had been gnawed by rats, containing the then princely sum of £2350.

The envelopes had been hidden in tins, sacks, bottles and under his bed, but the vital will was nowhere to be found. Luckily, his lawyer had a copy and was adamant he'd spoken to the mill owner shortly before his death and had heard his client repeat his wishes.

The following year new mayor Jack Allum decided his council would not follow up on the bequest. Allum said they couldn't rule out the possibility Partington had changed his mind and destroyed the will, but more to the point, added that if the council did take over the site they would also inherit its outstanding mortgage payments. Remember, this was wartime.

A few plans to save the old windmill were proposed, including converting it into a scout house or moving it to Beckham Place Reserve off Grafton Rd, but it was eventually pulled apart in 1950. All that remains of this once cherished structure are the French burr millstones on display at the Museum of Transport and Technology.

Chapel of the Little Sisters of the Poor

No, not a building you often hear lamented, more an example of why the city needs to keep its eyes open. Because this isn't an irreplaceable victim of the 80s wideboys, it was a chapel that all but fell on its own sword as recently as 1997.

Yes, alarms were raised, but they were too late and no one who mattered listened or was willing to spend the necessary political capital. The Romanesque-style chapel, set within the grounds of St Joseph's Home in Herne Bay, was designed and completed in 1908 by Thomas Mahoney.

He was also responsible for buildings such as St Benedict's Church in Newton, the downtown Customhouse, the Dilworth Tce flats, and Baradene College, and was dubbed "the father of architecture" by the Journal of New Zealand Architecture.

In New Zealand terms, his chapel was a one-off, and it came under threat in 1994 when the Little Sisters decided to redevelop their property on Tweed St, Ponsonby.

Yet again, the potential earthquake risk and high cost of repairs were used to support their desire to tear down this French-inspired building. While the Catholic Church may have the resources, the order declared that their money was better spent on caring for the elderly poor than maintaining old buildings, even if the repairs were fairly straightforward.

Auckland University senior architecture lecturer Elizabeth Aitken Rose says the chapel's loss is a classic case of a building people take for granted until it is too late.

"With public buildings like this one, people in the area see them every day, so they probably assume they are listed or in this case that the church would look after it."

She says it's a becoming a growing issue for the Historic Places Trust — even the now-gutted Jean Batten Building wasn't listed until it was set for demolition.

Unfortunately in the chapel's case, the trust — then chaired by former Auckland mayor Dame Cath Tizard who had also overseen the loss of His Majesty's — had been recently bruised by its failed attempt to save Wellington's Broadcasting House and avoided taking a major role.

Although their northern advocate did submit a report in April 1997 confirming its significance, Auckland City granted a resource consent for its removal.

Eight months later the trust's advocate publicly notified an intention to get the chapel listed. The chapel was pulled down before he got the chance.

Its site is now occupied by an attempted replica of the original Mahoney design.