As long ago as the mid-1960s, Mt Eden Prison was scheduled for demolition. Even then, the antiquated pile was beyond redemption as a suitable place to incarcerate humans, and it was to come down after the completion of the maximum security jail at Paremoremo. That never happened, and Mt Eden was to resist many closure attempts over the next 40-plus years. Only now, with the announcement of the construction of a new $216 million prison on the site, is there a definitive opportunity to rid Auckland of this unloved Victorian edifice. Astonishingly, however, planning for the new complex envisages its conversion into an administration block, and the possibility that one wing might eventually be opened to the public, possibly as a museum showcasing the prison's history.
Mt Eden's resilience seems boundless. Yet the reasons for tearing the jail down are no less strong today than they were four decades ago. It is a grim and ugly building that depresses all who enter it. Blighting its history is a high suicide rate, not to speak of the hangings that took place in its yard. Its cheerlessness is reinforced by the way it sits at odds with surrounding commercial buildings and the adjoining motorway. Under the present planning, this will be accentuated through its dwarfing by the extensive buildings for the new prison, including an eight-storey block. There will not be a presence or streetscape that suggests Mt Eden could rival other preserved prisons overseas, such as Fremantle Jail, as a tourist attraction. Alcatraz it most certainly will not be.
More immediately, it is not suitable as an administration block. The planning notes, quite correctly, that the building will have to be upgraded to fulfil that purpose. This will not be achieved without significant expenditure. Even then, the barren nature of the structure means few in the Corrections Department will queue to work there. Those administrators will also be aware consultants have warned that the unreinforced bluestone walls are far from earthquake-proof. Worse, it will be extremely difficult to reinforce the walls and floors to a level that meets occupational health and safety standards.
The only reason for the preservation of the old prison seems to be that it is classified as a listed building by both the Historic Places Trust and the Auckland City Council. Presumably, the heritage ratings reflect, more than anything, the simple fact that the structure is old. This, of course, cannot be denied. It was originally used as a military stockade and turned into a prison when the old city jail was torn down in 1856. But simply being old is not necessarily a reason for retaining a structure, particularly if it is potentially dangerous and loathed by virtually all who have come in contact with it, be they prisoners, overstretched prison staff, or visitors.
The Government can, of course, override heritage listings. It would not be a step taken lightly, especially given the paucity of historic buildings in Auckland and the misfortune that has fallen to some of these over the past few decades. But a compromise is possible. Selected sections of the stone wall that was built around the jail in the mid-1870s by prisoners could be retained and incorporated appropriately into the new prison.
This would ensure a slice of the site's history was preserved without going down the unnecessarily extravagant and inappropriate course of transforming much of the old prison. Many would welcome such a move. Some structures are so forbidding that society breathes a sigh of relief when they are gone. Mt Eden Prison is one of these.