Times are a-changing in downtown Whanganui. Laurel Stowell talks to an architect and a building owner.

There's a slow change creeping through the former warehouses, wharves, pubs and public squares of Whanganui's riverside Old Town - the tides of fashion are sweeping people back in their direction.

Ten years ago Whanganui architect Bruce Dickson feared the Old Town's shabby charm would be destroyed or neglected.

Now, thanks to the work of the Whanganui Regional Heritage Trust, the Earthquake Prone Building Taskforce, councillor Helen Craig and other individuals, the tide seems to be turning.

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Whanganui town started by the river, with waka pulled up on the shore, ships coming in to wharves and warehouses spreading along the bank. Bruce remembers seeing coastal boats moored at the wharf during his childhood.

Commerce happened there, and the banks, lawyers and pubs clustered around. The buildings were first made of timber, then of brick to prevent fire risk.

There were a lot of pubs - the Albion, Commercial, Federal, Rutland, Fosters, Provincial and Metropolitan - all in the same small area.

Many of the early buildings remain, in various states of repair or decline, and are part of Whanganui's heritage.

All of the town centre has heritage value, Bruce says.

It's older and more concentrated in the few blocks and street frontages Whanganui District Council has called the Old Town Conservation Zone.

Owners there need consent to change or demolish buildings.

Demolition consent has been refused on several occasions, most recently for the very prominent Thain's building at 1 Victoria Ave, in August.

The Native Land Court building across the road is visible from a lounge window. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.
The Native Land Court building across the road is visible from a lounge window. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.

UCOL has twice been refused consent to demolish the Native Land Court building in Market Pl, the only purpose-built Māori Land Court in New Zealand.

It wanted to replace the building with an iwi education project and Market Pl seemed an ideal location, being so close to Pākaitore, an important place for Māori.

Consent to demolish the former Metropolitan Hotel, a large wooden building on the corner of Taupo Quay and St Hill St, was declined in 2004.

One that does have demolition consent is 35B Victoria Ave, the two storey brick building behind George's Fisheries.

Earthquake researchers tried testing it to destruction, but it refused to die.

Other buildings have been kept, and are still in use. There are some happy examples, Bruce said, such as the five buildings retained when UCOL moved to the Old Town, the renovated Sarjeant on the Quay, the new Conservation Department office, the strengthened former BNZ building in the Bridge Block, Kerry Girdwood's restoration of the A E Kitchen building and Alex Garrett's riverside mall in Taupo Quay.

Others are looking hopeful.

Australian owners have bought the Post & Telegraph building on the corner of Victoria Ave and Ridgway St, and intend to make improvements.

Hadleigh Reid has bought the former Cosmopolitan Club and other buildings in Drews Ave.

The Bank of New South Wales building in the Bridge Block has a new owner from Auckland who wants to run a business out of it.

The Accountants' Chambers in Maria Pl has a new owner who wants to restore it.

Whanganui's Accountants' Chambers has a new owner who wants to preserve it. Whanganui Chronicle Photograph by Stuart Munro.
Whanganui's Accountants' Chambers has a new owner who wants to preserve it. Whanganui Chronicle Photograph by Stuart Munro.

DML builders, under new owner Keryn Amon, is strengthening and restoring heritage buildings, and looking to do more.

Some are still at risk, and the Thain's building could be one of them.

Another is the former Vega restaurant next to the town bridge. The owners had a design for strengthening it and adding apartments - but changed their minds and now want to sell.

The former Metropolitan Hotel has been bought by David Moore, of Villa Services Ltd, who is restoring the Sarjeant house in Bell St.

"I think that building will be in good hands. The one next door [in St Hill St] is for sale. It's a beautiful building inside, one of those classic warehouse structures that would be snapped up if it was in Auckland or Wellington," Bruce said.

The one worrying him most is the handsome three storey building built for Hallensteins, then used by Andersons for Men. It's on the Watt Fountain intersection of Victoria Ave and Ridgway St.

Corner buildings "bookend" a streetscape and the buildings on the other three corners have committed owners.

The Hallensteins building is different. Its owner lives in Singapore and owns two other central Whanganui buildings - but has maintained none of them.

The Hallensteins building is falling apart and has no tenants.

"The owner could walk away, and what happens to it then? I think there's a danger it's going to be left to the council," Bruce said.

Other heritage treasures are for sale.

The Accountants' Chambers in Maria Pl has been sold and may be restored, and the handsome building next door is for sale.

The Federal Hotel, a Taupo Quay landmark, may also be on the market.

Turning the upper storeys of the buildings into apartments has to be one of the best prospects for keeping them, Bruce says, especially in a time of housing shortage.

"Why are we opening up large subdivisions on the outskirts of town when we have all of this potential in the middle of town that could be converted to much more sustainable form of living?"

Whanganui's first Public Trust Office was built in 1913. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.
Whanganui's first Public Trust Office was built in 1913. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.

One heritage building that's for sale has this potential. It's the former Public Trust Office in Market Pl, owned by Brian Hayward and his former partner Christine Raymond.

Brian Hayward gets a huge variety of items to sell in his Guyton St auction rooms. Photo / Stuart Munro
Brian Hayward gets a huge variety of items to sell in his Guyton St auction rooms. Photo / Stuart Munro

The building stands four square in the oldest part of town, a concrete fortress that commanded people's confidence and held their treasures for 66 years - from construction in 1913 until the office moved to a new building in 1980.

Palms flourish in the spacious upstairs lounge. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.
Palms flourish in the spacious upstairs lounge. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.

Going inside is like stepping back in time. Christine's palms flourish in the upstairs lounge, and big windows look out on Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens, or across to the tower on Durie Hill.

The Federal Hotel and Durie Hill Tower are in the eastern view. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.
The Federal Hotel and Durie Hill Tower are in the eastern view. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.

The building has three vaults. The biggest is an enclosed room with cubby holes for lawyers papers from floor to ceiling. The wooden step ladder used by former employees to reach high ones still stands in the middle.

An upstairs landing connects to a fire escape ladder to the ground floor. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.
An upstairs landing connects to a fire escape ladder to the ground floor. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.

There's a gap in the roof to let light in over the stairs, and a fire escape ladder from the upper landing to an outside door.

The architect was Thomas Henry Battle, and no expense was spared in the building. The walls are 45cm thick, of concrete reinforced with steel.

"Nothing moves in this place. Only the windows rattle in an earthquake."

In 1920 it was one of five buildings in New Zealand purpose-built for the Public Trust.

Its details are still glorious - a stone doorstep, tiled floors, arched windows and lion's head door knockers.

One window has a crest etched into it. Another was broken when a kererū flew into it.

It cost $1600 to repair and happened on the day a former owner, Graham Takarangi, was buried.

The place has had minor alterations.

The Corinthian columns that once flanked its corner entrance are gone, and its flat bitumen roof was changed to a more sloping one in 1928.

 The word RACIST was sprayed on an outside wall during the 1995 occupation/reclamation of Pākaitore. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.
The word RACIST was sprayed on an outside wall during the 1995 occupation/reclamation of Pākaitore. Whanganui Chronicle photograph by Laurel Stowell.

The words Public Trust Office have been scrubbed off the Market Pl side, and the faint traces of the word RACIST are still visible on a lower wall, spray painted there during the 1995 occupation/reclamation of Pākaitore.

When Brian and Christine bought the building in 1997 he thought to live in the top storey and hold four antique auctions a year in the bottom.

He quickly found that would mean making a lot of changes - a ramp to the door, a disabled toilet and a fire design plan. Hearing minute details of the fire plan, he gave up on the auction idea.

"Suddenly I could see dollars just flying out the window."

But changing the use of a building isn't that hard, Bruce says, and there's financial help to do it.

The Government's Heritage Equip Fund, administered by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, will pay up to half the cost of strengthening privately owned buildings that have recognised heritage value.

There's "quite an application process" to go through, but two Whanganui buildings have been offered funding. Bruce is hoping more will apply.

"The biggest problem seems to be in getting the message through to the owners, about what's available to help them."

Owners can also apply to the Whanganui council for help to strengthen facades, and Bruce said it helps if owners can work together - which hasn't happened much.

The Public Trust building is for sale by tender, and Brian hopes the new owner will enjoy it as much as he and Christine have, and will take the building into a whole new era of use in a flourishing Old Town.