The fate of the historic building at 21 Worcester Blvd is in limbo but the desire to save it is strong. SALLY BLUNDELL reports.
Words fly out of an open book, twisting and threading around the small front garden of the single storey villa opposite the Arts Centre on Worcester Blvd. The bronze sculpture, Inner Struggle by Weta Workshop's Richard Taylor, is one of several artworks forming the Dyslexia Discovery Exhibit in the forecourt of the historic home of the Dyslexia Foundation and the Cookie Time Charitable Trust.
The building's history begins with a large central city section called Raven's Paddock after its owner, Reverend John Raven. In 1897 this small rectangle of land was bought by local businessman and collector John Henry Seagar, the cousin of Samuel Hurst Seagar. It is believed that the prominent architect designed this endearing little villa with its ornate wrought iron lacework, its double bay windows with their Venetian-style arched window mouldings and its side bay window with the distinctive turret roof.
Since then it has been used as a home, a gallery and flats (it was divided in 1936). For a brief period it belonged to the First Church of Christ, Scientist, which planned to demolish the 1898 villa and its neighbour in order to build a new church. These plans were abandoned and the building continued its peripatetic role as an applied art gallery and a hair salon.
In 2006 the Dyslexia Foundation was formed to raise awareness of, and offer support to, the estimated 7 per cent of New Zealand school pupils with dyslexia and the following year the Dyslexia Discovery Exhibit was officially opened.
The New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) Category 2 cottage is not without its share of earthquake scars. There are cracks in the wall linings and the concrete footing of the building, the foundations appear to have twisted slightly underneath the house. The triple-brick firewall of the rear wing is leaning out from the building and the chimneys, initially braced after the September 2010 earthquake, have been taken down to roof level.
But a complete rebuild, says Cookie Time commercial manager Chris White, "is Plan Z"'.
Certainly the bulk of the building appears unharmed. The original sash windows, the leadlight windows and exposed floorboards are intact, the recently landscaped back courtyard is undamaged and the new studio apartment, built on the original footprint of an old concrete block shed, is untouched. Despite being in a liquefaction zone there was no liquefaction on the site.
One of the challenges in meeting this goal is identifying the "original" design to which the building should be restored. Over the years different owners have altered and added to meet their requirements.While the brick wall is going to be taken down - it is under a Cera Section 39 notification meaning a resource consent is not required for demolition - the goal now, says White, is to provide "a safe working environment for staff while trying to preserve a historic building 'as a living building' ".
"With a building like this it is very hard to say, 'That's original'," says White. "As a society we tend to venerate old buildings, but when they were built, when they were just everyday buildings, if people wanted to make changes they just ripped into it. In the end it's a balance, but we don't want to lose the essence of the building."
New Zealand does have a proud tradition of adapting buildings to suit changing needs, particularly to ensure ongoing economic viability, says New Zealand Historic Places Trust's heritage adviser Dave Margetts.
"We work with a lot of owners on cost-effective options for sympathetic development of their properties. It's possible to appropriately adapt a place to ensure that it meets the needs of owners."
As with so many buildings around the city, the fate of 21 Worcester Blvd is still in limbo as engineering reports and insurance payouts remain uncertain. In the meantime, the building's owner, the Mayell Property Trust, is working with the Historic Places Trust and the Christchurch City Council Heritage Team to identify ways of securing, repairing and strengthening the building.
"We love heritage. We love the building," says trustee Guy Pope- Mayell. "We see it as an opportunity to collaborate with heritage and at the same time to make sure our heritage is looking forward, both for the city and its occupants. We want to do it in a responsible and respectful way, but we need to consider what opportunities this presents to make it more workable for future uses and to turn it into a wonderful asset.
"There has been some surface damage and it does need to be strengthened but heritage building owners, like owners of any commercial buildings, are faced with a dilemma if damage is more than insurance."
The required repair and strengthening work will provide opportunities to replace old lathe and plaster walls with stronger materials and to integrate much- needed insulation into the structure. But it is not just the owners and occupants who will benefit from the restoration and retention of this inner city villa.
As Margetts says, the former home is part of a wider historic precinct encompassing the Arts Centre, surrounding houses and the street itself.
"It's about keeping as much as possible of the early precinct and the small scale timber character of the street."