"30 years on" A personal memory of the journey by George Berry
"30 years on".
The development of the heritage movement in Oamaru and North Otago and the early years of the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust, a personal memory of the journey by George Berry, former chairman of the NZHPT North Otago Regional Committee and of the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust.
First, tonight, I need to say that the things I will talk about are personal memories and views. Many other people have been greatly involved with and supported heritage values and preservation in our district over the years and I must apologise in advance for not mentioning many significant individual contributions. There have been some huge personal commitments to making possible the many trust projects as these developed .
Heritage buildings and values were not always much understood or appreciated in our town and district in the post WW2 years. To many local people our legacy of old stone buildings, much neglected and poorly maintained, were an indication of the town's lack of progress. In Harbour and lower Tyne Street in particular the buildings uses and appearance had largely deteriorated into a grim shadow of the vibrant heart of Oamaru's commercial heart which it had once been in the 19th century development of our town and district. There was every likelihood that demolition, either by neglect or for more modern needs would see the historic area slowly fade away to be replaced with modern structures and activities reflecting the areas industrial zoning under the then district plan. Some notable buildings had been lost or unsymathetically modified, for example the beautifully simple classical bank beside the suash courts was demolished. There was also believed to be a safety issue in terms of the engineering problems and cost of strengthening unreinforced masonry structures as engineers had not yet recognised the resilence of well built Oamau stone structures.
But the real impetus for changed attitudes and recognition of the value and importance of our heritage buildings and their preservation and restoration actually began at Totara Estate. This was as a result of the national & local interest created by the 1982 centennial celebrations of the birth of NZ's frozen meat industry there in 1882 and the enormous economic and social changes that this had then begun for NZ.
The key factor was getting the active involvement of the NZ Historic Places Trust at national level in leading a major building restoration project and its fundraising with historically associated industries, and of the engineering, carpentry and stone masonry skills that were needed for the work of restoring the old station buildings into a farming and meat industry museum. It was initially a challenge for some local trades to accept working with the old materials rather than replacing with new. From this, most importantly, followed an interest from civil engineers in resolving the challenges of reinforcing historic masonry structures to be safe for modern use, (where previously there had been little interest).
The 1982 project came about as a result of Carol's and my purchase of the Totara Estate home farm in 1972. The station buildings historic importance was then largely forgotten and they were still in farm use but their character and history called for something better and after looking at various possibilities for commercial use, perhaps like the Millhouse at Wainakarua, we sought the assistance of our local MP, Allan Dick, who chased down various parties who might be interested in Wellington, including the NZHPT, then under the chairmanship of Dr Neil Begg and with John Daniells as CEO. To cut a long story short we agreed to transfer the buildings and adjacent land to the NZHPT and they agreed to manage a restoration project and the museum establishment. At the time it was the largest project the trust had ever undertaken. Freezing and Shipping companies donated the necessary funding. The centenary celebration and museum opening on 15 February 1982 was a grand occasion, with the Governor General, Prime Minister, and leading diplomatic, industry, and political figures from all over NZ attending. Large numbers of our local people were there. Heritage and history were, to surprise of some, seen as being here and both nationally and locally important. NZHPT interest and support for local projects continued as they then moved on to restore Clark's Mill, once also part of the original Totara Estate of the NZ & Australian Land Company in the days of the big farming estates.
At that time North Otago was territorially a part of the Otago Regional Branch of NZHPT, there was a local Historical Society here which could record and advocate to Dunedin on matters of local interest but there seemed to be little time or interest in the larger issues of our district from Dunedin, other than in matters of early archaeology and rock drawings. In fairness, with all of Otago's heritage issues and little resource there were other priorities no doubt.
So, with the support of the NZHPT, Dr Begg, Helen Stead and I, with Don Munro, chair of the NO Historical Society, went down to a Dunedin meeting to propose setting up a North Otago Regional Committee with all the work that was going to be needed here. It was a strange meeting at the Otago Museum, Helen and I made our case, it was clear we were not universally welcomed, we were then asked to leave the room but could still overhear an ensuing debate, Dr Begg, who was at the meeting to support us assuring everyone we were good and reputable people, the then ODT editor querulously saying "if they go then Central will follow and where will it leave us in Dunedin" and similar other negative or doubtful comment. When we were eventually invited back in Dr Begg told us we could proceed and one member only, Anne Te Maiaroa Dodd, came up to congratulate us and wish us well. So our ways parted from Dunedin and a very active local branch committee was formed.
Our first heritage crisis and challenge then emerged, the Customs Building was to be demolished to extend the local coal merchant's yard. Obviously this was a key building to the fabric of the historic precinct, as it became. The building was saved by a combination of support from local lawyers on resolving related sale contract issues, Council, and NZHPT on funding to buy the building, and the Art Society taking over the use of the building with support from Gillies on upgrading for their use followed.
The next task was to build local support for retention of heritage buildings, to retain and protect them until their restoration could be achieved and their reuse became possible. This was a mainly a matter of getting as much publicity as we could through VIP's coming here and telling us all what a fantastic old town we had and how important it was to keep it. We were able to get the Classification Committee of NZHPT to Oamaru for the first time to assess our district's buildings worthy of preservation and to record the category of each including the first detailed assessment of the precinct buildings and to record what they called our "unique heritage of early buildings" which was such protection as the NZHPT could confer at that time, ( the ultimate protection followed through NZHPT seeking listing in the WDC District Plan with the rules and restrictions on use and modifications which the plan imposes ). The Oamaru Mail frequently had front page pictures of visiting experts standing in front of a notable building and extolling the beauty and potential of our old town legacy buildings and how lucky we were to have such an asset. We also spoke to community groups and service clubs to spread the dream. I must say our mayor at the time said he "couldn't decide whether the old buildings were a great asset or a great liability", however the Mayor of our English twin town, Devizes came here and endorsed the importance of retention, which helped at Council level. Over time attitudes generally became favourable which prepared things for the next great opportunity.
This came about with the amalgamation of the several Stock and Station firms that served our farming community. Harbour Street buildings were largely taken over by bulk storage and processing of wool grain and seeds. Eventually most of the buildings finished up in the ownership of one company, Challenge, chaired by Sir Clifford Plimmer. A new bulk store better suited to modern machinery was built north of Oamaru and the Harbour Street buildings became surplus to requirements. We saw the possibility and another Oamaru lawyer Rodney Grater and I travelled to Wellington and were favourably received by Sir Clifford who eventually agreed to sell us all they owned, most of the street, for $80,000.00. This included the Loan & Mercantile Building in particular, and also some buildings fronting Tyne Street. We managed to raise the money needed, settled, and then the work that continues to this day of fundraising and restoration commenced. It is never easy.
It was at this stage and at the initiative of our Regional committee that the Whitestone Civic Trust was formed as a charitable trust (as such able to receive funds and trade exempt of tax) to take ownership of the land and buildings and be the vehicle for fundraising and managing the restoration and leasing of the buildings with expected leasing revenue to be a key factor in making the trust work. The challenge is and will always be that the trust has to be able to pay its operating expenses and generate enough revenue through rentals to maintain the buildings, year after year. Grants to an organisation like the Trust are generally only available for restoration or upgrade projects, not for operating expenses, which the Trust always needs to show it can manage viably. I suppose most of us understand that the Trust's brief is Oamaru town and Waitaki District wide, not just the Historic Precinct.
The next big step was achieving a substantial Government grant (MP Mike Moore made this possible) for a concept plan study to scope and settle an overall plan and theme for the Historic Precinct and the wider harbour and downtown Oamaru area, (an exercise being updated today under the new District Plan in course of preparation). It was from this that the "Victorian Town at Work" concept emerged as the means of bringing life and character to the precinct and town, so successfully then taken up. This starting point is still worth looking at, it has driven much of the thinking and work that has followed and created the shared community vision that, 30 years on, I think is still valid and important today. The Heritage Fund was also then established, funded by woe and NZHPT to assist building owners with restoration work.
We appointed our first manager , Fergus Robertson, who really started off the restoration work and then had as a trustee a retired architect, Reg Bloor, who was a great help, particularly when we lost the Red Lion flour mill building in the fire that broke out in the Willetts Furniture paint shop and then had to rebuild with the insurance money available. There have been a succession of very good managers who have had a crucial role in making the trust work, both in ongoing restoration fundraising, site works, & in managing the buildings tenancies.
Other buildings acquisitions followed. Brown's Store was swapped with Gillies Foundry for a much-qilapidated Criterion Hotel, then filled upstairs and down with intricate old Foundry iron casting patterns but still with the felt covered bar doors intact. The old Oamaru Mail building was acquired, emptied and a huge space to fill. We also took over the rather astonishingly pretentious little Harbour Board building. When I received the keys and checked through it the Manager's office was a time capsule of the clerical & design work of an earlier generation, Thomas Forrester's pens and inkwells, pattern books etc all sitting there as if he had just left work for the day. Other buildings also had their share of historic artefacts that have generally gone to the North Otago Museum, an unexpected example was some rather undressed victorian females photos found still pinned to a wall in one of the stores. Some still had the original water powered elevator machinery in place if no longer in use. Fortunately other neigbouring buildings over time also passed into symathetic local ownership.
The Trust has also provided the example and impetus for many of our other town and country buildings restoration and reuse. The list is a long one but of ones in which I have had involvement in one way or another can be counted the Forrester Gallery, a challenge on the strengthening and engineering involved, the original Post Office conversion to the Last Post restaurant, the 1870 NZ Express Co Stables building, in Eden Street strengthened and converted to offices for Berry & Co. The $7m upgrade of the WBHS front block and Junior High School block (much of the site work was done when I was Board Chair), the Ministry of Education really stepped up on this after their earlier plans for demolition and rebuild were defeated by earlier board and community opposition. Then there was the incorporation of the old & abandoned Middle School building beside Takaro Park as the central building of the new Oamaru Hospital, this included replacing old ornamental features long since lost, but fortunately there is a good victorian photographic record of 19C Oamaru buildings to work from. More recently the old Observatory building on Hospital Hill has become the icon of the new retirement village there. The particulary big personal one has been Totara House, the homestead & other buildings of the original Totara Estate which has been a 40 year plus restoration project for Carol and I, much helped by local trades including the present Trust Chair.
The circumstances in which, while Trust Chair, I briefly owned the main Post Office building may be of interest. Negotiations between Council and NZ Post for a Council takeover after NZ Post abandoned the building had broken down, the Council view being that they should be given the building and NZ Post needing to achieve market value by selling it. Eventually it was sold to a Dunedin company with development ideas including a video shop, but these were not working out and I was able to buy it back for $120,000.00 for Council after a brief period of ownership when its vault was used for the Last Post's wine store. Council shelved plans to upgrade and extend the former Farm Accounting and Waitaki County Council building in Eden Street they were occupying and did a magnificent job of strengthening and converting this iconic building to the fine HQ for local government it now is for our district.
Also, sitting in the wings, is the conservation plan for Sumpter wharf, prepared by Nick Barber in 2006, an engineer expert in historic marine structures, arranged with the help of Port Otago management by our NZHPT Regional Committee Chair, Carol Berry, when she succeeded me, (after Rodney Grater) as Chair. Another example of how the local committee has worked with the Trust. The Council has the full report, the structure can be preserved, it is simply a question of finding the money ! Port Otago or ORC might perhaps be persuaded to help in one way or another with conservation of one of Otago's little ports historic structures.
There are many other stories of the detail of progressing the Trust's work, this is a bit of a personal memory and a brief narrative of the early years, and many other people than the few I have mentioned, then and since, have helped and progressed the Trust's work, and notably many have been active on our NZHPT Regional Committee in related heritage work that has made so much impact on our district. It has been an astonishing achievement for a small community like ours. National and indeed international recognition and major community dividends have followed from it.
There was from the beginning, and I think always has been a little tension between those who see the Trust as needing to financially support the Victorian Town at Work vision and the defined purpose of the Trust which is to restore and maintain the community asset the heritage area now represents. The reality is the Trust has to succeed financially to continue to work, this is in everyone's interest, it is a business like any other and needs good tenants and fair rentals to be able to carry on, but the character and colour given by the Trust's tenants to the Heritage Precinct is equally important to the Trust and it can be difficult to make such businesses profitable. Maintaining a workable balance will be an ongoing work in progress, we need businesses to succeed but cannot allow the trust to falter or fail!
I think it is important to acknowledge, and, after 30 years, to thank the Waitaki District Council for its support at the outset, and then in many things which have been crucial to making the Trust work. There are many other demands that Council must balance but it has always been there for the Trust where it can.
I have not tried to name the many people who have worked and contributed to the Trust's establishment and the success of its work, the list is a long one and many are here tonight. You can all take great pride in what has been achieved, often against the odds and largely dependant on voluntary work of our trustees and our many supporters, also we must remember and salute the essential contribution of those who have established businesses in the precinct and who continue to promote the "Victorian Town at work" theme that gives life to the area.
As to our Regional Committee that really started this heritage journey and created the Whitestone Civic Trust, it's last project, under Carol's chairmanship was the Phoenix Mill rebuild, carried through by a special purpose trust which raised over $200,000.00 in funding required. The Committee was finally disbanded as were all NZ regional committees of NZHPT when this became Heritage NZ. There were issues of funding these committees on the Trust's limited budget, some disagreements and conflicts of views between some committees and permanent staff and I suspect the "professionals" just wearied of having to service and deal with the local elements and interests when they may have seen or had different priorities. Locally it is a pity, our NO Committee was recognised as one of the most active and successful in the country and could still have fulfilled a useful local role. Proposals from the disaffected for new nation wide local heritage committees did not gain traction and here we already had one with the Trust.
So, the last act of our disbanding local committee was to transfer all its remaining funds and assets to the Whitestone Civic Trust as its legitimate and proper successor with all good wishes for its ongoing stewardship of our district's heritage wherever help is needed.
In conclusion, Carol and I extend to the Whitestone Trust our hopes and expectation that the next 30 years of the Trust will be as successful as the first, whatever the challenges, and may the Trust always prosper.
- George Berry
Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust 31st Annual General Meeting 28 April 2020