Christchurch Arts Centre's Clock Tower building, constructed in 1877. The Gothic Revival buildings suffered major damage in the quakes of 2010 and 2011. Photo: Supplied

A painstaking Christchurch heritage restoration, part of a $290 million post-earthquake programme of work at New Zealand’s largest collection of category one buildings, has won a prestigious UNESCO award.

The $40 million restoration of the Great Hall and Clock Tower buildings at Christchurch’s Arts Centre has earned an award of merit in the UNESCO Asia-Pacific awards for cultural heritage conservation.

The Gothic Revival masonry buildings, which sit in the north-west corner of the Arts Centre site, a stone’s throw from the botanic gardens in central Christchurch, suffered major damage in the quakes of 2010 and 2011.

They had to be seismically strengthened and retrofitted. Significant heritage features, like the turret and stained glass windows, were painstakingly restored.

Arts Centre chief executive Andre Lovatt tells Newsroom that three years ago the charitable trust set a goal of winning a significant heritage award and UNESCO is the preeminent organisation for celebrating such restoration projects.

“Looking back on the three years and the project and what’s been achieved, it’s huge for us,” he says.

“It’s a big endorsement of the hard work that a very, very large team is putting in and it’s more fuel, really, for us to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Christchurch Arts Centre’s Great Hall in the throes of being restored. Photo: Supplied

Part of that job is fundraising – the trust has a $35 million shortfall for the centre’s restoration, which should be finished by the end of 2020.

The UNESCO awards jury’s chair, Duong Bich Hanh, chief of UNESCO’s Bangkok culture unit, said in a statement the restoration returned a major historic landmark to the public and “celebrates a memorable step towards the city’s recovery”.

Forty-three projects from 10 countries were in the running for the award. It’s the fourth time a New Zealand project’s been recognised.

The Arts Centre was the city’s original university and previously housed Christchurch’s Girls’ and Boys’ High Schools.

In the bowels of the Clock Tower building is Rutherford’s Den, where Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Rutherford conducted his early experiments.

Beyond that scientific pedigree, there’s also a huge emotional connection to the site for many people, especially for local lovers of arts, culture and heritage in a city which lost so much in the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.

Lovatt says heritage features in the Great Hall and Clock Tower heritage features have been meticulously restored and new structures have been built within the buildings themselves.

“That new structure makes them strong and enables us to all have confidence that the buildings are going to stand up to future earthquakes, if we ever have them.

“That process basically starts with pulling all of the interior heritage fabric out, removing it, filing it and recording it so that it can eventually go back in.

“And then we put new concrete structure internally within the building and then put the heritage fabric back on.”

Despite the strengthening work, the buildings are, geometrically, almost identical to how they were prior to the earthquakes. Lovatt describes that process as complex and difficult.

“You don’t see, in these buildings, widespread use of exposed steel, which is very, very significant from a heritage perspective because all of the good stuff, if you like, the stuff that makes the building strong is hidden.”

Stonemason Frederick Hamraths, of Germany works on a stone block at Christchurch’s Arts Centre. Photo: David Williams 

The Arts Centre of Christchurch charitable trust was created when the university left the central city in the 1970s. Its mission was to hold and conserve the heritage buildings – but also to be a place which accommodates, fosters and promotes the arts, culture and education.

The Clock Tower was built in 1877 and the Great Hall in 1882. They are the oldest buildings of the Arts Centre’s 23.

As part of the restoration they now have modern heating, lighting, power and data technology. That includes central heating in many places and underfloor heating in the Great Hall.

The Great Hall’s memorial window, which commemorates the death of 185 former Canterbury College students and faculty in World War One, has 4000 individual pieces of glass.

Lovatt: “Thankfully it was safely removed prior to the February 2011 earthquake so that it could be kept safe. Having it out of the building while the building’s being restored has enabled it to be completely refurbished – so new lead, all of the glass was cleaned. And then the frame that we’ve put it back into in the building is so much more robust.”

The restoration cost for the two oldest buildings cost a touch over $20,000 per square metre – “we literally can’t afford to do that everywhere”, Lovatt says.

In other parts of the Arts Centre, the cost will be as low as $8000 per square metre – which means some buildings might have discreet areas of exposed steel and some slight changes in size to account for strengthening work.

At its peak, when virtually half the site was being worked on, up to 250 people worked on the centre’s restoration.

Now, nearly 60 percent of the centre’s footprint is either open or soon to be open to the public. The tenants are a carefully thought-out mix of commercial – to earn the trust money, such as a cheesemongers, deli and a sushi and dumpling outlet – as well as space for arts, culture and education.

Restoration manager Chris Whitty took Newsroom on a behind-the-fences tour of the work in the Department of Engineering cluster of buildings and West Lecture.

One of the engineering buildings, which has been stripped right back, used to house the Court Theatre’s main theatre.

Christchurch Arts Centre restoration manager Chris Whitty. Photo: David Willims

The timber floor, which used to sit about 60cm above the concrete base, is gone. Timber floorboards and windows sit on racks as hammering goes on overhead and outside.  

Massive concrete piers run from the floor to the high ceiling, and are linked under the floor.

At the top of the West Lecture building, apartments are being built for writers, scientists and artists in residence. Below, there will be two cinemas and a wine bar.

On the middle floor, near a new lift shaft, he explains that the heritage shell of the building is almost all that’s left of the original, built in 1917.

“The stairwell is the only heritage bit left in the building. This was a bit of a mish-mash and has been chopped around in the early, early 1980s. So this piece of the building here is basically a box that’s gone up within the heritage building.”

It’s hard for Christchurch people to stand in the Arts Centre without evoking a flood of memories. For people of your correspondent’s generation, who attended high school in the late 1980s, they might re-live scenes of spending hours wandering markets amidst wafts of ethnic food stalls; lazy afternoons listening to live music on the grass; attending theatresports and plays at the Court Theatre; and Christmas Eve drinking sessions at the Dux de Lux pub.

After the still-broken cathedral, it is arguably the city’s most beloved heritage precinct. With more than half of it now open, the Arts Centre gives Christchurch people another much-needed reason to visit the central city.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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