Thursday, May 23, 2024

Beauty of historic Christchurch council chambers restored

For the first time in more than 10 years, the ornate detail of Christchurch’s Old Municipal Chambers are on full view following the removal of long-term scaffolding.

Designed by Samuel Hurst Seager and completed in 1887, the red brick building sits in a picturesque location on the banks of the Ōtākaro Avon River, beside the Worcester Boulevard bridge. 

It has just undergone an extensive programme of strengthening and restoration work by Christchurch City Council after being damaged in the Canterbury earthquakes. 

A decorative Queen Anne-styled building, it was the first of its type in New Zealand and represented a break from the predominant Gothic Revival style of major public buildings in the city. 

To help return it to its former glory, Council entered into a restore and lease agreement with a charitable trust set up by private company Box 112. Ownership remains with the Council, who helped the trust by providing funding of $10 million towards restoration, and a 50-year lease. 

There are plans for the trust to establish a library of Antarctic literary works, journals and maps, in collaboration with Adventure Books owner Bill Nye.

Christchurch Mayor, Phil Mauger said he was thrilled to see the Chamber’s exterior in all its glory.

“The building is looking so great without the wrap and scaffolding for the first time since the earthquakes. I’m looking forward to seeing it open and I know the residents of Christchurch will be too,” the Mayor said.

Council Acting Head of Parks, Rupert Bool says those involved in restoring the building have done an incredible job. 

“We’re absolutely delighted with the end result, and it’s wonderful that the community will once again be able to enjoy this unique and picturesque example of Christchurch’s heritage.”

Details from inside the Old Municipal Chambers.

 “The fragile state of the structure certainly presented an obstacle; the repair team had to undertake extensive bracing and strengthening work before they could even get inside. The sheer variety of detail was also a challenge, with a large number of ‘special’ bricks used in the original design.” 

To help work out some of the missing details, old photos of the building were used as a reference, and many of the special bricks that were required have been recreated by a local company. 

During the restoration, a chisel with the initials ‘H A’ was unearthed in the ceiling, which the team’s archaeologist suggested was likely a plugging chisel used in the construction of the brick walls.  

The roof timbers also revealed evidence of a fire that extensively damaged the building in the late 1920s. 

The fire started when an ash can at the bottom of the back staircase ignited, and travelled up the stairs to the custodian’s flat. The custodian and his family had to be rescued off the roof, prompting fire escapes to be fitted following the incident, Council said in a statement.

The restoration of the decorative brick and stone exterior, complete with a cheeky pair of gargoyles at the entrance, is nearly complete and will soon be fully revealed with the removal of the fencing, along with fresh landscaping delivered by the Council. 

The building is set to open progressively in the second half of 2024, with the Antarctic Research Legacy Library taking centre stage afterwards. 

The former Municipal Chambers is a nationally significant category 1 heritage listed building.


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