Nelson Provincial Buildings

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These days, a glance along Nelson's skyline reveals our city’s prominent buildings; the Clock tower, the Rutherford Hotel and the Cathedral. Rewind one hundred years, however, and you would discover that amongst such buildings stood the Nelson Provincial Buildings. Unknown to the majority of the City’s younger generations, the Provincial Buildings were central to the community of Nelson for over a century.

In the early stages of Nelson’s settlement, communication with the government was challenging. The people of Nelson felt that there was a need for change in the way in which the region was governed. The proposed solution was a system of self-governance. A public meeting was held on December 27th 1850 to discuss the concern, which attracted an estimated 400 people. This was a significant crowd for the small population at the time and is a notable event in the history of Nelson. The meeting ran from noon until the early hours of the morning, with many wishing to voice their opinion.

In 1852 a provincial system of Government was introduced. New Zealand was separated into six provinces which were to be self-governed.  Nelson's first Provincial Council was elected the following year. A more suitable form of governance had been achieved, yet a few years passed before it became apparent that a more appropriate building was required from which to conduct affairs. The New Provinces Act of 1858 allowed Nelson and Marlborough to become separate Provinces and, in the same year, action was taken towards establishing government buildings in Nelson.

Provincial Buildings Ashton HallAston Hall, Birmingham, England
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A reward of 25 pounds was offered for the best proposal  for a government building. Coincidentally, architect Maxwell Bury was in Nelson assisting with improvements to the Cathedral and produced the selected design. Bury’s design drew inspiration from the aesthetics of Aston Hall, a building in Birmingham, England. Aston Hall was constructed of stone, however for a colony merely in its development stages, timber was chosen as a more affordable material. The design was of Jacobean architectural style and featured towers very similar to the ones of Aston Hall.

Provincial buildings 1860sProvincial Council Buildings, late 1860’s Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy Collection: C2771
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The 26th August 1859 was an eventful day for the people of Nelson, as the foundation stone for the new building was laid. Wet weather did nothing to dampen the atmosphere as a grand procession of bands and banners made its way towards the site for the new building. The site chosen to house the Provincial Buildings, Albion Square, was the same site as the 1850 meeting held to discuss the issue of governance: the land which would make up Albion Square was granted from the Crown to the Superintendent of Nelson, in various parcels, between 1856 and 1871. Today the Nelson Courthouse stands on this site, which borders Bridge Street. Before placing the foundation stone a time capsule containing newspapers, minerals, flax, cloth, coins and the 1859 Lucas directory was placed in the ground. The foundation stone bearing the Latin phrase ‘Let Justice be done to all though the heavens fall’ was laid by the superintendent. Celebrations continued with the singing of the national anthem.

Provincial buildings Peydon engravingAn engraving by S. L. Paydon of the Nelson Provincial Government Building in 1861.
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The eventual construction cost for the Provincial Buildings reached 9000 pounds. This was a large investment for a small population of around 5000, yet it was felt that such a building would benefit Nelson significantly. On the 30th April 1861 the Council held its first meeting in the new buildings, following a brief opening ceremony.

In 1866 a Fire Engine House was built in a complementary style to the architecture of the Provincial Buildings. It was constructed to shelter a fire engine, which was needed to protect the timber buildings. The small building is infamous, as it was reportedly used to house the bodies of the Maungatapu murder victims (in the same year as its construction).

Provincial buildings c1890Nelson Provincial buildings pre-1892 from NZETC
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The Provincial Government operated from the buildings for 14 years, ending with the discontinuation of self-governance in 1875.  The buildings continued to be used for government purposes, such as offices and storage space, and were also used to host public events. The Provincial Buildings remained the hub of Nelson society with events including balls, fairs, poultry shows, concerts and meetings all held on site into the middle of the 20th century. The buildings were also the location of some academic classes and Nelson College examinations. Physicist Ernest Rutherford, famous for splitting the atom, reportedly sat his examinations at the Provincial Buildings.

The buildings were well loved and utilised by Nelsonians for over a century and were seen as a significant asset to the city. Time can, however, take its toll and, by the 1960’s, signs began to appear that the buildings might be nearing the end of their lifespan. Those occupying offices within the Provincial Buildings reported  rainwater leaking through the tiled roof and doors requiring ‘Do not slam’ signs to prevent the entire structure from trembling. It was discovered that the buildings were victim to borer and rot. The Government proposed the demolition of the buildings, after they had remained unoccupied for a period of time. This proposal was vigorously contested by citizens of Nelson.

A public inspection was held, on September the 24th 1966, which was attended by an estimated 250 people, the majority of whom felt it was in the best interests of the City to invest effort into preservation of the buildings. The Nelson Historical Society held a meeting on the 8thNovember, not long after the public inspection, where a 14 page report on the buildings was presented to the public. The report demonstrated that the buildings were of great importance to Nelson.

The Provincial Buildings were of great historical value to Nelson. These buildings were involved in the development of the colony and had stood through a century of history.  British architectural historian, Professor Nikolaus Pevsner, provided an outside perspective on the issue: ‘What matters is not so much to measure the qualities of your buildings against the qualities of the best buildings of the date in the world, but to assess the value of your building within the history of architecture in New Zealand.’1 The Nelson Provincial Buildings were among the last of the Provincial Government buildings left in New Zealand, which contributed to their historical importance.

Architecturally the buildings were unique in Nelson. The beautiful Jacobean aesthetics stood out among its surroundings, seeming almost palace-like, sitting beside Queens Gardens. The buildings were not only a visual focal point for Nelson, but also a social focal point. The buildings provided a venue for Nelson events and were steeped in history, which would make them an irreplaceable loss for the city.

Provincial Buildings demolitionProvincial Buildings demolition 1969
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A civic inspection was held on  16th December 1966, two months after the opening of a new Government block in the grounds of the old Provincial Council building. Most people believed that  the Government should be encouraged to save the Provincial Buildings. Various proposals were made to preserve the building, including removing sections in bad repair or even rebuilding from the ground up. There was a majority opinion amongst Nelsonians that the buildings should be preserved for future generations. A major voice opposing demolition of the buildings was the mayor of the time, Mr T.F. Horne. Mr Horne declared ‘it is an unethical move when the Government knows there is a feeling of unrest among the people.'2 He also was of the general opinion that the buildings were an integral part of the Nelson community ‘once this goes part of Nelson goes too.'3

The fate of the Provincial Buildings was eventually determined by finances, following another inspection in March 1969. The cost to refurbish the buildings was estimated at $150,000 (2.33 million in 2010). The government claimed that it was unable to justify such an excessive amount of money. The Nelson City Council would be required to cover the finances if refurbishments were to be undertaken and, with no support from Government, this was not possible. The buildings were scheduled for demolition on the 12th September 1969.

Retired architect Christopher Vine was closely involved in the efforts to save the Provincial Buildings and, more recently, has described the loss of heritage buildings: ‘Because our history here is so very short, it makes what little physical evidence for it there is, even more important for its rarity.'4    Mr Vine salvaged pieces of the Provincial Buildings and incorporated them into his summer house, enabling a small part of the buildings to live on.

The loss of the Provincial Buildings was the end of an era for Nelson. However, it saw a rise in public awareness of the value of heritage buildings. In 1973, four years after the demolition of the Provincial Buildings, the City of Nelson Civic Trust was established, with the purpose of creating a fund to support the financial needs of heritage buildings in the region. Melrose and Fairfield houses are two such buildings.

Provincial buildings Fire engine houseFire Engine House. Photo supplied by author
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Melrose House was built in 1876 and is one of the last remaining grand homes in New Zealand. In 1974, five years after the demolition of the Provincial Buildings restoration efforts began on the interior of the house, which have allowed  it to be used as a venue for community or private events today.  A small café now also operates from the house. 

Fairfield House was built in 1872 and was first a family home before becoming a boarding facility for both Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls at different times. In 1979 the House was all but abandoned and became the property of the City Council. Fairfield house was on the point of being demolished, when a group gathered to form ‘Friends of Old Fairfield’ to oppose the demolition order and encourage the preservation of the house. After much fundraising and work the building was saved.

The site of the modern courthouse, Albion Square, where the Provincial Buildings once stood, was listed as a Historic Reserve by the Nelson Historic Places Trust in 1990 because of the number of significant historic buildings it contains (see below). An information sign by the footpath is the only evidence left of the Provincial Buildings,  except for the Fire Engine house,  tucked  behind the police station. The demolition of the Provincial Buildings tragically marked the end of an era in Nelson’s history, but it was also a turning point, after which Nelsonians have made great efforts to protect and value their heritage buildings.

Victoria Bone, Nelson College for Girls, 2013

A note on Albion Square

Albion Square gets its name from the Roman name for Britain.  In its early days Albion Square extended to Collingwood and Tasman Streets. In 1878 the Tasman Street end became the Queens Gardens, and the western end was gradually sold off to businesses.

Albion SquareAlbion Square Historic Area. Plan of Salmon Ponds. 1867-1868. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Archives Collection M237.
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During the Provincial Government era a number of structures were erected in the grounds of Albion Square, in addition to the Provincial Government buildings. These included: the former Hardy Street Girls' School, the Caretaker's house, the Fire Engine House, the Brick Magazine, the Pillar Letter Box and Trout Hatchery all of which can still be found in the area today. A dog house, an observatory and a timber magazine are also recorded as having been in the area during this era, but they no longer remain. The Survey Test Marks on Bridge Street were laid shortly after the dissolution of the Provincial Government in 1875.

Hardy Street Girls' School (Former) (c.1860)
Across the road from Albion Square in Bridge Street, the board and batten building, now used by the Christchurch College of Education, was once the Hardy Street Girl's School. It was built about 1860 and was used until 1896 when a bigger school replaced it. It was taken over by the Nelson Centre Board of Education, who used it until 1927 when the Public Works Department moved in. The building returned to educational use when Nelson Polytechnic (now NMIT) took it over in 1988.

Caretaker's House (c.1860)

Fire Engine House (1866)
This ornate wooden garage was built in 1866 to match the Provincial Buildings. It was used for the fire engine for a short time, but its claim to fame dates from the 1866 Maungatapu murders. The bodies of the victims were held there until they could be buried; brought down the Maitai by relays of volunteers until they reached the dray road, and from there to the Government Buildings. The next day (Saturday June 30th) thousands of people viewed the bodies in the fire engine house.

Magazine (1861)
The old brick building near the back of The Suter was used as an explosives' magazine from 1861.

Pillar Letter Box (1862)
On the footpath outside the old school is an iron post box, dating from 1863 and still in use. Initially the concept was for pillarboxes to be installed at country crossroads, but by the time they were imported they went to two city locations. The other used to be outside Cock & Co (now Fresh FM), is now in the collection of the Tasman Bays Heritage Trust.

Trout Hatchery (1867)
The hexagonal building near the old Technical School (now part of NMIT) was erected in 1867 as a fish hatchery. Spurred by settlers seeking to recreate the trout fisheries of 'home' the Nelson Acclimatisation Society hatched millions of fish here, right through until 1946. The first fish were hatched from ova imported from Australia with three ponds fed by water from the Campbell’s Mill lead from the Brook Stream – this remains as a little stream in the ferny section of the Queens Gardens. The fish hatchery was successful and the first fishing licenses were issued ten years later in 1877, with streams right round the province populated from the little octagonal building over the next 70 years.

Sources used in this story

  1. Pevsner, N. (1966, November 9) Case for Preserving Provincial Buildings. The Nelson Mail
  2. Horne, T.F. (1968, November 29) Tenders Called for Demolition. The Nelson Mail
  3. Horne
  4. Christopher Vine, pers. comm.

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Further sources - Nelson Provincial Buildings

Books

Articles

Newspapers

  • Laying the foundation stone of the Government Buildings (1859, August 30) The Colonist
    http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=TC18590830.2.3
  • J.H.M, Let Justice Be Done- Centenary of Government Buildings (1959, August 26) The Nelson Mail
  • Case for Preserving Provincial Buildings-Three Major Values (1966, November 9) The Nelson Mail
  • Provincial Building as Conference Hall? (1967, April 14)  The Nelson Mail
  • Tenders called for Demolition (1968, November 29) The Nelson Mail
  • Public Support Urged To Preserve Building (1968, December 3) The Nelson Mail
  • Minister Urged To Save Old Building (1969, January 27) The Nelson Mail
  • End of an Era (1969, September 13) The Nelson Mail
  • Petheram J. (2003, April 4) Blobbing Out. The Nelson Mail
  • Memorial Gets a Major Boost (2003, June 16) The Nelson Mail
  • Peters C.(2008, March 1)  Piece of Provincial History Lost. The Nelson Mail

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