The former Erskine College, Island Bay

Where I live in Island Bay, Wellington, I look across the valley to what used to be a Catholic girls’ secondary school known as Erskine College. After the school closed in 1985, the buildings had various uses including as an art school venue. I am not an ‘alumna’ or ‘old girl’ of the school, but I did visit it several times when the art school had exhibitions and I took part in one of their weekend courses once. But it has been listed as earthquake prone and is no longer usable. It has been empty for some years and, as such, the target of vandalism.

dsc05200The whole area and collection of buildings was given a Category 1 heritage classification by Heritage New Zealand (HNZ) in 2009. The Main Block and Chapel are also listed by the city council. I quote some information below from the HNZ heritage listing:

“The collection of buildings now commonly known as Erskine College were built in Island Bay as a Catholic girls’ boarding school founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart (Sacré Coeur). The religious of the Sacré Coeur followed the principles instituted by St Madeleine-Sophie Barat, a French nun who founded the Society in 1800 as a response to the quelling of religion after the French Revolution. The Society of the Sacré Coeur, who make the education of girls their focus, subsequently instituted convents throughout the world.

The Convent of the Sacred Heart at Island Bay was the second of four girls’ schools the Society would establish in New Zealand. Constructed in 1905-6, the school was set up by Sisters who had come from overseas at the invitation of Archbishop Redwood, who was keen to have a Sacred Heart secondary school for girls in his diocese. The imposing four-storey Gothic brick and reinforced concrete building was designed by noted architect John Sydney Swan, who was just then emerging from his partnership with Frederick de Jersey Clere, and was the earliest in a series of major commissions for the Catholic Church for which Swan would become well known.

The building was ready for its first pupils at the start of 1907…” numerous buildings were added over the years as the roll increased. The best known and most celebrated architecturally was the chapel added to the main block in 1929-30. “The chapel, again designed by John Sydney Swan, is a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture. The restrained exterior treatment belies an interior which features an exquisite marble altar, and leadlighting and statuary from Germany amongst other treasures.” (Erskine College (Former) at: http://www.heritage.org.nz/the-list/details/7795 .) Here are two historic photos:

 

 

The one on the left shows the main block when it was the only building on site (early 1900s). Sacred Heart Convent School, Island Bay. Ref: 1/1-002748-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22349013

The one on the right, taken from the road above, shows the chapel being re-roofed in 1937-8, with the main block to the right. Erskine College, Island Bay, Wellington. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972: Ref: 1/2-046458-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22738811

Erskine College and its surrounding grounds are subject to a Heritage Order, and in 1992 the Save Erskine College Trust (“SECT”) was officially approved as New Zealand’s first [and probably, only] non-government Heritage Protection Authority under the Heritage Order. The owners and SECT have not been able to agree on development proposals in the past.

Recently the owner notified proposals to build 96 multi-unit apartments on the site, while retaining and seismically strengthening the chapel. As noted in its application: “This proposal seeks consent to strengthen and facilitate adaptive re-use of the Chapel building to ensure the most significant heritage values of the site are protected and the ‘spirit’ of Erskine College is retained. Unfortunately it is not feasible to retain the Main Block despite efforts to find a feasible solution to do so.”[1]

Normally a proposal to demolish a council listed heritage building would have to follow provisions in the Resource Management Act. However, a year or so ago, the Erskine College site was identified as a Special Housing Area (SHA) – recommended by Councillors and confirmed by the Minister of Building and Housing. The Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act 2013 (HASHAA) legislation takes precedence over the Resource Management Act. According to the Wellington City Council website: “The HASHAA provides a streamlined consenting timeframe, with a reduction in notification provisions and appeal rights”.

I’m certainly in favour of building more affordable housing – New Zealand is now near the top of the list of countries with the most unaffordable housing in the world. However, designating an area with a Category 1 heritage listing as a Special Housing Area, means, I think, that heritage will lose out.

The consent document Appendix 7 lists the proposals that have been made since the current owner purchased the property in 2000, and according to that document “retaining the Main Building and the other heritage assets on the site in conjunction with the comprehensive redevelopment of the site would result in significant development loss of between $17 [and] $20 million.”

I’m not qualified or knowledgeable enough to query this. I think it is unfortunate that the main block couldn’t have been converted into several apartments. The former St James Presbyterian Church in Adelaide Road was converted into five apartments while retaining a number of heritage features. Admittedly, that is a wooden building and smaller than Erskine, so probably didn’t have as many seismic issues.

The Erskine proposals were on view in Island Bay for about a week and I photographed some of them – you can see them by clicking the link.

One of the many reports with the application is a heritage assessment (appendix 2) which states: “The Main Block and Chapel are considered to have exceptional architectural, historical, and social significance.” Despite this, they manage to justify demolition of the main block!

“While the loss of the Main Block is acknowledged as a significant and irreversible adverse effect, it is equally recognised that to save the greater “spirit” of Erskine and its most significant physical assets some sacrifice is inevitable. A comprehensive exploration of alternatives to the loss of the Main Block has been undertaken by the applicant and this has explored every reasonable alternative solution to outright demolition, but has concluded that this loss is regrettably unavoidable if the adverse effects on the historic heritage values of the whole are to be minimised. The question of balance in that sacrifice recognises that there is no practical or financial ability to save everything and that the proposed development results, equally, in positive effects on many of the historic heritage assets that constitute the former Erskine College and its significance.”

I don’t yet know how the process will play out with SECT, but as it is now a Special Housing Area, I presume the owner hopes for a better outcome than has happened with previous proposals.

Here are some photos I’ve taken of Erskine main block and chapel over the years, as a record. I’m not sure how the “spirit” of Erskine will be recorded!

Footnote:

[1] Section 2.6 of the consent application.  Documents are available – at the time of writing – on the WCC website: http://wellington.govt.nz/services/consents-and-licences/resource-consents/recent-resource-consents/erskine-college-resource-consent-application .

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