Wellington heritage festival opening draws a passionate crowd
November 01, 2023 | Stories

By David Watt

Wellington Deputy Mayor Laurie Foon launched the 2023 Wellington Heritage Festival in mid-October in front of a large crowd of invited guests from all walks of life. 

With nearly every seat filled, the audience included property developers, planners, architects, historians, iwi representatives, heritage management staff, politicians, and a large number of event organisers, from Kāpiti to Porirua, Wellington, and the Hutt Valley. 

“This launch couldn’t happen in a better place,” said Laurie Foon praising the work that Maurice Clark and McKee Fehl did to restore the Category 1 heritage-listed Public Trust Office Building.  

She said the festival was about storytelling, and highlighted the efforts being taken to preserve heritage buildings using the recent restoration of the Category 1 St James Theatre as a standout example. 

The Deputy Mayor confirmed that heritage was a personal thing, with different opinions and debates, and acknowledges the evening’s panel talk theme, ‘Challenges to heritage in a changing economic and social world’, was apt and timely. She said it pointed to the need for vibrant conversations which she was looking forward to hearing. 

Wellington property developer and restorer, Maurice Clark, ONZM, opened the panel discussion on resilience in Wellington buildings, highlighting the challenges he faced restoring the Public Trust Office Building, the former State Insurance Office Building in Stout Street, Wellington Harbour Board Head Office and Bond Store (now home to the Wellington Museum), the Government Life Insurance Head Office, and Victoria University’s Hunter Building. Clark commented that all this work was “hard yakka” with no easy solutions. “Restoring is one thing, but you have to find new uses for their survival.” The audience warmly applauded his achievements. 

Dr Jamie Jacobs, our Central Region Director outlined the direction and purpose of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, focussing on what makes up heritage – a full range of inherited traditions, monuments, objects, cultures and places, and highlighted the challenges and opportunities for heritage with regards to cost, climate change, housing and densification.  

Dr Jacobs said that heritage conservation is not a zero-sum game or an outmoded idea, but ever expanding, and in a constant change. 

Roger Blakeley opens proceedings for the Festival courtesy of Janice Wilson

Grace Ridley-Smith, speaking as a passionate individual observing what has been going on in Wellington and around the world, pointed to value studies, the cost of materials in buildings, their inherent value, and huge loss when buildings are destroyed, and their contents taken to the tip.   

Her arguments were backed up with numerous overseas studies backing the economics of heritage retention over new builds where their resilience is recognised and valued. Ridley-Smith emphasised that she wanted more renovation, restoration and commitment, with  better protective rules to enable this to happen: “Heritage has a quantifiable value in a modern city.” 

Wellington City Māori Ward Councillor Nīkau Wi Neera, talked about an unfair bias against heritage from people coming into the city and flatting in old buildings needing a lot of attention. He spoke with great purpose to an engaged audience and emphasised that we need to better understand places and the heritage values they hold within their growing and changing communities. He acknowledged that heritage is a gift we need to respect and pass on for future generations. Councillor Nī Wera saw the challenge of finding the right people to commit to this process as one of the challenges facing Councils, Governments, and heritage agencies. 

Professor Ken Elwood, Chief Engineer (Building Resilience) for the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment Hīkina Whakatutuki, stood by the New Building Standard Code for earthquake risk properties stating that it is a perfectly adequate tool to measure risk to buildings, recommending that we should stick to what we have and not try to move the goal posts.  

Prof. Elwood backed up the propositions of other panellists with a  commitment to maintain consistency in dealing with seismic hazards and thinking about preservation. 

Spirited questions from the floor added to a greater knowledge and belief in heritage retention when answered by the panel.  

The attentive crowd went away with a commitment to ensure the 100-plus events in this year’s programme helped to deliver heritage messages.

Wellington Heritage Festival
Watt, David (author)

David Watt | Senior Outreach Advisor Regional Services
Stay up to date with Heritage this month