When ethics overcome history

Another iconic building in my home town, Napier, New Zealand, bit the dust a while back. The Williams building – 103 years old – survived both the devastating 1931 earthquake and fire that followed.

Panorama I took of Napier's Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far left.
Panorama I took of Napier’s Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far right.

Now it’s gone down before the wrecking ball. And a good thing too. You see, it apparently only met 5 percent of the current earthquake-proofing standard. Ouch. Surviving the 1931 quake and retaining its structural integrity were, it seems, two different things.

The Williams building. Click to enlarge.
The Williams building going…going… Click to enlarge.

It’s the latest in a succession of quake-risk demolitions around the city. A few structures – such as the Paxie building, centre in the photo above, or the old State Theatre (where I first saw Star Wars in 1977) have been gutted and the facades preserved. But original ‘deco’ buildings of the 1930s are limited to a couple of city blocks. A single heritage precinct. When I was a kid, deco filled the town.

....and gone....
….and gone…. Click to enlarge

I know, I can hear the howls of protest now. ‘But – but – you’re interested in history…how can you support knocking it down?’

Easy. History is more than the artefacts it leaves anyway, but the real calculation is more immediate. A few years back, Napier’s Anglican Cathedral hall was also under threat of demolition, in part because it was a pre-quake masonry structure. The Historic Places Trust approached me, wanting me to put my authority and repute as a nationally known historian behind their effort to have it listed and legally protected. I was well aware of that history, of course. But I knew the building was a quake risk –and I hadn’t been given any engineering reports on which to base the professional opinion I was being asked to provide by Historic Places.

The biggest horror story of the 1931 quake was the way a doctor had to euthanise a badly injured woman who was trapped in the ruins of the cathedral – the only way to save her from being burned alive by advancing fires. In was an appalling moment. The decision tore at him for the rest of his life.

I wasn’t going to endorse saving a building where that might happen again. Risking human life or preserving a historic building? It’s a no-brainer, really. So while it was sad to see that building go -and sad, since, to see other structures like the Williams Building disappear – it’s really not a hard choice. What would you do?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


6 thoughts on “When ethics overcome history

  1. An unsafe building is an unsafe building. Save something of the interior for a memorial museum exhibit, take plenty of pictures, maybe do some oral history about the building, and tear the poor thing down.

    Can’t believe those folks wanted you to render an opinion without an engineering report!

    1. The omission of data on which I could make an informed judgement killed it for me. But it summed up the plea. I think their logic went ‘this guy is a historian’ which as far as I could tell meant ‘and therefore has an unreasoning emotional attachment to the artefacts that survive from the past’ or something. It was an appeal to sentimentality, which certainly has its place. But not where lives are at stake. Of course I have never quite met the stereotype of a ‘historian’ owing to my science interests and the approach that gives me to analysis, which is not that of the history in crowd in New Zealand. I much prefer being classified as something else. ‘Spock’ would be flattering… 🙂

  2. When I was a college student, the old “round” National Guard Armory, which was just a few blocks from my house, was torn down. The lot it was on then belonged to the city, and a hue and cry rose up about the intent to tear it down. When the city did do it, it did it after hours and quickly, probably wisely, in order to avoid more outcry.

    It was a neat building, but the mortar was so deteriorated that it was possible to pull bricks right out of it. I recall a television reporter doing that on the evening news. No matter, some were really upset.

    Indeed, some still are. Years later when I posted it on one of my blogs it drew a comment from a person who was still upset about it: http://warmonument.blogspot.com/2011/09/115th-cavalry-armory-monument-casper.html

    But what could they do? It hadn’t been built for the ages.

    1. That sounds very similar to what’s facing a surprising chunk of urban New Zealand right now. Buildings not particularly made to last are sittting in earthquake zones and the regs have just been tightened after the Christchurch tragedy. Wellington has been particularly affected: even relatively new buildings are below par for seismic resistance. The scream from those objecting to the ‘fix it or demolish’ regime is palpable (not least from those who own the buildings) but the hard fact is that lives are likely to be at stake when the forecast ‘big one’ hits.

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