In Māori society historic places are linked to whakapapa (genealogy), and are described as wāhi taonga and wāhi tapu (places of special and sacred value). Examples are landscape formations or burial grounds. Buildings such as wharenui (meeting houses) were also wāhi taonga and wāhi tapu because whakapapa was embedded in their physical fabric through carvings and panels, and symbolically through their structure. Because pre-colonial Māori buildings were constructed of non-permanent materials, they tended to rot or be replaced. Accordingly, knowledge of such places has been derived from kōrero (oral history) and archaeological research.
For European settlers historic places were associated with the likes of castles and cathedrals, and existed in the ‘old world’ (Europe) rather than the ‘new world’. While some acknowledged the importance of Māori historic places such as pā sites, few considered New Zealand old enough to have Pākehā equivalents. The capitalist idea of creative destruction (where buildings are demolished and replaced with more profitable structures) and the Victorian belief in material progress (which championed creative destruction because it showed progress was occurring) also hindered the retention of historic places. Those that did survive usually did so only because redevelopment pressures were weak, as in regions such as Northland. As the first area to be settled permanently by Pākehā, it included New Zealand’s oldest wooden and stone buildings: the Kerikeri mission house (1822) and the Stone Store (1836).
Progress before preservation
Buildings in fast-growing cities were more susceptible to demolition. Reasons included:
- the land was needed for another use
- rising property values warranted the erection of a new building
- the building fabric had deteriorated and become unsafe
- fire had damaged the structure.
On these occasions a newspaper might detail the history of the condemned structure but little thought was given to keeping it. In 1885 Auckland’s Anglican St Paul’s Church was demolished because it stood in the way of plans to excavate Britomart Point. The masonry and timber building had been built in the early 1840s and its position above the town had made it an immediate landmark. Its foundation stone was laid in 1841 by Governor William Hobson and it was consecrated by Bishop G. A. Selwyn in 1844. The governor, his officials and the military all worshipped here. It was arguably the city’s foremost historic building, but no attempt was made to save it because it was perceived to have no value.
Loss through neglect
Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) near Tauranga included a series of underground trenches, which Ngaī Te Rangi and Ngāti Ranginui forces used to ward off a British attack during the New Zealand wars in 1864. It has been argued such pā were the genesis of trench warfare and a scale model of Gate Pā was exhibited in London as an example of a famous fortification. But its importance was unrecognised by locals and the site was successively filled in to protect grazing cattle.
By the late 1890s there was a growing public awareness of the significance of historic places and the need to preserve some of them. This was in part due to Pākehā historical consciousness being awakened by 50th anniversary celebrations of New Zealand’s first towns, but also because there was growing recognition there were ever-fewer buildings left that dated from the first period of colonial settlement.
The shift in sentiment was highlighted in 1898 when the gatehouse of Auckland’s Government House was razed so a more ornamental structure could be built. The gatehouse was a former blockhouse and had been erected to shelter townspeople in case the 1840s northern wars spread to Auckland. A local newspaper attacked the demolition because the gatehouse ‘spoke of a time when the city of Auckland was in danger of being attacked by the Natives … [requiring] a place of retreat which could be easily defended in the last resort.’ Another critic was blunter: ‘What disgusting vandalism to efface this relic of bygone days.’1 However, although some might have lamented its demolition, most would have seen it as the price of progress.