Government Building Worcester Street – Building for the Future

The construction of government buildings have long attracted opinion and criticism and the Italian Renaissance style Government Buildings on the corner of Worcester street and Cathedral Square were no different.

Page 2 Advertisements Column 1,Evening Post, Volume LXXX, Issue 3, 4 July 1910. Source: PapersPast

Cabinet passed the plans for the construction of the new Government Buildings on 28 June 1910. They would be built on the site of the old Tramway Company’s tram sheds at the corner of Cathedral Square and Worcester street. Recognised as being “the biggest business buildings ever planned for the city”, the architect Joseph Clarkson Maddison lost no time in calling for tenders.

The Government offices would move from the old Canterbury Provincial Government buildings (and no fewer than twelve other buildings around the city) which had been occupied by the General Government since 1877. It was hoped by many that this would also signal the return of the Provincial buildings to the people of Canterbury.

“I think that the city will be practically unanimous in its desire to have building that lied at the very root of the its history become the property of the Christchurch people.” Christchurch Mayor, J. J. Dougall, said to the Press, reported on 24 June 1911.

Once completed, the offices of the Departments of Customs, State Fire Insurance, State Coal Mines, Public Works, Labour, Stamps, Laud Valuation, Inspector of Machinery, Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Old Age Pensions and Public Trust Office would be transferred to the new building, and new offices would be provided for Ministers and their officers. [1]

Government Buildings AWNS_19130731_p054_i006_b
Artistic and Extensive: the New Government Buildings in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. 31 July 1913. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19130731-54-6.

“Big Bangs thundered over Cathedral square”

Within three months the tender from Christchurch company J and W Jamieson Ltd had been accepted at a cost of £53,564, and construction commenced. [2]

The structure was to be built to last. A series of big bangs thundered over Cathedral Square for several weeks in February 1911 as 600 reinforced concrete piles were sunk in the foundation to support the three storey structure. Walls averaging 27 inches in thickness, with a breadth in some places of five feet, were constructed from “a million and a quarter Canterbury-made bricks”. The base and entrances were constructed from 400 cubic feet of light blue Dobson sandstone from the Grey River on the West Coast – the same stone used on the Wellington Post Office.

The building, designed by Joseph Clarkson Maddison of Christchurch (Warners Hotel, Cathedral Square; Woods Mill, Addington; Kaiapoi Woollen Manufacturing Company; Canterbury Frozen Meat and Dairy Produce Export Company freezing works, Belfast; J. Ballantyne and Co.; Mason, Struthers and Co., Lichfield Street; Messrs Beath and Co.’s premises, and Worcester House in Cashel Street) in the Italian Renaissance style, would be finished in Oamaru stone, relieved with brickwork. Corinthian columns carried on massive pillars and arches capped with Oamaru stone would set off the two entrances. The roof was designed flat and would be bounded by pediments and balustrading. [3]

“The building measures 250ft by 70ft, and the space on the ground floor is reserved for the Customs Department, on the western end, the State Coal and State Fire rooms near the Worcester street entrance, and the eastern end of the ground floor is entirely for the Defence Department. These rooms are all spacious and well-lighted, the ceiling throughout being moulded, and enriched with cornices. A broad winding staircase leads to the upper floors, and is to be handsomely finished in polished marble, and polished Coromandel granite. Stained glass windows overlooking the stairs carry the Dominion’s coat-of-arms,, flanked on each side by the rose, shamrock, and thistle, the. rooms on the first floor are for the Stamps Department, members of Cabinet, tho Inspector of Factories, and the Official Assignee. On tho top floor the Valuation Department, and tho Public Works Department will occupy rooms. The building will be lighted with gas and electric light, and will be served with an electric lift, and in addition has other up-to-date appointments, including 20 large strong rooms.” [4]

Laying Foundation Stone AWNS_19111130_p001_i001_b
Commencing another important Public Building: Sir Joseph Ward laying the Foundation-stone of the New Government Departmental Building in Worcester Street, Christchurch. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 30 NOVEMBER 1911 p001. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19111130-1-1
Sir Joseph George Ward, 1st Baronet, GCMG, PC (1856–1930), 17th Prime Minister of New Zealand (1906–12, 1928–30). Source: Archives New Zealand.

Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward laid the foundation stone at 11am on 20 November 1911 – just a few weeks before a general election – before heading to Sydenham to lay the foundation stone for the new post office. He took the opportunity to complain about the cost to the Government of obtaining the site, claiming that “people selling property to the Government thought there was nothing wrong in ‘having’ the Government.” This observation was refuted in The Press who wrote that “The Government took the site compulsorily, and the price [£20,00] was settled in accordance with law by an Arbitration Court.” The owners of the land wanted £26,385 but the Government had offered just £16,000. The Press pointed out that both sides had counsel and it could therefore be assumed the Government paid a ‘fair value’ for the land.

Further more, The Press laid the high cost of the building firmly at the feet of the Government, accusing them of “unbusinesslike methods” for sitting on the land since its acquisition in 1907 and having to pay £4000 in interest, plus the cost of the rent on their current offices. “In other words, by their dilatory methods the Government have squandered £9400, for which the country will never receive a penny of benefit.”

The choice of architect was also criticised in light of the fact that the Government had on its staff an award-winning architect whose plans for the new Parliamentary Buildings had achieved first prize in a ‘recent competition’. The Press accused the Government of awarding the job to a private architect who as also a “warm political supporter of the Government”. [5]

Their criticism didn’t stop there, also questioned the expense of using ferro-concrete piles in the foundation. Little did they realise that this reinforcement would contribute to the building’s longevity through years of land movement, earthquakes, storms, nearby traffic and construction work.

“Perhaps he could therefore tell us why it was considered indispensable to spend thousands of pounds in sinking ferro-concrete piles in the earth as a foundation for this new building. Such expensive precautions were not found necessary in building the Press Company’s printing-house on the opposite sided of the road, notwithstanding the effect that it is an equally tall building, and has to bear the weight of some heavy machinery.” [6]

Even before the foundation stone was laid and the site had only been dug to a depth of several feet, a heavy rainfall hit causing a reservoir of flood waters from the Square to swamp over and partially fill the site. Men were brought in to pump out the water and worked well into the late hours of the night. However, there was still a large quantity of water in the area. [9]

Government Buildings IMG0070
The Government Buildings, Cathedral Square, Christchurch, 1913. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0070.

When the foundation was being dug workers allegedly discovered an ‘extensive quicksand bed’ – “piles were being sunk, and after many months of work the foundations were considered sufficiently stable to justify the erection of the building.”

In early 1918 a ‘serious crack’ was “discovered in the brick and stone work, almost in the centre of that part of the building facing Worcester street”. It was thought that the foundations were sinking. When asked about it, the crack was explained away by the district engineer of the Public Works Department, Mr J. M. McEnnis: “There’s nothing in it,” he said. “The cracks are explained by the contraction and expansion of the stonework caused by extremes of heat and cold.”

However, three months later “A workman seated in a sling attached to a rope and pulley, and working on the western face of the Government Buildings, drew the attention of many citizens… and there was the usual idol speculation as to what was the object of his labours. It will be remembered that some time ago a crack made itself evident in the stonework of the buildings, and gave rise to some doubt as to whether the foundations were secure. It was this crack that the man was filling up yesterday.” [11]

Peace Day Scene, 1919 http://hockensnapshop.ac.nz/nodes/view/4099#idx4099
Hocken Snapshop (10th Jul 2012). Peace Day Scene, 1919. In Website Hocken Snapshop. Retrieved 24th Jun 2017 21:49, from http://hockensnapshop.ac.nz/nodes/view/4099

The construction of the foundations would remain a contentious issue, particularly when the government needed more space. Christchurch Labour MP Teddy Howard commented in a 1925 parliamentary debate: “Originally those buildings were built on piles on unstable land whereas they should have been placed on a concrete float. Had that been done the building would have stood the addition of one or more stories but under present circumstances that is impossible. The city possesses a fine block of land that cost 10,000 which would make a splendid site for a block of Government offices if the Worcester Street building will not stand an additional two stories.” [12]

The first to move into the completed Government Buildings was the Labour Department on 19 September 1913. [7] However, less than six months after the ‘commodious Government buildings’ had been finished and in use, many government departments were still scattered around the city. [8]

After 20 years of occupation, the buildings underwent renovations in 1930,  including painting and revarnishing. Ceilings were distempered, woodwork revarnished, and window frames painted. The exterior also received “attention from the painters.” A structure was added on the roof to house the Government Analyst, and the lift well was extended to this new floor. [13]

In 1932 a new six floor building was built next to the Government Buildings to accommodate the State Fire Office as well as the offices of the Lands and Deeds, and Lands and Survey Departments, which would transfer from the old Provincial Council Chambers. It was built of steel and concrete, with marble facings, “along the most modern earthquake-resisting design.” [14]

Throughout its life the Government Buildings have undergone extensive remodeling internally, and the building has been strengthened. The parapets were removed in the early 1960s to reduce the overall weight of the building and eliminate seismic hazards. [15] It was converted into a hotel in 1996 and after receiving damage during the February 2011 earthquake, reopened in August 2013 on the anniversary of its 100th birthday.

The_Old_Government_Building_Christchurch.
The Old Government Building Christchurch. Image: Bernard Spragg. 21 June 2015

Click here for a comprehensive history of the Government Buildings.

  1. PUBLIC BUILDINGS FOR CHRISTCHURCH.,Press, Volume LXVI, Issue 13772, 29 June 1910
    HOW THE BUILDING SHOULD BE USED.,Press, Volume LXVII, Issue 14078, 24 June 1911
    GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS IN CHRISTCHURCH.,Press, Volume LXIV, Issue 13196, 17 August 1908
  2. NEW GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS.,Press, Volume LXVI, Issue 13828, 3 September 1910
  3. CHRISTCHURCH DAY BY DAY., Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXII, Issue 8342, 31 July 1912
    WEST COAST SANDSTONE.,Otago Witness, Issue 2956, 9 November 1910
  4. NEW GOVERNMENT OFFICES.,Press, Volume XLIX, Issue 14684, 5 June 1913
  5. The press. TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 2l,l9ll. GOVERNMENT METHODS WITH PUBLIC BUILDINGS.,Press, Volume LXVII, Issue 14206, 21 November 1911
  6. The press. TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 2l,l9ll. GOVERNMENT METHODS WITH PUBLIC BUILDINGS.,Press, Volume LXVII, Issue 14206, 21 November 1911
  7. Star, Issue 10878, 19 September 1913
  8. THE CITY., Ashburton Guardian, Volume XXXIII, Issue 8803, 26 February 1914
  9. VERY HEAVY RAINFALL. PRESS, VOLUME LXVII, ISSUE 14067, 12 JUNE 1911
  10. CASUALTIES., Press, Volume XLVIII, Issue 14350, 9 May 1912
  11. GENERAL NEWS.,Press, Volume LIV, Issue 16308, 4 September 1918
    NEWS IN BRIEF., Sun, Volume V, Issue 1344, 4 June 1918
  12. Mr Howard, Public Works [House] Sept 18th, 1925, Parliamentary Debates, Volume 208. By New Zealand. Parliament
  13. GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS., Press, Volume LXVI, Issue 19934, 22 May 1930
  14. DEPARTMENTAL BUILDINGS., Press, Volume LXVIII, Issue 20472, 16 February 1932
  15. The Architectural Heritage of Christchurch. 5. Government Buildings
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