Earthquake Strengthening Project

Snapshot of Whanganui, past and present

September 2018 marks two years since Whanganui Regional Museum closed for the Whakahoutanga project, consisting of seismic strengthening and comprehensive interior renewal.

2. Post Office 1939

Model of the Wanganui Central Post Office at 62 Ridgway Street, photographed before construction was completed. Photograph by F H Bethwaite, 1939. WRM Ref: 2005.56.75

During that time the Museum has operated in temporary premises at 62 Ridgway Street. Long-time residents will remember the building as the former Wanganui Central Post Office, designed by Whanganui architect Robert Talboys, and built in 1939. The old Post and Telegraph Office on the corner of Ridgway Street and Victoria Avenue was no longer large enough to house the national telegraph activities and the local postal needs of the growing city. The project was also part of the then Labour government’s programme of public works to stimulate economic activity. No longer used for its original purpose, the building is occupied by a range of tenants.

For the final three months in this temporary location, the Museum has an exhibition of a fascinating range of Whanganui street scenes. In 1939 and 2007 two photographers from different times, different generations and using different camera technology, photographed the central business area of Whanganui. The photographs are an important record of the development of the Whanganui townscape. The 1939 photographs were taken by local business man Frank Haddow Bethwaite. The same locations were photographed in 2007 by local photographer Beverley Sinclair. The two sets of images are juxtaposed in the exhibition SNAP! Exploring the changing face of Whanganui.

1. Alexander Museum 1939

The Alexander Museum.  Photograph by F H Bethwaite, 1939. WRM Ref: 2005.56.55

Whanganui is well known for its heritage buildings, many having been built of unreinforced masonry during the reasonably prosperous 1920s, before the Napier earthquake prompted an architectural rethink of building design and materials. The more recent earthquakes in Canterbury and Kaikōura prompted a further “shake-up” of building standards. The cost of seismically strengthening a large building such as the Museum is much less costly than a complete rebuild. For some owners of private buildings, however, the economic viability of retaining earthquake-prone masonry buildings might not be realistic.

3. Whanganui Regional Museum 2007

 The Whanganui Regional Museum. Photograph by Beverley Sinclair, 2007. WRM Ref: 2008.45.55

Many grand old buildings photographed in 1939 have long since disappeared. Others remain, but like the former Post Office, have outlived their original purpose and are now used for something else. The Museum is a great example of an old 1928 masonry building that, with the 1968 extension and contemporary seismic strengthening, is still fit for purpose. In January 2019, the Museum on Watt Street will reopen and visitors can safely enjoy a completed refurbished interior that retains the character of both eras.

 

Margie Beautrais is the Educator and Team Leader of Education and Life-Long learning at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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The Architect and the Artisan

With the refurbishment of the Whanganui Regional Museum now approaching half-way, considerable attention has been paid to the design and construction of its buildings. The 1928 building’s stripped classical architecture and pre-Napier construction have caused the bigger challenges to seismic performance, with a lot of steel and timber bracing now installed.

The Māori Court building, designed by Don Wilson, has also received earthquake upgrades, but mainly it is undergoing repair and restoration of many of its original features. Wilson’s Whanganui work, including the Museum, was celebrated in a well-received talk by architectural historian Mark Southcombe at the Davis Theatre on Tuesday 19 September. Investigation of the building’s origins has also revealed fascinating stories about the people who worked on it.

1. Basil Benseman

Basil Benseman

An important collaborator with Don Wilson, and a key contributor to the structure and appearance of the 1968 building, was master brick and block layer Basil Benseman. Bas arrived in Whanganui as a child and after leaving school, worked as a truck driver. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner and truck driver during WWII in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Italy before returning to an apprentice training scheme in Wellington. Before long, he had established B E Benseman Bricklayer, which from 1946 to 1985, built a significant portion of Whanganui. Bas worked on many landmark buildings around the city including the Embassy Cinema, St Marcellin School, Whanganui Intermediate, the Government Life and State Insurance buildings, the War Memorial Hall, Power Board Building, Queens Park steps and the Whanganui Regional Museum, among hundreds of others. He didn’t spend much of that time in the office; he was too busy on site, laying hundreds of thousands of bricks and blocks himself.

Don Wilson’s modernist architecture made frequent, often innovative, use of brick and concrete, and Bas often provided the craft needed to realise his designs. The Museum project used conventional blockwork in many parts of the structure, as well as stone facing around the Davis Theatre, an unusual, vertical application of decorative brick on the exterior walls and a lattice of stacked breeze blocks on the end wall, echoing a similar pattern on the War Memorial Hall across the square. Don Wilson, though, had an even more challenging role in mind for his long-time collaborator.

2. Mural

The Whanganui Regional Museum mural, made of Italian glass tiles.

The south side of the building presented a new face to the city and Wilson wanted to make the most of it. He designed a mural, based on rock drawings, to be rendered in Italian glass tiles. The biggest problem was the lack of anybody in 1968 Whanganui with the technical know-how to realise it. With complete confidence he turned to Bas who, despite his protests that he had never attempted such a thing before, was eventually persuaded to set to work in yet another medium. Over 10 months of painstaking work he invented his own mosaic technique which has weathered 50 years of Whanganui rain and sun and remains a shimmering tribute to a great partnership – the architect and the artisan.

 

Frank Stark is Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.

How many men does it take to move a sunfish?

No, it’s not a bad joke, but a real question we recently faced.

In preparation for the earthquake strengthening schedule to start early in the new year, we have been working at emptying the exhibition spaces and taking everything down off display, including the giant sunfish that has been hanging on the wall since the museum was built in 1928 (minus a few breaks here and there for conservation or rehanging).

The sunfish, or Mola mola, was caught in 1895 and purchased for the collection.  It took Museum founder Samuel Drew and three assistants three days to skin the 360cm-long fish, after which it was treated and mounted for later exhibition in the gallery space.

And now it has been temporarily removed and placed in storage while the museum building gets strengthened.  A big and rather delicate project.

So, how many men does it take to move a sunfish?  Take a look and see for yourself…