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