design

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.

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The Rutland Stockade

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By Karen Wrigglesworth

The earliest colonial settlers arrived in Whanganui in1841 but land disputes meant that many who had paid the New Zealand Company prior to leaving Britain had to wait more than six years to take up the land promised to them. In 1845 there were some 200 Europeans in Whanganui, and around 60 dwellings. By comparison, the Māori population along the Whanganui River was approximately 4,000, mostly in good relationships with the newcomers, but not with the New Zealand Company.

By late 1846 local unrest led Governor Grey to establish a military post at Whanganui. In December officers and 180 men from the 58th Rutlandshire Regiment, four Royal Artillery gunners with two 12-pounder guns, and two Royal Engineers sailed from Wellington aboard the frigate HMS Calliope and the Government brig Victoria. They also brought a small gunboat with a brass swivel gun. The troops set about fortifying the new town.

Rutland Stockade was constructed on what is now generally known as Queens Park (Pukenamu or Sandfly Hill) above the Repertory Theatre, and at that time, near the northern end of the town. It is thought to have been the largest stockade erected in New Zealand at a cost of £3,500.

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Taken from Shakespeare’s Cliff looking towards the Rutland Stockade and Market Place, later Moutoa Gardens, 1870s (B-ST-029)

The stockade measured 55 by 30 metres and included two strong wooden blockhouses, one at each end of the enclosed space. Palisading consisted of rough timbers and whole trees (some more than 25 centimetres thick) set closely together, sunk over a metre into the sandy soil and standing two and a half metres high. They were braced by two inner horizontal rails. The tops of the logs were sharpened, to shed water and prevent decay, and for security. Loopholes for musket fire were cut all around, and the two 12-pounder guns landed by Calliope were mounted at each end of the stockade.

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Looking towards the corner of Drews Avenue and Ridgway Street with the Rutland Stockade on the hill behind, 1880s (B-ST-004)

Both blockhouses had upper floors that projected almost a metre beyond the lower storeys. They were the first defensive structures with overhanging upper storeys to be built in the North Island.  During the subsequent wars of the 1860s most frontier blockhouses were modelled on the Rutland blockhouse design. The larger blockhouse, designed to accommodate 80 soldiers, consisted of two buildings. The larger, 24 by 12 metres, was set at right angles to the smaller, six by six metres. The smaller blockhouse had a ground floor area of 12 by six metres and was occupied by 20 soldiers.

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Above Rutland Stockade with a view inside the fence and Shakespeare Cliff visible on the far side of the Whanganui River, 1870s (B-ST-016)

The lower walls of the blockhouses were three metres high and built from thick timbers lined inside with two and a half centimetre boards. The main uprights were almost two metres apart and 30 centimetres square, with intervening spaces filled in with horizontal planks. Smaller bullet-proof scantlings (timber pieces) were used in the upper storey, which also had a six centimetre-thick floor. The projecting part of the upper floor could be raised on hinges between each girder for musketry fire. Both storeys were had loopholes with horizontal slits, 1.2 metres long  and 15 centimetres wide, filled in with glass and shuttered outside. Māori called the large blockhouse the “peep house”, while Whanganui residents nicknamed it the “Acropolis”.

There was considerable difficulty in obtaining timber supplies for the large blockhouse, as most timber was upstream and on the opposite side of the river. In the end Māori supplied most of the timber, cutting and towing huge rafts of timber from 16 kilometres upriver (probably near Kaiwhaikī) to sell to the garrisons.

Rutland Stockade was completed by April 1847 and was garrisoned by the 58th Rutlandshire Regiment. The stockade saw action when Māori made a first determined attack on Whanganui in May. The attackers were repulsed by, but the situation was considered so serious that another stockade was erected at Patupuhou (or Patupuwhao) near where the bell tower now stands at Cooks Gardens. York Stockade was simpler in construction than Rutland Stockade, and consisted of barracks and a flat area surrounded by a high fence. It was completed by July 1847 and occupied by a detachment of officers and men from the 65th Yorkshire Regiment. York Stockade was never attacked but troops stationed there did take part in the Battle of St Johns Wood (which happened near where Collegiate now stands, on 19 July 1847).

Parade of 18th Royal Irish Regiment (2nd Battalion) and its goat mascot in front of the Rutland Stockade, January 1870, Photographer: W H Harding (M-G-40)

Parade of 18th Royal Irish Regiment (2nd Battalion) and its goat mascot in front of the Rutland Stockade, January 1870, Photographer: W H Harding (M-G-40)

Other early Whanganui defences included a Lower Stockade, which encompassed the Commercial Hotel and was built in 1846 on land now occupied by Trafalgar Square. There was also a fortified area known as the Lower Works on the corner of Ridgway and Watt Streets, below the Savage Club buildings.

York Stockade taken from Rutland Stockade with the spire of Christ Church visible, late 1860s (B-ST-021)

York Stockade taken from Rutland Stockade with the spire of Christ Church visible, late 1860s (B-ST-021)

Rutland and York Stockades were garrisoned by British Imperial soldiers until the late 1860s. Both were later used by the Armed Constabulary. Rutland Stockade was demolished in 1887.

About the author: Karen Wrigglesworth is a Whanganui engineer and writer, and a research volunteer at the Whanganui Regional Museum.