heritage

Solid as a Rock

Recently there has been considerable interest and debate over the future of the substantial brick and masonry building at 1 Victoria Avenue in central Whanganui. The decision to prevent its demolition has been hailed by heritage campaigners as an important step in the preservation of the remaining elements of Whanganui’s Victorian and Edwardian streetscapes.

Aside from its widely discussed architectural merits, the Avenue building has important links to the commercial history of the city courtesy of its builder and original owner James Thain.  He started his trading days a few blocks away in a building which is just as well known, although with a different role these days.

2 Paperweight

 A rectangular glass paperweight, manufactured for James Thain & Co., Wanganui. Ref: 2010.51.204.

In 1888 Thain and his business partner William Clapham bought a small-scale hardware operation in St Hill St which they rapidly developed into a highly successful enterprise with customers all around the region. The company sold a wide range of ironmongery and hardware, including building supplies, household goods, firearms and domestic grocery items. They were agents for famous brands such as Cooper’s Sheep Dipping Powder and Shacklock Ranges – household names in their day and for years afterwards.

As they expanded to service an area from Foxton to New Plymouth and up the main trunk line, it was important for the store to be sited very near the wharf and bulk storage depots and within easy haulage distance of the railway station. The original Thain’s Warehouse was designed by Alfred Atkins and built by local contractor Nicholas Meuli on reclaimed river bank land on Taupō Quay, near the foot of Victoria Avenue.

The Wanganui Chronicle of 12 December 1895 hailed the opening of one of “the most imposing mercantile buildings in Wanganui… of an exceptionally striking appearance”.  The article contained a remarkably detailed description of the building’s design, construction and contents. The reporter describes the shell-patterned pediment, panelled pilasters, cornices, parapet with pedestals and gold lettering. Another paragraph or two is devoted to the wooden floor, “solid as a rock” to bear the weight of “a large stock of cement, horse shoes, fencing wires, oils, felt, ridging and bulk packages of hardware”. At the rear there was a long storeroom for “an immense quantity of bar, sheet, corrugated and plate iron, steel in bars and sheets, gas and water pipes etc.” alongside an iron-clad kerosene store.

1 James Thain & Co

A view from across the river showing the James Thain and Co. building where the i-Site is now located. Ref: WR-TR-098.

As business continued to boom, Thain needed more space. His modest retail premises on the prime corner site at the bottom of Victoria Avenue provided the answer. In 1908, he commissioned his favourite builder, Nicholas Meuli, to erect a new, three-storey emporium to a design by local architect T H James. The shop quickly became a Whanganui landmark universally known as Thain’s Corner.

These days the Taupō Quay site is occupied by the Whanganui Visitor Information Centre, rebuilt by the District Council in 2009, incorporating many components of the original structure, including columns, beams and floors.

Images and objects from Thain’s shop will feature in the opening exhibition at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

 

Frank Start is the Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Caring for a precious collection

Caring for a precious collection

We were in the vaults; that converted carpark wherein lies most of the museum’s property. Much of it is already old, and we expect it to get much older. With the latest run of natural disasters and threats to man-made structures, heritage or otherwise, how long can we preserve our history?  “We’re looking for perpetuity,” says museum curator, Libby Sharpe. “Most people would never imagine that the museum has about 80 per cent of its collection in storage … That 15 per cent on display is more or less a formula for most museums.”

Libby began her museum career at the Canterbury museum, a place that underwent major earthquake proofing a couple of decades ago. It paid off. Their website reports minimal structural damage to the old buildings and 99 per cent of the collection is unharmed.

She says Wanganui is particularly prone to flooding and during the 2004 deluge the museum, itself safely above the rising water table, helped people clean and restore family papers, photographs and paintings and assist with advice and direction. She says family treasures and memories can often matter more than a house or other property and their loss can be devastating. So we talked about disasters and the plans that are in place for such institutions as museums, art galleries and libraries.

“They have specific priorities in rescue,” says Libby, “Obviously, people first, but we hold these collections that are immensely valuable, and I don’t necessarily mean in terms of money, although that is a consideration. They are a huge asset, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.” She talked about measures that are in place to preserve damaged material until experts can take over and complete the restoration. For example, she says she has seen sodden, ancient books being wrapped in plastic and put in the freezer until such time as serious salvage can be performed.

The archives in our museum is a huge collection by most standards and it is uniquely Wanganui. As Libby says, there is no other collection like it in the world. “So you see, we do take a lot of trouble with our storage. We use waxed boxes which have a degree of fire retardancy and also protect from light and atmospheric dirt,” she says. The boxes (called transit boxes) also allow air to circulate, preventing mildew and dankness. She also mentioned a ‘number 8 wire fix’ used since the 1970s to store rolled plans; realising they would be crushed if stored in a flat drawer or shelf, someone came up with the idea of a calico sling.

Keeping in mind changing technology and standards of preservation, Libby says, “Anything we do should be reversible. Conservation is incredibly expensive because it’s time-consuming and vastly expert. Conservators train for seven or eight years.” She says the local museum staff are trained in basic conservation to enable them to provide optimum conditions for the collection and to prevent any further deterioration. Temperature and relative humidity is monitored, keeping conditions right to keep the collection stable.

Libby showed me a red line that runs along the concrete in the ‘vaults’. To one side of that line, the concrete flooring has been reinforced to allow storage of great weights. Up to 500kg per square metre can be stored on that part of the museum, contrasting with up to 300kg outside the line. She also showed me one of several orange cupboards in which emergency supplies are stored. Most of the equipment within is for dealing with water damage. There are also personal lidded buckets for each staff member, filled with essential items should disaster strike.

As we walked through the vaults, Libby showed how shelving was made secure and how stored items like crockery were protected with acid-free foam. Ancient stone tools rest in their drawers, fitting snugly into thick-cut double-layered foam. She says the museum is one of the most protected buildings in Wanganui, certainly as far as fire safety and security against human invaders is concerned, as well as safeguards against time.

“We have to lessen the impact of disaster by how we manage our building and collections,” says Libby. “We need to address possibility, not wait for inevitability. All the same, all the money and all the care in the world will not guarantee either is safe.”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.