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Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust chairman Graeme Clark. PHOTO: REBECCA RYAN

Oamaru’s famous Victorian-inspired activities are based on the town’s unique collection of magnificent, neo-classical stone buildings. But they weren’t always a source of pride, as reporter Sally Brooker explains.

The group that saved and restored Oamaru’s world-renowned historic buildings has turned 30.

The Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust has surely achieved its vision:

“Establishing Oamaru as a heritage destination by bringing alive and preserving New Zealand’s best complete collection of Victorian buildings.”

Its success is itself now part of the district’s history and one of its greatest claims to fame. But it faced plenty of difficulties in the early years.

The Oamaru stone buildings in Harbour and Tyne Sts, constructed during colonial Oamaru’s heyday in the late 1800s, became disused as the main traffic thoroughfare shifted away from them to its current route.

Some people recognised their architectural merit and realised there were few intact Victorian streets left anywhere in the world – the process of urban renewal led to buildings being altered for new uses and occupants as the decades passed.

One of the founders and a former chairman of the trust was Oamaru lawyer George Berry. Speaking at the trust’s annual meeting at Whitestone City last week, he said “heritage buildings and values were not always much understood or appreciated in our town and district in the post-World War 2 years”.

Nice surprise . . . Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust chairman Graeme Clark (left) presents life membership to George and Carol Berry. PHOTO: FRANCES MCMILLAN

“To many local people our legacy of old stone buildings, much neglected and poorly maintained, were an indication of the town’s lack of progress.”

What is now known as the Victorian precinct had an industrial zoning in the district plan.

“Some notable buildings had been lost or unsympathetically modified – for example, the beautifully simple classical bank beside the squash courts was demolished.”

Mr Berry said the “real impetus for changed attitudes and recognition of our heritage buildings” began with the centennial of Totara Estate, where the frozen meat export trade was pioneered in 1882.

Mr Berry and his wife, Carol, had bought the Totara Estate home farm in 1972. With the help of local MP Allan Dick, they transferred ownership of the buildings and adjacent land to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, which agreed to manage the restoration of the site into a farming and meat industry museum.

Engineers involved in the project resolved the challenges of reinforcing historic masonry structures to be safe for modern use, where previously there had been little interest, Mr Berry said.

The museum opening in 1982 was attended by the governor-general, prime minister and diplomatic and industry leaders.

The Historic Places Trust moved on to restore Clarks Mill, while the local heritage enthusiasts went through complex manoeuvres to set up a North Otago regional committee of the Historic Places Trust.

“Our first heritage crisis and challenge then emerged – the Customs Building was to be demolished to extend the local coal merchant’s yard,” Mr Berry said.

“The building was saved by a combination of support from local lawyers on resolving related sale contract issues, council and NZHPT on funding to buy the building, and the art society taking over the use of the building, with support from Gillies on upgrading for their use followed.”

Thronging . . . Crowds teem into Harbour St during a previous Victorian Fete – the Victorian Town at Work’s main annual fundraiser. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

The regional committee brought in the Historic Places Trust’s classification committee for the first time to assess the precinct’s buildings.

“The Oamaru Mail frequently had front page pictures of visiting experts standing in front of a notable building and extolling the beauty and potential of our old town legacy buildings and how lucky we were to have such an asset,” Mr Berry said.

“We also spoke to community groups and service clubs to spread the dream. I must say our mayor at the time said he decide whether the old buildings were a great asset or a great liability’.”

After a visit from the mayor of Oamaru’s English twin town Devizes, who endorsed the importance of retaining them, council support increased and “over time attitudes generally became favourable”, Mr Berry said.

The next “great opportunity” was the amalgamation of stock and station companies that resulted in most of the Harbour St buildings emptying out. Mr Berry and fellow Oamaru lawyer Rodney Grater went to Wellington to buy them all for $80,000.

“This included the Loan & Mercantile Building in particular, and also some buildings fronting Tyne St.”

The Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust was then formed as a regional committee initiative to own the land and buildings, raise funds, manage restoration and install tenants.

“The challenge is and will always be that the trust has to be able to pay its operating expenses and generate enough revenue through rentals to maintain the buildings, year after year,” Mr Berry said.

The Victorian Town at Work concept was adopted to enliven the precinct and wider area.

“This starting point is still worth looking at,” Mr Berry said.

Heritage enthusiasts . . . Stalwarts gather in period costumes outside the Criterion Hotel in the Victorian Town at Work?s early days. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

“It has driven much of the thinking and work that has followed and created the shared community vision that, 30 years on, I think is still valid and important today.”

He outlined subsequent developments, including adding the Criterion Hotel, Smith’s Grain Store and the Harbour Board building to the property portfolio.

“The trust has also provided the example and impetus for many of our other town and country buildings’ restoration and reuse,” Mr Berry said.

Graeme Clark, a trust member for its entire 30 years, presented a life membership certificate to Mr and Mrs Berry to acknowledge their “huge commitment to heritage”.

The meeting also voted unanimously to award life membership to Mr Clark and fellow former chairman Phil Hope.

In his annual report, Mr Clark summarised the trust’s work last year: the Loan and Merc lift is operational; the first floor has been leased to Helen Hobson and Tom Jones, of French Treasures; the staircase, fire escape and sprinkler work at the Collective Cafe was completed; the Smith’s Grain Store kitchen was upgraded using rent income from the New Zealand Airline Academy’s temporary tenancy; Rose’s General Store moved from the front of the Smith’s Grain Store to the Connell and Clowes building; artist Brent Harpur set up his studio in the Lanes Emulsion front space; Blair and Christie Gourdie, of the Harbour Street Bakery, bought the Deja Moo ice cream business; the trust bought the Criterion Hotel business, which is up for lease; and the Oasis business vacated the Andersons Building, which is also up for lease.

The late historian Gavin McLean’s estate gave the trust $50,000; Lottery Environment and Heritage granted it $14,000 for a conservation report on Sumpters Store; the JW Christie Trust gave $5000 for roofing; and Network Waitaki sponsored the 2019 Victorian Fete for $5750.

“The trust does its best to look after its tenants, particularly in recent times,” Mr Clark said.

“It is vital we all work together to make the precinct a great place to work, play and enjoy.

“It is a huge task to look after 16 140-year-old buildings with the compliance issues, maintenance, conservation and fundraising. To bring the buildings up to a compliant, healthy and safe standard we sometimes need to make compromises to the fabric of the building.

“Adaptive reuse of these buildings will guarantee that future generations will continue the work that has been ongoing the last 30 years.”