Saving Iconic Heritage Buildings

Matt Philp's interview of Maurice Clark, who is on the committee of the Oriental Bay Residents' Association, appeared in Heritage New Zealand in the Autumn issue 2015. We have abbreviated it for Bay View.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-AU;}   The cupola of the Old Public Trust Building, Wellington. Photo by Judith Doyle   

The cupola of the Old Public Trust Building, Wellington.
Photo by Judith Doyle

He's been tagged a hero developer, but you can be sure that Maurice Clark doesn't approve. The man behind the renovation and repurposing of some of downtown Wellington's finest heritage would much prefer his buildings to take the limelight. But when you devote yourself to rescuing such icons as the art moderne Departmental Building at 15 Stout Street or the Category 1 Old Public Trust Building, you have to brace yourself for a few bouquets.

Usually it's brickbats for developers. But Maurice is one of a small group in Wellington who have discovered the formula for making a commercial return from heritage; Ian Cassels is another. Previous heritage developments by Maurice include the $40 million refurbishment and fit-out of the 1920s Tower Building (which went by its previous name of Government Life Building) on Customhouse Quay, which was tackled by his construction company McKee Fehl.

There's a romantic streak to Maurice; he owns a 1923 Studebaker. But it's leavened by a developer's canniness and an engineer's pragmatism. Why does he buy these old buildings? "Because no one else will do it and they're cheap," he answers. "but also I can see what they could look like. If you can get rid of all the stuff that's been built on to them over the years, they transform."

He grew up with heritage at Oxford UK, where his father was a professor, then later studied engineering in London. "It became second nature to be interested in the old buildings." Wellington, where he landed after a decade working in Canada and Australia, must have been a shock. He then had to watch as much of the capital's limited heritage resource was levelled during the 1980s, replaced by the bland.

Maurice's first heritage project was to strengthen and refurbish Victoria University's Hunter Building, followed by the old wooden Government Buildings, both of which he undertook as a contractor rather than developer. They were followed by a project he still considers the most technically challenging of his career. The Museum of Wellington City & Sea, housed in the Wellington Harbour Board Head Office and Bond Store, was sitting on rotten wooden piles. The entire building needed to be jacked up sufficiently to insert sliding bearings. (See story on Page 28 of this issue on the Wellington Museum as it's now called).

By contrast, the Departmental Building, which Maurice bought for $14 million following a successful first foray into property development with the Tower Building, seemed easy once it had been deemed quake-proof."We didn't have to do much other than recreate the spaces. Badly designed internally, we had to build a linking space between the two wings. That and adding the atrium meant the whole thing just clicked together."

Buying the building, however, was a gamble. As is the entire exercise of developing heritage properties. "It's nothing like starting a new building with a blank piece of paper. You are locked in with all sorts of engineering and heritage constraints. Hugely satisfying though.

"These buildings are worthy of it and to reconstruct them in modern-day materials would cost a fortune. For the Departmental Building, the bronze windows all came from England. The stairs, the lobby, the marble: these are all unique features that are pleasing to retain and to bring back to life." Stout Street is now the headquarters of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. "Everyone in that building — that's 1600 people — loves it. Everyone entering that building loves it. They say it's like nothing else in Wellington, with that combination of a modern atrium and a humming café with all the Coromandel marble. It has been the biggest buzz for me." It's been a successful financial exercise too.

That ability to turn a dollar from the commercial development of heritage buildings is a relatively new phenomenon. "It used to be that the government was the only one that could afford to do it, but the balance has changed," says Maurice, citing earthquake risk as a catalyst. "Heritage buildings of low earthquake strength tend to be sold very cheaply, so you have more money to fix them up. Also, there's a lot of tenant demand for character buildings. My Tower Building, for example is pretty well full all the time."

All of which said, it takes a certain talentand personality to pull it off. Just don't go calling Maurice a hero. "I'm an engineer, abush architect, a frustrated heritage personand a commercial developer who knows what will rent and what won't."

Bay View newsletter 66, November 2015