The Eye of the Fish

Maximus
April 9, 2013

St Gerard’s

There’s many things in the news each day that I feel like responding to, but most of them have little relevance to Wellington’s urban design, which is what this blog is meant to be all about. Yes, I could ramble on about yet another supermarket, or another gas station popping up, but my head is just not there right now. I’m more intrigued by the reportage of the death of Margaret Thatcher in the press today. Stinking great arguments in the Guardian as to whether she was a great Briton, or an evil old witch who destroyed Britain, and thus should have been burned at the stake. Actually, I’d heard that she was just a sad old lady with severe Alzheimer’s, so severe in fact that she had no idea she had ever been a Prime Minister. Which, it has to be said, is rather sad. I went to Eaton Square once, and found myself in the odd position of being in the apartment next to hers – the place bristling with policemen still, a decade or so after her departure from Downing St. She still aroused passions, even in her dotage. Over 270 comments in the Guardian, with intelligent and witty commentary from both sides. It’s hard for people to get so worked up over a Zed gas station.

But it is possible that people may get worked up over the impending demolition of St Gerard’s monastery. Yes, that’s right – the impending demolition.

But hold on, I hear you say, your voice echoing through the ether, in rolling waves of dulcet tones: they’ve just announced a plan to save it, not to demolish it, haven’t they?

Well, yes, that’s the plan. St Gerard’s is, after all, one of Wellington’s most gloriously sited and strongly recognizable landmarks. Unlike the Beehive, our supposed most recognizable landmark, which I reckon only a small portion of visitors get to notice, St G has a recognition factor way up high in the high things. I’ve not had a visitor to Wellville that hasn’t said to me “What is that place up there?”, and the next question is invariably “Is it still a monastery?” or “Can I go there?”. To which my answers to the latter two queries are inevitably: “I just don’t know.”

(picture credit: The Compleat Cityscapes, by David McGill and Grant Tilly)
It’s as iconic to Wellington as Christchurch Cathedral is to the Cantabrians, in terms of visual appeal, and yet it has zero rating on the personal involvement scale. It also has a less than sturdy rate on the %NBS scale, of somewhere effectively less than a third, which makes it a Earthquake Prone Building. So here we have a real test case, unlike the Harcourts building, which A) not that many people seemed to care about passionately, but liked it as a sort of background postcard image, and B) turned out to not be a sub-33 building at all, but instead a far more healthy 40-something. That story is still going on – this one is just starting.

As a monastery, still functioning or not, the big G just doesn’t have the personal kudos to get Wellingonians opening up their wallets to the tune of $10 million or more. Yet, conversely, neither is the Council likely to pitch in to save it. Of course, the Government is happy to spend $40, $50, $60 million of our money to restore the house for the Governor General, which no one ever gets to see, but it is less likely to spend a penny on a monastery, which everyone gets to see, but no one gets to go inside. Shame on those old priests for not providing more for their retirement, and for the building to live on after them. Long may St Gerards live – and in the mean time, let’s see if this dysfunctional council we seem to have can find a way to provide a safety net for St Gerard.

Elaine Hampton
10 - 04 - 13

They can’t demolish St Gerards, they just can’t. They don’t make them like that anymore it would be a huge loss to Wellington. Would make fantastic Council Offices, Apartments even, just find a way. Is the catholic church in financial straits

Maximus
10 - 04 - 13

Can’t? Elaine, can’t is a very big word. I’m with you on the sentiment, but think that unless something drastically changes, the buildings days are numbered. Unless the new Pope decides to extend his mission of frugality, by giving away all the accumulated funds of the Church of Rome, I don’t think they are going to be the saviour. More likely to give money away to hungry and needy people, than to bricks and mortar. But maybe you’re right – cast the net widely. Think: alternate uses.

greenwelly
10 - 04 - 13

St G’s was transferred to an Catholic Evangelical Outreach group in the late 90s

http://www.icpe.org/nzMC.html

I think if public money is parted with then there should be a fairly big quid pro quo for some more public access, especially to the grounds, The current track around the monastery has a lot of “private property” signs warning roamers to keep of the grass.

John Clarke
10 - 04 - 13

The Catholic church is richer than Croesus. But it’s a church, and just like those Anglicans down in Christchurch who seem intent on not replacing the cathedral with their own money – the insurance money, the ratepayers money and the taxpayers money are apparently all fine, just not that of the church – the Catholics will undoubtedly claim poverty and have their property trustees flog the place to a developer.

Churches are basically designed to take money from the community rather than putting anything back in. And they seem to think that that attitude should give them the moral high ground … bizarre.

m-d
11 - 04 - 13

Tough call.

I don’t see it as having anything to do with the church, and if you pull that one, well, they should have the option of doing what they like with it. If you claim it as a public building – using terms like iconic, much-loved etc etc, well, it is the public that should stump up for the extra funds for retaining it.

Put it to the test – work out the costs, and have a rate-payer referendum indicating the difference to the rates bill that strengthening would take (or buying it to make it publicly accessible and strengthening it). Not only would you get a proper mandate for the large spend (I’m sure it would go in favour – right?), but it would be fascinating to discover genuine priorities in terms of architectural heritage.

m-d
11 - 04 - 13

PS – I do really like that vintage postcard – not quite Geneva (see below), but it is still rather nice, especially compared with today’s environment.

http://i.space.com/images/i/000/012/398/original/Frankenstein03.jpg?1317233722

Maximus
11 - 04 - 13

A digression back to my thought-de-jour – Maggie.
Just in case anyone wants to read some excellent debate on the subject, here is a surprisingly well-written commentary by Russell Brand:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/09/russell-brand-margaret-thatcher
Fabulous quotes in there, of which my favourite is:

“I hope I’m not being reductive but it seems Thatcher’s time in power was solely spent diminishing the resources of those who had least for the advancement of those who had most. I know from my own indulgence in selfish behaviour that it’s much easier to get what you want if you remove from consideration the effect your actions will have on others.

Is that what made her so formidable, her ability to ignore the suffering of others? Given the nature of her legacy “survival of the fittest” – a phrase that Darwin himself only used twice in On the Origin of Species, compared to hundreds of references to altruism, love and cooperation, it isn’t surprising that there are parties tonight in Liverpool, Glasgow and Brixton – from where are they to have learned compassion and forgiveness?

The blunt, pathetic reality today is that a little old lady has died, who in the winter of her life had to water roses alone under police supervision. If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t. Her death must be sad for the handful of people she was nice to and the rich people who got richer under her stewardship. It isn’t sad for anyone else. There are pangs of nostalgia, yes, because for me she’s all tied up with Hi-De-Hi and Speak and Spell and Blockbusters and “follow the bear”. What is more troubling is my inability to ascertain where my own selfishness ends and her neo-liberal inculcation begins. All of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people’s pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful.”

John Clarke
11 - 04 - 13

m-d: The thing is, the church has already been roundly subsidized by the people of Wellington. They were gifted the land so they didn’t have to pay for a prime piece of real estate like their secular brethren, and they’ve been given a 100% rates rebate every year since. What the people of Wellington have got in return is a nice looking piece of architecture with a sign on the lawn that says “piss off, private property”. And if we’re all very polite to the church and genuflect correctly then we’re allowed to have a look through the place when they have an open day every few years … woo hoo.

Let’s say that the rates on the place will be $20K/annum in todays money, plus maybe $5 million in land value alone. Over the last hundred years that means we’ve subsidized the child-abusing catholics by about $7 million, so they could really afford to knock that off the price when they hand St G’s back to the city.

Churches = bludgers.

Maximus
12 - 04 - 13

John – So, assuming that their effort to raise $10m from Wellingtonians fails, and that no single benefactor springs to their aid, it seems likely then that we (Wellington) will be faced with an ultimatum: Tear the building down, or, Here: have it yourselves!

In which case, assuming that somehow the city decides to renovate it – what then? Is it just another site for upmarket apartments? Or new Council offices? Or a centre for Lost Dogs and Cats (no, we’ve already got one of those – see Chest hospital post). Something to make use of the stunning view? Fancy pants restaurant? Hotel? Love hotel!

John Clarke
12 - 04 - 13

Maximus: I for one would be prepared to contribute money into upgrading St G’s – but I don’t want to pay the catholic church for the land (which they got for free) and I’m only prepared to pay them for the current market value of the buildings in their earthquake-prone state, less the subsidy of free rates that the church has received over the last century. I’m all in favour of retaining the building and using public (and private) money to upgrade and renovate it, but I’m buggered if I’ll agree to the catholics making a windfall capital gain in the process.

And I’d like the end result to be a public building that all Wellington can use, preferably one with some appeal to tourists so they can look across the harbour, admire St G’s, and then head up there to have a look. Gallery? Gallery with cafe? Museum? Memorial to all the poor kids abused by priests? Something like that.

minimus
13 - 04 - 13

I think the most appropriate future use is brothel.

Mr G
14 - 04 - 13

Seeing as it overlooks the most popular swimming beach in the capital, and has large windows facing out to sea, how about they install a cable car up there, and a flying fox / long waterslife back down, so that people can do giant flying / leaping dives into the sea? Damn, that’d be popular….

m-d
15 - 04 - 13

John Clarke – we gave them the land rather than a peppercorn lease? If so, then that was pretty dumb! Who owns the building?

But the bigger point is, if it is the building-as-icon that we cherish, then whether or not we have access is irrelevant. WCC, as a body representing our interests, need only ensure that the ‘iconicness’ is retained. This might mean the purchase and/or eq-strengthening is necessary paid out of public funds. Again, do Wellingtonians value the visual icon that is St Gerard’s enough to warrant this – I’d say probably yes.

If we want to claim the site and the interiors as meaningful to us for whatever reason (and that’d be a bold claim), then we need to stump up for that and find a tenant willing to maintain and allow some kind of public access – was this in the original agreement with the church now present at the site?

John Clarke
15 - 04 - 13

m-d: the catholics own both the land and the building. In the early days of the colony, literally acres and acres of prime land was given away to all the churches – although the anglicans did the best, I understand – which is how they can still afford to run these places when their congregations on a Sunday are made up of 15 little old ladies per church.

I don’t know what the story is with the catholics, but I know the presbyterians are huge commercial property owners. Most of the income of the church comes from the commercial rents of the office buildings they’re built on the prime CBD land they were gifted in the 19th century, not from the collection plate, which is the only reason their almost entirely irrelevant religion still exists. If you want to meet a bunch of hard-nosed commercially focused property managers without a single altruistic bone in their bodies, I can point you in the direction of the presbyterian property trustees. Oh, and all the profits they make are tax free, naturally.

So I agree with the sentiment that the city should buy St G’s, I’m just opposed to the idea that the catholics should make a massive windfall tax-free capital gain on the place when Wellington has been subsidising them all along.

Michael Fairburn
4 - 05 - 13

I fail to understand why there isn’t a huge public outcry over this. The Catholic Church were GIVEN the land on which they built a monastery. Wonderful. Now they want to SELL the land, and don’t appear to have to pay the taxpayer back anything? How screwed is that? WHat good does a monastery do anyway? As one astute commenter put earlier in this thread, religion has always been, and will continue to be nothing more than a tax on the poor, an excuse to fleece the ‘faithful’. Charities in NZ have got away without paying taxes since the 19th century (which follows from the 17th century law in England), religious charities are exempted from paying rates under the ratings act, which commands councils to exempt the churches from rates. This is an interesting story about St George’s hospital in CHCH, which is another example of how these so-called ‘charities’ fail to give anything back to their communities. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/8631567/Hospitals-tax-exempt-status-criticised