There’s a depressing familiarity with the news of the destruction by fire of the sawtooth roofed buildings at Shelly Bay. It is the classic “accident” that so often happens to heritage buildings – the building is carefully preserved for years, the building gradually deteriorates, and just when something was going to be done, the building mysteriously burns down. Except in this case, perhaps not quite so mysteriously. Without an extensive police investigation completed, I think that it is fairly obvious what happened, and the real question is not How? but instead it is by Who?
As Dorothy Hulme says over on Scoop: “That building was situated above water and rocks. It had broken windows and a roof that leaked badly. There has been some very heavy rain. That building was waterlogged. How does a waterlogged building with no power catch fire in the middle of winter in the middle of the night? A historic building gone. A building that stood for a hundred years built out of beautiful solid native timbers. How many roosting penguins were killed that lived underneath the building? And a developer who yet again through lack of care has lost Wellington another historic building along with Erskine College’s beautiful old building. Demolition by neglect needs to be a chargeable offence for developers. Absolutely disgusted at the loss of the iconic Sawtooth building.”
You’ve hit the nail firmly on the head Dorothy, in that there is virtually no way this has spontaneously caught fire, but instead it is obvious that someone has been there with a packet of matches – and maybe a can of petrol. It is, to be sure, the classic old skool way that a “developer” would get rid of a problem building that was due for either heritage listing or was sitting in their way – to give a few “street kids” access to a building and let them do their worst, while the developer was conspicuously away at some public fundraising dinner. Plausible deniability and all that. How many buildings have gone that way over the years? “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…”
The true tragedy of this is not so much the loss of the buildings, as they were shot and buggered from age and neglect, but the loss of so much heritage native timber. That’s a true crime right there. Dorothy Hulme’s concerns about the penguins is probably misplaced, as the one thing that penguins can do when faced with a building on fire, suspended above rocks and water, is to simply take to the water. I don’t think they will have been egg-laying or roosting just yet – that’s a few months away I reckon, as the penguins get frisky and all matey in the spring, not mid-winter, But the loss of the timber is irreplaceable. Hundreds and hundreds of big scantlings of timber – rimu, totara, and other species that grew for hundreds or even thousands of years and gave their lives so that the Defence Force could build some storage sheds down by the waterfront. Big chunky members for warehouse roof trusses, that will never be found again – probably in the process of being decommissioned and dismantled, ready for storage – and now they are gone for good. Truly sad. What an absolute waste of precious material.
So many questions have already been asked of Wellington’s favourite developer – love him or hate him, he’s used to both – Ian Cassells. At the NZIA Awards in Wellington just a couple of weeks ago, he gave a short thank you speech in which he made the comment to the effect of: “I know I’m not going to be popular for saying this, but Wellington needs to densify urgently, and to build, fast, more houses for people.” Something like that. Not the actions of a man who plans to burn down a building, it would appear, but certainly he wants to get a move on. Now the site will be locked down while Police and FENZ sift through the ashes, and that causes delays.
Are there other possible options for an origin to the destruction? Well, sure. In time-honoured Auckland Convention Centre fashion, it could have been a worker who left a machine on while working on the roof, or the more common, “sparks caused by a grinder while cutting through material during demolition” as has happened so often. Wasn’t that the reason that Notre Dame burned in Paris a few years back? Sparks from a scaffolder during erection? Indeed, over there, some 1200 oak trees have been felled in France to provide material for their rebuild, and are currently being hand-adzed into place in a reproduction par excellence. Over here, mon cheri, je ne regrette rien and all that. Tout le monde, destroyed, toute suite! The former artist occupiers have all been moved on and out, so it wasn’t an Act of Art, gone awry. And as predicted during the proposed Shelley Bay occupation, the water infrastructure on the point was insufficient, and so the Firemen had to put the flames out with seawater instead.
The next question, I guess, is what to replace it with? Should the Council force the developer to construct a facsimile of the old Sawtooth building? It would seem only fair and just, but is that really the best use of the site? It certainly won’t be being built with big bits of timber rescued from the old building, unless charred embers are your thing. But neither really, is this the right site for an old windowless storage shed. Surely a chance now exists for a new structure, a mass housing monument for all Wellingtonians to enjoy? A tower par excellence, reaching up, housing Wellingtonians in the most extreme and invigorating location at the edge of the harbour? An Eiffel Tower? A Tower sans finis? What say you?
Post-script: Wellington’s Scoop has republished this article in full over on Scoop, and included some photos of the interiors and the timber beams etc inside. Also, please note, I am NOT accusing Cassells of Arson. Why would he? He has a lot to gain from the building staying there and being steadily demolished. This way he has nothing except an awful mess. But yes, someone has clearly set it off, and the reason remains Why? Is it just local addicts lighting a fire to keep warm in their drug-addled brains? Is it disgruntled former employees of Defence, or very gruntled former occupiers of the site for 400plus days? Was it a secret canoeist who snuck over under cover of darkness to escape the security and set fire just for the hell of it? One thing is for sure – It certainly wasn’t the Penguins!