Farewell to the Toomath’s Buildings then. Designed by architect William Crichton, completed by 1901. Survived years of neglect – did not survive a group of vagrant youths setting fire to it. Well and truly gone now, a digger has smashed it into pieces, without a hope of the building ever coming back. Could it have been saved? Well, yes, probably, but not once a fire had been toasting it for an hour or two, burning away the timber and leaving just a thin shell of bricks standing alone. But let’s give it a decent send off, and have a quick look back into history. Why was it called Toomath’s Buildings? Did it have anything to do with Wellington’s favourite Modernist architect, William S Toomath?
Consulting the sometimes wonderful resource of Wellington’s Heritage register, here, it is pretty soon found out that it was named after a REAL old-timer – Edward Toomath. Not sure if it is the same family, but it could have been – “Edward Toomath was an early Wellington settler, and is regarded as “the father of education in New Zealand.” Born in 1817, Toomath was educated at the Battersea Training Institute, following which he spent a few years as a soldier. After teaching for some time in London and Northampton, he was selected by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) as the first certificated teacher for New Zealand. He arrived in Wellington on this mission in 1850.” I wonder if Edward was Bill’s grandfather perhaps? Anyone know?
Toomath “promoted the system of free education and was the first Inspector of Schools. He was a member of the Wellington Education Board until the time of his death. Toomath was involved in politics, sitting as a Liberal for some time in Parliament. He also had interests in agriculture, and is credited with introducing “long-woolled sheep” to the young colony. A successful speculator, he played an active role in establishing the Wellington tramways and other commercial ventures.” So perhaps we have more to thank Mr Toomath for than we might have otherwise known.
On the night that it burnt down, I was out of town, so did not see the fire itself, but arrived home to find all the drama over and just the acrid smell of burnt building was lingering on. The front facade was still standing, but I suspect not much else remained behind. Remarkably, the stone vases that have stood there for 120 years were still standing there. For those that remember, the building on the corner of Ghuznee and Cuba, immediately to the right (now housing Scopa), was itself also heavily involved in a fire, as the strip-joint / seedy burger bar below was torched as well, about 20 years ago.
Is the world really mourning its loss though? One of the Heritage bods was interviewed on telly that night and she said that it was a shame that the building had been destroyed, as it was the last building of its kind with the stone vases still extant insitu – quite a feat for it to have come through over a century’s worth of earthquakes unscathed. Here’s a shot of the building from a little further back in history, when it was part of Wellington’s burgeoning China Town, which despite what you may have heard, certainly extended a lot further than just Frederick and Haining.
If you look really closely at the image above, you can just make out the remains of a sign saying 20% on the right hand side of the building, and possibly something saying “Will satisfy” above the Chinese Food Bar in the centre. But other than that, it was fairly unchanged over the years. The building has had a nice history – the WCC Heritage archive website has a list of occupants, which incudes:
From 1905 the three shops included Coogan & Sons, tailors; A Robertson, dyer; Joseph Devlin, storekeeper. After about 1915 it then went over to Joseph McCabe, hairdresser; William Delaney, carpenter; Bitossi & Co, piano tuners; McClure & Co, 2nd hand bookshop. Later on it became home to Greg’s Food Bar in the 1970s and 80s; various Tea Rooms and City Dining Room; B Barrowman, tea rooms & home made cakes; Janson Bros, grocers; Te Aro Milk Bar; and the Great Wall Cafe (perhaps seen above?) from 1967 to 1985.
What was it made of? Well, obviously brick, and incredibly well plastered with cement render. Not really showing any signs of cracks, shortly before its death. “Designed by William Crichton in 1900, this two-storey masonry building has architectural value for its carefully composed Edwardian Classical façade which features an elaborately ornamented parapet, and for the authenticity of the rear elevation.” and “The construction is load-bearing brick masonry on concrete foundations and piles. Internal partitions, floor joists, and roof trusses are timber. The roof is clad in corrugated iron.”
What was so great about the building then? Well, to me, who is not a heritage bod, the really great thing was its contribution to the Ghuznee St streetscape adjoining the wonderful Swan Lane. You can’t really tell from these rather overgrown photos taken shortly before demolition, but go back up to the top image and have a look at the plan – there was a delightful secret walkway through from the front to the rear.
Somewhere under all that ivy is a walkway link through to the front, which would have worked in well with the eventual Swan Lane Park for People, that one day (surely, inevitably) will occupy the present site of the Swan Lane Car Park. In the mean time, there is just a mountain of rubble, and soon, an empty concrete / dirt floor. RIP Toomath and Toomath Buildings !
Is this the end? Or is this just a beginning of some new possibility? If the WCC gets its act together, perhaps we could have an enjoyable link once again through to Ghuznee St? Is this a chance for the campaign for Swan Lane Park for People to once more come to the fore?