Elegant building arises from fire
In 1878 a massive fire raged through the Waimate township for eight days, destroying everything in its path, including the original courthouse which had been built in 1866-67 under the guidance of the first district magistrate appointed to Waimate, Mr Belfield Woollcombe.
The loss of surrounding bush and town buildings was a huge setback for the previously thriving community but they rallied themselves and got on with the job of rebuilding. Construction of the new courthouse in Sherman St went ahead the following year.
The new courthouse was designed by PFM Burrows, an architect who arrived in New Zealand around 1863 and who worked under WH Clayton in the Colonial Architect’s Office. He was responsible for many of the smaller post offices and courthouses throughout New Zealand.
The elegant neoclassically styled courthouse at Waimate was erected by builder H. McCormick, work began in 1879 and it was finished in time for its formal opening in July 1880. Built out of brick covered by plaster, the courthouse consists of a central hall, which houses the courtroom, this is flanked by two single-storeyed wings. The central hall is around one and a half storeys high and is topped by a triangular pediment which features the date of the building and the words ’Court House’ surmounted by a crown.
The main entrance is situated in the middle of the central wing under a small portico. The single-storey side wings have walls capped by masonry parapets, hipped roofs and once housed the offices associated with the court.
Classical styles in courthouses were employed to convey both gravitas and dignity and were a nod to the past in terms of acknowledging the ideals of justice associated in popular memory with the ancient Greeks and Romans.
In a triumph of form over function two difficulties were found after its opening in 1880. The first being sound echoed so that it was difficult to hear what speakers were saying and, secondly, with its six metre ceiling, the courtroom was extremely difficult to heat in winter, however its outward appearance impressed those who saw it.
After almost a century of constant use the courthouse was closed in October 1979 by the Department of Justice, in conjunction with the closure of more than 20 other courthouses throughout New Zealand. Eventually the courthouse and surrounding land was declared an historic reserve and the Museum Trust Board was appointed to control and manage the former courthouse and land.
The courthouse itself remains relatively unaltered, although the chimneys were removed because of safety concerns. The museum retained the magistrates’ bench in the courtroom and the overall layout of the building, and visitors receive a clear impression of how the courtroom used to be.
— Karen Rolleston