El­e­gant build­ing arises from fire

The Timaru Herald - - COMMENT&OPINION -

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

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