Abandoned spaces

The images forming this photo essay are of buildings at different stages of their lives. Most of them are being redeveloped or renovated, to begin another phase in the life of the capital city.

Photography by Oscar Thomas

Featured in Capital #35.
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The photography of abandoned spaces can construct worlds that lie hazily between reality and the surreal, examining what may lie just beyond our view, says photographer Oscar Keys.

A surprising number of buildings originally intended to be permanent have proved to be temporary. “As a country with a comparatively recent history, it is incredible that so many buildings are left to perish,” says Oscar.

These buildings have been at the centre of the lives of a few people over time.

“Forgotten spaces offer us narrative. They offer private stories and elusive history, as well as the fantastical mysteries of their descent and demise.”

Shelly Bay

Shelly Bay was sold to the New Zealand Company, along with most of Wellington, by Te Ati Awa in 1839. Its long military history began with the construction of the Submarine Mining Depot Barracks (where the Chocolate Fish Café is now) in 1887. In 1907 the Navy took it over. From 1938 the bay was also used by the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a seaplane base. RNZAF relinquished the bay in 1995, and in 2009 the Crown handed the land back as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement to Taranaki Whanui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika. Over the years many large buildings and a slipway were built, which are now very dilapidated.

Plans are under discussion for developing the area into a new suburb.

Erskine College

“Red-stickered, empty, and dilapidated… the only change in recent years being more broken windows and graffiti.” This was a description of the abandoned Erskine College in Island Bay, before it was demolished in 2018. The two-hectare site in Island Bay was chosen by nuns from Timaru and purchased in 1902 for £1,000. The Catholic girls’ boarding school was originally named the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Island Bay; but later changed to Erskine College to avoid confusion with Sacred Heart College Lower Hutt. Over time the nuns planted the grounds in large gardens, and added a farmyard for cows and other livestock. The farm surroundings were said to help to alleviate some of the homesickness of children from rural NZ. Winters were cold. Against the southerlies, windows on the south face of the building were glazed with double-sash windows. Nearly 3,000 girls were educated at the school which closed in 1995.

100 Taranaki Street

The ground floor of 100 Taranaki Street is best known as the long-time home of The Salvation Army Family Store.

The 1950s building originally housed a car dealer. When the Salvation Army bought it in the 90s, the ground floor became an op-shop and outreach centre, the first floor housed services for at-risk youth, and the top floor was used as a staff room and offices. The building was purchased in 2015 by Prime Property, with plans for refurbishing and strengthening. The ground floor is now houses a brewery and bar.

The Basin Reserve

In 1840, settlers eyed the Basin, which was a lagoon linked to the harbour by a stream, as a potential inland anchorage. That plan died with the 1855 earthquake, which raised the land by two metres. The resulting swamp was filled in by prisoners from the nearby Mt Crawford prison, and in 1884 the Governor General of New Zealand, Lieutenant-General Sir William Jervois, approved that the ground be “forever used for the purposes of a cricket and recreation ground by the inhabitants of Wellington”. To allow the crowds to see the action more comfortably, the Museum Stand was built in 1924, but it is now at only 14% of the current earthquake standard, and so cannot be used. A strengthening and redevelopment project is underway.

Erskine Chapel

Erskine College’s 1929 chapel is recognised as one of New Zealand’s grandest Gothic spaces; the acoustics within the chapel are said to rival those of Wellington Town Hall. The chapel was designed by John Sydney Swan who also designed St Gerard’s in Oriental Bay. Purchased with money from donations, twelve stained glass windows along each side were bought from famous German stained glass design company Franz Mayer in Munich. John Sydney Swan himself donated the central window above the marble altar. The building is to  be restored as part of Wellington developer Ian Cassels’ townhouse development on the Erskine site.

The Porirua Lunatic Asylum

The Porirua Lunatic Asylum, opened in 1887, was at one time the largest hospital in New Zealand. At its peak, the hospital housed 2,000 patients on its sprawling 140 acres. The asylum was intended to be a hospital farm, ultimately self-sufficient and sustainable. Patients were expected to work – women in the laundry, and men in the bakehouse and on the farm. In 1911, the Porirua Lunatic Asylum became the Porirua Mental Hospital. The site is currently home to Kenepuru Community hospital, and some inpatient mental health units remain today. The Porirua Mental Asylum was for many years the largest employer in the Porirua area and contributed greatly to the growth of Porirua City. 


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