For Christchurch’s first ten years, the South East corner of Cathedral Square sat empty and unused. The owner was a Rev. Thomas Rowley and this site was just one of eight he held by a Crown grant. Although the Reverend never stepped foot in New Zealand, his son Thomas Rowley Jnr. did but still this plot of land remained empty. The young Thomas settled and developed a property in Middleton, Christchurch.
After Rowley returned to England in 1864, the aforementioned land passed through many other owners. By the 1880’s, tram sheds, workshops and office buildings filled the site. With the formation of the ‘Canterbury Tramways Company’, trams began to operate from these sheds with their first route taking passengers from the Square to the railway station on the South Town Belt (Moorhouse Ave).
More history was made on this land when cycle manufacturer, Mr. F.R. Dennison, made New Zealand’s first motor car there in 1900. His historic drive from Christchurch to Oamaru was followed closely by the newspapers, reporting that the only hiccup experienced on the journey was a break-down close to Ashburton.
When the ‘Canterbury Tramways Company’ moved on by 1902, the Government acquired the site under the Public Works Act 1905 ‘…for the purpose of Public Buildings…’ The foundation of the new Government Building was laid in 1911 by Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward. Designed by Joseph C. Maddison (also known for the designs of Ballantynes – before the 1947 fire – and Clarendon Hotel), the ‘…massive and imposing…’structure was instantly blasted for being too expensive. Nonetheless, thirteen Government departments moved in during 1913.
In 1991, with the last government tenant long gone, the fate of this much loved part of Cathedral Square was unknown. The C.C.C., with the backing of the ‘New Zealand Historic Trust’ and ‘Christchurch Civic Trust’, approached the Government for it to be saved. With demolition quickly looming, petitions were set up and fundraising undertaken. On 11th July 1991, the C.C.C. made the much needed purchase for $735,000. When the council sold the property to the ‘Symphony Group’ in 1995, it went for the profit of over $6,000,000.
Thanks to the earthquake strengthening done during the 1990’s, the Heritage Christchurch – as the old Government Building is now known – came through the 2010/2011 earthquakes with minimal damage. Although closed for repairs during its 100th year, this was greatly acknowledged at the hotel’s reopening on 20th July 2013.
As it was put during the many speeches that day, “if the Anglican Cathedral is the heart of Christchurch, the old Government Building is the soul…”
* Image courtesy of Tina Ivano*