Those amongst the ranks of the Christchurch City Council and the New Zealand parliamentary seats would have used the following words ‘…obsessed…focused…passionate…’ to describe their colleague and fellow councillor, Henry George ‘Harry’ Ell. And they would be right – Harry Ell let nothing and nobody put him off his project for the construction of the Port Hills’ Summit Road.
Harry was born in Christchurch on 24th September 1862 and grew up on his family’s farm in Halswell. After he finished his schooling, he continued to learn about farming and took a job at the Canterbury Museum. By this time, he had a great love for Christchurch’s natural heritage, especially on the Port Hills. As he moved into politics in 1903, he soon realised how fast Christchurch was growing and he wanted to conserve the natural state of the Port Hills and make it more accessible to the public. He envisioned a road between Godley Heads and Akaroa, linking numerous scenic reserves together with rest houses at regular intervals where the public could rest and be refreshed. By 1915, he had secured 23 reserves in all, purchased either by loans or given as gifts to his project.
The Sign of the Kiwi was Ell’s third rest house – and the last to be completed during his life; he had planned 24 in all. The first had been the Sign of the Bellbird (1914), then the Sign of the Packhorse (1916/17) and both were designed by Samuel Hurst Seager. For what would be first known as the ‘Toll House’, Ell chose Coronation Hill, which had been set aside to acknowledge the coronation of King George V in 1912. It was here that the first sod of the Summit Road was turned on 8th November 1908. The Sign of the Kiwi was officially opened on 9th June 1917 and it would cause nothing but controversy for Ell.
In 1922, two years into the Ell’s living on site, a toll gate was erected, causing a huge public outcry. Ell stood his ground, refusing to remove it as he needed further funds to continue the construction of the Summit Road. Even after being requested to get rid of the gate by the Heathcote County Council, the gate would remain right until Ell’s death in 1934.
Ell’s Summit Road project would also draw to a close without his passion, the last of the survey work being done on the hills over Pigeon Bay.
The Sign of the Kiwi became empty during WWII and was officially closed. In 1948, it became the property of the Christchurch City Council and still remains in their ownership today. The Kiwi was used as a custodian residence.
In 1989, the Sign of the Kiwi received a new breath of life as tearooms and an info centre were opened. It was registered as a Heritage site (including the stone gate pillars) by the New Zealand Historical Places Trust on 21st September the same year. The Trust was clear to state that the Sign of the Kiwi was one of New Zealand’s earliest icons of an attempt at nature conservation – the very materials used, and size of the structure, were made to blend into and promote its surroundings.
After years of being popular with locals and tourists alike, the earthquake of 4th September 2010 damaged the heritage gem worse than first thought. The old place limped along until its closure in 2013 with braces put in place to help the Kiwi against any further damage. The rebuild started in 2015 and cost $760,000 to complete.
It was reopened on 23rd January 2017 – with Mayor Lianne Dalziel and members of the Ell and Calvert families (the latter being the family of the original builder) present – to face uncertainty again when it was surrounded by the Port Hills Fire – not even 3 weeks later.
Janice Thornton had only been 3 days into her managerial position at the Kiwi, when the September 2010 earthquake hit but continues in her role today with new business partner Eric Devos.
In February 2017, even as the hills around it burned, they kept watch over the Kiwi until they were forced to leave. Those who ventured up Coronation Hill, once Summit Road reopened after the fire, would have been amazed at how close the fire got and how close the Sign of the Kiwi was again, to an uncertain future.
*Image courtesy of the Christchurch Public Library – http://christchurchcitylibraries.com – File Reference CCL Photo CD 1, IMG0078