Christchurch has already lost so much heritage, so the news of the fire at Risingholme is particularly sad. The house was built in 1864 by the parents of William Pember Reeves (1857-1932), and was his family home as he was growing up. Reeves was a politician, poet and historian, and was the leading intellectual of what became the Liberal Party. He led labour reform in his position as Minister of Labour, instituting systems which lasted a very long time, and later went to London where he became the Director of the London School of Economics. He wrote the classic book about New Zealand history, Land of The Long White Cloud, published in 1898 and still considered the standard text on New Zealand history into the 1950s.
The house was designed by architect Maxwell Bury, and was a rare example of his domestic work. Bury designed the core of the University of Otago complex of buildings. Bury was in partnership with leading architect Benjamin Mountfort at the time. The house was associated with a number of notable Christchurch residents, including businesswoman Eliza White (1841-1909), and had a number of alterations.
The house was given to the city of Christchurch by philanthropist John McKenzie, who was one of New Zealand’s richest men through his string of McKenzie retail stores. He purchased the house and gave it to the city for the ‘health, amusement and instruction of the public’. The city used the building as a community centre; it opened in 1944 as one of the first such centres in the country. It provided a wide range of art classes and school programmes. It was damaged in the Christchurch earthquakes and the centre moved nearby. It had recently been boarded up to keep out vandals and squatters, but this does not seem to have been successful; at the time of writing it is suspected that the fire was deliberately lit.
Sources: Keith Sinclair. ‘Reeves, William Pember’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 14-Jan-2014
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/2r11/reeves-william-pember; Melanie Lovell-Smith, ‘Risingholme’, Heritage New Zealand List entry. Image: Fairfax