Old High Court back in action

In a rare piece of good heritage news following the November earthquake, Wellington’s historic High Court building, in Stout Street, has been pressed back into service. It is a Category One listed building, which went through a lengthy multi-million dollar restoration project ending in 2010, at the same time as the new Supreme Court building was being built next door.

The modern High Court building in Molesworth Street has been closed since the earthquakes in November, as its interior received significant water and other damage, and although now considered structurally sound, will not reopen until early 2017.  In the meantime, some of the Wellington High Court sittings are being held in the old building. The old building was completed in 1881, and functioned as a court from then until it was replaced by the new building on Molesworth Street in 1993.

The building in the 1920s http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23192769

After 1993 it fell into disrepair as the government did not maintain the old building, and appeared in a number of ‘Heritage At Risk’ lists in subsequent years.  It was a poster-child for the damage that water can do to a building if not maintained.  However, the decision was made to restore it while the Supreme Court was being built, and during the restoration   it was put on base isolators and many decorative features were carefully restored. The restoration project, which received a National Heritage Award from the New Zealand Institute of Architects, saw many retired plasterers and other craftsmen come together to teach young workmen the skills needed to care for an old building such as that.

At the time it reopened as a restored building it was a little vague as to what the building would be used for, but it was said that it would be used for ‘ceremonial purposes and as a hearing room by other court jurisdictions where this is practical’, but I suspect a return to full High Court sittings was never envisaged.  I understand that the only issue today with the court functioning in the old building is that the cells, which are housed underneath the building, as was traditional at the time, and accessed by a tight spiral staircase, are considered (quite rightly) no longer suitable for prisoners, so are not being used.


Sources and images: 2010 press release; Heritage New Zealand listing; Courts of New Zealand press release Nov 2016

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