Hamish’s quest to save New Plymouth’s heritage buildings

Nestled away in the Taranaki Research Centre is Hamish Crimp, hard at work. The 26-year-old is painstakingly researching New Plymouth’s heritage buildings. Louise Pease sat down with Hamish to find out more about why he’s on a mission to save these old buildings.

Hamish Crimp is somewhat of a lone ranger when it comes to protecting New Plymouth’s heritage buildings.

As we take a walk down Devon Street, the New Plymouth man demonstrates an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and context of most of the buildings, pointing out notable architectural features, listing past tenants and recalling historical titbits.

Hamish’s familiarity with these buildings has come from putting his doctorate degree from Victoria University on hold in order to focus on his mission: to research and catalogue as many of the district’s heritage buildings and structures as he can, in the hope of saving them.

“What pushed me into doing it was seeing so many buildings suddenly being destroyed or being removed. I just couldn’t believe how short-sighted it was.”

He cites the removal of Burgess House from its original location in 2013, the bulldozing of the 1850-60s Taranaki Women’s Club building on Powderham St in 2015 and the demolishing of the Master’s building that housed the Real Tart Gallery in 2016 as examples of heritage disasters.

“I think many people mistakenly believe that buildings like these would have some kind of protection – but they have absolutely no protection. We will look back with regret if we don’t learn from our mistakes and keep destroying our heritage.”

Hamish outside the White Hart building, an outstanding example of sustainable urban development.

Twenty-six-year-old Hamish acknowledges his passion for history may be unusual in someone his age but says his interest was piqued early in his life spending time at his great- grandmother’s Bell Block home which had been in the family for a 100 years and was stuffed full with family treasures. It was further developed later on in his childhood “bottle digging” in city streams with his brother.

“I’ve always loved searching for things and love finding these tangible links to our past.”

Hamish realised that the best way to secure heritage buildings protection was having them listed on the New Plymouth District Council’s (NPDC) District Plan, which was currently being reviewed.

So instead of beginning his PhD he has been researching and compiling information on the district’s heritage buildings. Gathering this information on each building takes hours and hours of painstaking and often dogged research spent at Puke Ariki’s Taranaki Research Centre and Archives New Zealand in Wellington, finding lost or long-forgotten details on local buildings.

Hamish in front of the Roy Building on Brougham Street, built in 1885, which currently has no protection under the Proposed District Plan.

Hamish hopes the information he is compiling will go some way to supporting the case for more protection of heritage buildings when the NPDC issues its Proposed District Plan this week.  

Hamish, along with fellow members of Heritage Taranaki, have already been involved in the review of the District Plan submission process and during this have seen the council add more buildings to its plan, but Hamish says there are still nowhere near enough on the list. 

He says under the Proposed District Plan a building will only be protected if it is scheduled in the plan. There are currently only 143 buildings or structures that have been accorded this protection.

He says buildings that received a B or C listing in the District Plan and are not upgraded and scheduled in the Proposed District Plan will have no real protection from destruction, removal or unsympathetic alteration. This would currently affect about 600 buildings and items. Hamish says there are also about 200 other heritage items that aren’t listed at all in the plan so remain unprotected.

Hamish wants to see a “significant increase” in the number of buildings gaining full protection in the District Plan and believes securing this might be the community’s only chance for the next decade to protect much of its heritage.

He believes the NPDC needed to cast a wider net when looking at heritage buildings and not just focus on the CBD. Many of the district’s important sites exist out of the city and these should be afforded the same protection as those in the inner city.

Hamish outside the beautiful façade of the Exchange Chambers building, currently used by Kina, which was built in 1894 and is one of the oldest timber building in the CBD.

Hamish says one such example is a small farm cottage on Inland North Road in Tikorangi. In paddocks next to the cottage a number of Māori ploughed the fields as a peaceful protest over the land’s occupation/ownership in July 1879 causing a considerable uproar.

This was followed by several court cases and the imprisonment of 25 Māori in Wellington. This was a precursor to the nationally significant protests at Parihaka that began in the same year.

Hamish also points out that it is not only our grand buildings that need protection. Homes that characterise the lives of working-class families, like bungalows and villas, might not be architecturally outstanding but they are important because they represent the development of the district from a colonial outpost into a city.

Structures are also important – like the four railway bridges at Pari St, Eliot St, Hobson St and Devon St East. These were built in 1907 and highlight New Plymouth’s role as a trailblazer in the use of reinforced concrete. These bridges have no protection under the District Plan.

The railway bridge on Eliot St.
SOURCE: Kete New Plymouth

Hamish says he would like to see NPDC take more of a proactive role on heritage issues and work in partnership with property owners to upgrade or restore their property. This may be as simple as restoring the building’s façade, which can then create a fantastic streetscape.

The restoration of the façade of the building that houses Kina, and the buildings down the hill from this were a fantastic example of how restoration adds vibrancy to the look and feel of the CBD, he says.

But it isn’t just local government that needs to take responsibility for protecting our heritage. Hamish believes some building owners do not tend to think about the wider context when it comes to what they own, and they tend not to be collective thinkers.

This needs to change and building owners need to place a higher price on heritage, or the city would live to regret it, Hamish says.

It may help building owners to be aware that there is funding that is available for restoration work, such as those grants available through the NPDC and Heritage EQUIP.

He says when old buildings are destroyed or moved off site it not only destroys history and ruins streetscapes, but it also does little to create a sustainable urban development.

“It’s not an ideal way to reduce waste,” he says.

When older buildings are instead repurposed well the impact they have on a city street is immense. The fantastic development of the White Hart Hotel was an outstanding example of this.

Hamish believes there are many buildings in the district that could have a similar future, with a bit of council leadership and foresight, some funding and a stronger commitment to protecting our history.

You can stay up to date with Hamish’s work by following the Heritage Taranaki Facebook page.

Words and photos by Louise Pease