8 Aug 2023

New Plymouth's historic Barrett Street Hospital Nurses' Home defiled by vandals - 'It's a sin'

7:00 pm on 8 August 2023
The Barrett Street Hospital Nurses' Home today.

The Barrett Street Hospital Nurses' Home today. Photo: Supplied / Jordan McCall

Heritage enthusiasts and former residents are horrified vandals are running amok in a historic building in New Plymouth while its future is still up in the air.

The Barrett Street Hospital Nurses' Home has the highest level of heritage protection possible under the district plan, but people are breaking in, wreaking havoc and setting fires and posting their antics online.

Built in the 1920s, the nurses home is landbanked as part of Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa's Treaty of Waitangi settlement.

Land Information NZ is in charge of its management and maintenance.

The Barrett Street Hospital Nurses' Home in 1922.

The Barrett Street Hospital Nurses' Home in 1922. Photo: Supplied / Jordan McCall

But the building is a shadow of its former glory, boarded up and leaking, and despite signs warning of 24-hour surveillance, people have been entering via a smashed window.

Julie Mace trained at the Barrett St Hospital and was mortified at its state.

"It's a sin. It's an absolute sin the maintenance of it, but you know, it's really out of our hands.

"It's just neglected and neglected and, you know, surely LINZ should've maintained it in a better manner than they have."

The 83-year-old remembered the building - and its famed ballroom - in its heyday.

"Oh, it was lovely. We used to have balls in there, there'd be a first-year ball and then there'd be a finalists' ball and they used it for the graduations and things like that and it had a sprung floor.

"And if you invited your partner the matron of the day had to sort of vet your partner and you had to make sure you introduced him to her as you went in."

The nurses' home dining hall today.

The nurses' home dining hall today. Photo: Supplied / Jordan McCall

Mace said life in the nurses' home was a bit "militaristic".

"As students it was rather army-style run, very regimental - you had to stand with your arms behind your back and when you went into the dining room you had to welcome yourself at the head table, say who you are and then when you left the dining room you had to go up and excuse yourself to whoever was in charge of the dining room at the time."

The accommodation was sparse.

"We had single bedrooms that had a just two-foot six-inch wide bed and just a set of drawers and no table or anything, just a wardrobe and just a little chair to sit on. Very small but quite adequate and the bathrooms were community bathrooms."

Mace said the building held many lovely memories and it would be a shame if it were lost.

Heritage buff Jordan McCall is running an online campaign to save the nurses' home.

He said what was happening to it was unacceptable.

Shattered bathroom facilities at the nurses' home today.

Shattered bathroom facilities at the nurses' home today. Photo: Supplied / Jordan McCall

"People have been breaking and entering.

"There was an opening open for anybody basically to crawl on in and photos have been put on Facebook where people have been going in and they've been punching holes in walls, kicking holes in walls and, yeah, there's been fires lit in there."

McCall accused Land Information NZ of neglect.

"I told them this is a heritage building with the highest level of protection and it's a building that you manage and you need to start managing it appropriately and adequately because we don't know what the future of this building holds, whether it's going to be saved, retained or demolished."

The heritage status of the nurses' home has been re-confirmed in the proposed district plan, but a manawhenua grouping is appealing the decision to the Environment Court.

The building is located on the former Otūmaikuku pa site.

The group was unavailable for comment, but its appeal argues the hearing process elevated the protection of colonial architecture above Te Tiriti obligations.

Taranaki Heritage Month organiser Rob Green

Heritage Taranaki's Rob Green at the home. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Heritage Taranaki's Rob Green had some sympathy for the manawhenua position.

"Te Atiawa are very keen to see this go and we understand this because if they've been promised the whole site unencumbered certainly the building as it stands at the moment is a huge encumbrance. We agree with that."

Nevertheless he wanted to see the building saved and repurposed.

"Adaptive reuse is the way to deal with it. It's no use locking a building up and preserving it. For what? It has to have a vibrant life, it has to be financially sustainable.

"You can't just lock up a building and put a fence around it and let it crumble away which it is doing right now."

Green said the government should help pay to restore the building.

LINZ manager, project and hazard management delivery, Matthew Bradley, said its role was to manage and maintain the property on behalf of the Crown while its future ownership was determined.

"We are aware of recent vandalism at the site, and our contractors are working to repair and secure access points. All exterior windows and doors are secured, and we are working with contractors to further secure the property.

"The building is earthquake-prone and hazardous and unauthorised entry is dangerous. We strongly discourage any unauthorised entry for public safety reasons."

Bradley said LINZ did not have a remit to undertake restoration or extensive repairs and was focused on prohibiting access to the building.

"It is regularly monitored with daily security patrols around the perimeter. If security personnel become aware of anyone inside without authorisation police are called."

He said the district council had recently amended the activity status for the building to "discretionary", which provided a pathway to determine future options for the building.

"We are working through this process, and liaising closely with manawhenua and our environmental consultants on what further work is required at the wider site."

Bradley said the future use of the site would be determined by its new owners.

The district council was unable to elaborate on what amended "activity status" meant for the nurses' home, but said if its category 1 heritage status was removed it would lose all the protections it currently had.

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