The Arts Centre of Christchurch is housed in the Gothic Revival buildings of the University of Canterbury’s former town site. This is a brief guide to the history of the buildings.
Origins: The University of Canterbury
The University of Canterbury was founded in 1873. It moved in 1876 to the gracious 19th century Gothic-styled buildings (which now comprise the Arts Centre). The clock tower in Worcester Street was the first building constructed. It was designed by the pre-eminent Gothic Revival architect, Benjamin Mountfort, and was completed in 1877.
The rest of the stone buildings, designed by a number of prominent Canterbury architects such as Samuel Hurst Seager and William Barnett Armson and the firm of Collins and Harman, were added over the decades. This maze of inter-connecting buildings spread out over the whole 2.2 hectare town site. Included in this labyrinth were the original Girls’ High School on the corner of Rolleston Avenue and Hereford Street and the original Boys’ High School at 28 Worcester Street.
When the University celebrated its centennial in 1973, it obtained Government approval to preserve the historic buildings at the western end of the site by presenting them to the people of Christchurch together with a fund for their maintenance derived from the disposal of the eastern end. The University subsequently agreed to the imaginative proposal for multipurpose use of the whole site as an arts centre and the preservation of all the permanent buildings.
The transfer of all departments of the University to the present site in the suburb of Ilam, 6 kilometres northwest of Cathedral Square, was completed in 1975. 1978 saw the formation of the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust Board, a registered charitable trust, formed to receive the ownership of, and administer in perpetuity, the old University town site.
A cultural and tourism focus
The complex became the home of a number of cultural organisations. These included the Court Theatre, the Southern Ballet, the University Theatre, and the School for Young Writers. The Arts Centre housed offices for several arts administrative organisations such as Creative NZ, the Christchurch Arts Festival and South Island Art Projects.
The market, craft studios and galleries attracted thousands to the Arts Centre. Outdoor entertainment and exhibitions were a regular feature.
In the ten years prior to the earthquakes, the Arts Centre was the cause of a number of public controversies around moves to introduce more commercial use of the complex. The most significant row was over plans to build a $24.3 million national music conservatorium on a car park on the site.
Significant community opposition saw the conservatorium plans, designed by Sir Miles Warren, refused consent after independent commissioners found it would harm the Arts Centre’s heritage values.
Impact of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes
The earthquakes and aftershocks caused major damage to the complex. The Observatory collapsed, and most of the other buildings suffered damage from falling chimneys, foundation and wall movement and damaged gables.
Extensive work has been done to brace damaged areas and to conserve materials. The repairs are expected to take seven years and cost $290 million. Some buildings in the complex including the Registry, Gym and Great Hall have been repaired and reopened.
Christchurch Arts Centre (a Tumblr site) is documenting and photographing the restoration process.
This information was originally derived from the Christchurch City Council handbook of 1998.