Erskine College chapel will ‘finally’ be strengthened after court decision

Erskine College, in Island Bay, has been owned by The Wellington Company since 2000.

An Environment Court decision has backed plans to demolish heritage buildings at Island Bay’s Erskine College to make way for 96 townhouses.

Work was expected to start last year, but plans were put on hold when the Save Erskine College Trust refused consent to demolish or remove heritage items.

Wellington developer Ian Cassels, managing director of The Wellington Company, was delighted by Thursday’s decision, and said 10  of his staff were already “going gangbusters” on plans for the site, which he believed would boost Island Bay’s economy.

Property developer and Erskine College owner Ian Cassels outside the chapel building.

A condition of the Environment Court consent is that the dilapidated chapel on the site must be strengthened before any other work, including demolition, can take place.

Cassels, whose plans already included the restoration of the chapel, said the decision meant his team could “finally get on with the job”. The company has owned the site since 2000.

Architectural drawings of the renovated chapel.

“The main thing we can celebrate is that the chapel can be set up as a part of Island Bay. That is really, really good.”

The chapel, when restored at a cost of about $7 million, could be used for funerals, weddings and other functions, he said.

The demolition of the college’s main buildings would reveal the chapel behind it. “This will allow it a life of its own.”

Some religious icons in the chapel were destroyed by vandals in 2016.

He said it was a privilege to be working on the chapel restoration. “We believe it’s one of the best historic buildings in New Zealand.”

The eventual development of the site would accommodate about 250 people, and he believed it would be something the whole of Wellington would be proud of.

In 2016, the development drew a mainly positive response from about 100 people at an Island Bay Residents’ Association meeting.

In 1992, the Save Erskine College Trust was approved as a heritage protection authority to protect the buildings and the grounds.

Last year, Heritage New Zealand central region general manager Claire Craig said the development would be significantly enhanced by the retention of Erskine’s special heritage features.

The court decision recognised the college was of “outstanding” heritage significance.

It was built in 1906 by the Society of the Sacred Heart, and was a Catholic girls’ boarding school until its closure in 1985. It is named after Mother Janet Erskine Stuart, the fifth Superior General of the society.

The decision said: “The chapel, main building, and Reverend Mother’s Garden are of special architectural, cultural, social, technical and aesthetic significance.

“The chapel is the finest neo-Gothic interior in New Zealand. The Reverend Mother’s Garden is a garden space with high values.”

It outlined some concerns for a method proposed by the company to screen the west-facing facade of the chapel with a glass screen, once the main building was demolished.

“[The court] requires evidence about a more sensitive approach to treatment of that view.”

A “conservative plan approach” should be taken to the issues, tailored to the retention of the chapel and design of its west face.

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