Gothic New Zealand: Nelson

Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson:  west front

Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson: west front

It would be good to think that Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, on New Zealand’s South Island, was a work in progress.  Its frankly odd appearance is a result of its history:  it reached its current shape and style through earthquake, fire and not a little controversy.

In 1842, within a year of the establishment of what became the town of Nelson, Bishop George Selwyn arrived with a tent which he planted at the top of what is now called Church Hill.  He returned in 1851 to dedicate the replacement wooden church as Christ Church [see].

This structure was enlarged and altered in 1859, 1866 and again when it was inaugurated as a cathedral in 1887.  The spire was damaged by an earthquake in 1893 and the tower demolished as unsafe in 1921, shortly before the building was further damaged by fire.

In 1927 an ambitious new stone Gothic cathedral was begun to the designs of Frank Peck (1863-1931), a British architect trained by Sir Aston Webb.  (One of Peck’s British designs, before he emigrated to New Zealand in 1915, was the furniture-heiress Grace Maple’s residence, Petwood at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire.)

Peck’s design would have looked magnificent [], but hardly had work begun than the Murchison earthquake of 1929 led to tighter building regulations, and construction came to a halt in 1932.

The result was that Peck’s nave stopped abruptly at clerestory level:  a temporary roof was installed, and the surviving wooden chancel from the previous church was attached to the east end.

A simplified design of 1954 by Ron Muston brought a sense of closure and practicality to the interrupted design.  Muston used reinforced concrete, faced with ground marble, to complement Peck’s marble blocks.

The dominant feature is the tower, a tall, spare essay in lightweight Gothic, much more adventurous than Peck’s orthodox Gothic Revival design.

Not everyone liked it.  The Nelson Evening Mail grumbled, “We are apparently to be satisfied with the second best.”

The cathedral was completed in 1967 and consecrated, once it became clear of debt, in 1972.

Of course, it doesn’t look complete.  Peck’s cathedral proved to be unbuildable on its tectonically vulnerable site.

But perhaps one day it might be possible at least to complete the nave.  Some medieval cathedrals stood incomplete for centuries:  Cologne, paused in 1473, was finished in 1880;  Bristol, interrupted at the Reformation, was eventually completed in 1888;  the first stone of Milan Cathedral was laid in 1386 and construction ended in 1965.

Never say never.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Antipodean Gothic:  English architecture “down under”, please click here.

Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, New Zealand:  tower

Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, New Zealand: tower

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