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Our Environment: Issue 16 Spring 1998

Our Environment: Christchurch City Council's Environmental Newsletter

The Excelsior Hotel

On 27 December 1879 The Press reported on "one of the most disgraceful outrages that has ever taken place in Canterbury". On Boxing Day a "peaceful procession" of members of the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society was attacked as it marched past Barrett's Borough Hotel on the corner of Manchester and High Streets. According to The Press, hotel patrons sailed forth and "commenced striking indiscriminately with a number of pick staves". Four men were seriously injured and the Governor's consent to immediately close the hotel was sought.

Subsequently, the hotel's owner, John Barrett, lost his liquor licence for two years. However, Barrett claimed that he was no more responsible for the violence than "a child unborn". His hotel had a large Irish Catholic clientele and the Protestant Society's decision to march past it was arguably inflammatory. Clashes between Orangemen and Catholics had also occurred in Timaru on Boxing Day 1879.

Whether responsible for the violence in Christchurch or not, Barrett found himself the owner of an hotel which had the unhappy reputation of bringing the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland to the streets of Christchurch. He soon decided to rebuild his business and, in the process, his hotel building. His licence was temporarily taken up by Michael McGoverin.

The hotel Barrett built on the site of the original Borough, now known as the Excelsior (1881-2), was indisputably the most impressive in nineteenth-century Christchurch. The building is a monumental Italian Renaissance palazzo, an architectural form popularised by Charles Barry's Travellers' (1829-32) and Reform (1837-41) Clubs in Pall Mall, London. Barrett's earlier hotel was a comparatively simple (and notorious) colonial pub. In its architectural allusions, the Excelsior, by contrast, has all the respectability of the fashionable gentlemen's clubs in England.

The architect was William Barnett Armson, one of New Zealand's leading commercial architects in the decade or so before his death in 1883. He had previously, in 1876, designed the Devonshire Arms for Barrett. It survives as the Durham Arms (on the corner of Durham and Peterborough Streets) in much modified form. On the whole, however, fate has been unkind to Armson's buildings. Of the 14 major contracts he carried out on Hereford Street only one survives - Fisher's Building (1880).

The Excelsior Reopens

It is therefore entirely appropriate that the Excelsior, one of Armson's few remaining works, has now become a focus of preservation efforts in central Christchurch. On 15 June 1998, the hotel reopened - with an entirely peaceful gathering - as the first purchase of the Christchurch Heritage Trust. The Trust was launched last year to assist preservation of Christchurch's heritage buildings and is concentrating on conservation of privately-owned commercial properties. Initially it intends to buy, upgrade and re-tenant buildings as an example to others. In the longer term, it hopes to create a large, inner-city residential precinct. Purchase of the Excelsior is the first step in achieving this wider vision. The Trust has bought the building to generate funds to help finance its activities.

In keeping with the Trust's strategy of leading by example much of the Excelsior has been restored. Strengthening work begun in 1988 was completed in late 1997, and damaged plaster ornament has recently been repaired and reconstructed under the Trust's guidance. Although previously painted black in a misguided attempt to create a distinctive visual image for the hotel, the facades have now been repainted in a more muted colour scheme which allows the architecture to be better appreciated. A cafe has been fitted out on the ground floor and the first floor bedrooms now house the Excelsior Backpackers' Hostel.

Barrett may have been wrongly held responsible for the sectarian violence which took place outside his bar as long ago as 1879, but his hotel is now fully implicated in the conservation 'battle' in central Christchurch. With the facades sympathetically restored, the structural securing work completed, and the interior fitted out for new uses, the Excelsior is well-placed to earn funds to help preserve Christchurch's heritage buildings. Whether for pecuniary or aesthetic reasons, Barrett and his architect W. B. Armson would surely have approved of the Trust's efforts to shore up the future of Christchurch's heritage buildings by "propping up" their bar. As the Christchurch Heritage Trust realises, destruction of the remarkable precinct of Victorian and Edwardian buildings centred on the Excelsior in High Street, no less than the violence of Boxing Day 1879, would be "one of the most disgraceful outrages... in Canterbury".

Peter Richardson
Assistant Planner (Heritage)

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