The Massey Memorial

//The Massey Memorial

The Massey Memorial

The Massey Memorial, Wellington commemorates one of New Zealand’s most successful and long-serving prime ministers. Located in a beautiful and striking setting on one of the most conspicuous promontories in Wellington Harbour, this elegant structure can be considered one of the country’s greatest public memorials.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage, together with Wellington-based Conservation Architect, Russell Murray, and Registered Building Surveyor, Murray Proffitt, is currently working on investigating some of the issues that affect the Memorial, including problems of water ingress to the interior. The project commenced with the preparation of a conservation plan by Mr Murray, whose many recommendations for the long-term conservation of the structure included:

The need to carry out seismic strengthening work to the aboveground structure, along with minor repairs to the stonework and localised repointing;

The installation of permanent environmental monitoring in the underground complex;

Carrying out major remedial work to arrest deterioration of the underground complex, including waterproofing work at the terraces, surface water drainage and site drainage work and the installation of additional ventilation.

Likely planned by his ministers even before William Massey’s death in office in 1925, the memorial occupies the site of what had once been a gun battery and associated underground two-storey magazine, which had been built in response to the “Russian Scare” of 1885; the permanent fort and disappearing gun being completed in 1889. The gun was removed and the battery was converted, temporarily, into a magazine in 1922.

The structure was quickly modified for Massey’s interment – the gun pit was filled with earth to accommodate the burial and a temporary pyramidal monument was placed over the top.

Plans were made to build a permanent memorial, with financial contributions sought from the nation. Celebrated architect, town planner and memorial designer Samuel Hurst Seager was asked to prepare a design. After his initial proposal to replicate his design for the Chunuk Bair memorial at Gallipoli (a simple pylon) failed to gain interest, he proposed a stunning new monument of white Kairuru marble. At Mr Seager’s request, the project was detailed and documented and taken through construction by architects Gummer & Ford. The contractor, Hansford & Mills, began work in 1928; the remaining aboveground structures of the old battery were cleared away, the gun pit excavated, and the original tunnel entrance was removed. The landscape was extensively modified for the memorial, with land cut away to improve views from the wider city and from the water, and also to flatten the area around the memorial, rockeries were formed on the southern slopes above the memorial, thousands of native trees (mainly Pohutukawa) were planted on the flanks of the hill, and a new access track was formed.

The exterior of the memorial was completed in 1930 and it was opened by the Governor-General Lord Bledisloe on 11 September that year. After her death in 1932, Lady Christina Massey was laid to rest with her husband in the crypt. Three years later, the crypt was finally completed, with changes made to the corridors, upper magazine, and the gun pit for the purpose to Gummer & Ford’s design. Commemorative events to mark Massey’s life were held frequently in the memorial’s early years but these gradually fell away as time passed.

The memorial has remained essentially unchanged since it was completed, save for the effects of wear and tear. The most notable alterations are the removal of the bronze chain dividing the sanctuary from the approach, and the 1991 replacement of the original marble bust of Massey with a bronze replica following repeated vandalism.

Over time, Pohutukawa have self-seeded around the memorial, gradually reducing its visibility and prominence from the city and the sea.

Wellington City Council have kept up regular maintenance of the site, although the growth of Pohutukawa around the memorial has not been contained, and the rockeries have disappeared into regenerating scrub over the years. The memorial has also been maintained, although water ingress into the mausoleum has remained a longstanding issue, with sporadic efforts at waterproofing yielding sporadic shortterm improvements.

A structural assessment has found that most of the superstructure has a seismic capacity greater than 67 per cent New Building Standard. However, the piers and colonnade at the north end of the structure are in need of seismic upgrade and strengthening work to ensure adequate performance in an earthquake and that the site remains safe for visitors.

Registered Building Surveyor, Murray Proffitt, notes “The main challenge from our point of view is to waterproof (and otherwise strengthen and upgrade) the structure without leaving any visible evidence of the intervention or damaging any of the structure’s heritage fabric in the process. This will involve lifting the marble and concrete paving from the colonnade and concourse, respectively, to enable installation of a waterproofing membrane above the crypt, tunnel and magazines. Surface water management will be introduced on reinstatement of the paving, while subsoil drainage and waterproofing will be installed to the underground elements via extensive excavation around the perimeter of the mass concrete structure.

“Investigation is ongoing with regard to the interior of the crypt and the nature and condition of the original drainage system within the tunnel and magazine complex, which now appears to be inoperable. The inclusion of effective ventilation is also yet to be finalised, though it is likely that a bespoke passive or solar driven system will be used, there being a need for inconspicuousness.”

Editor’s comment – thanks to The Ministry for Culture and Heritage and Russell Murray for their agreement to publish this article based upon information from the 2018 conservation plan.