by JEFF DILLON
There are some very distraught pigeons in Dunedin. The birds, which have had easy access to roosting in the rafters of the historic former Dominican priory building on the corner of Smith and Tennyson streets, Dunedin, have been denied further entry as a major re-roofing project is about complete.  

Standing some four storeys high beside St Joseph’s Cathedral, the priory was built to house the Dominican Sisters who were invited to come to the early diocese. It also provided teaching space for the girls’ school they were to run. The 70-room building, when it opened in 1877, was claimed to be the largest non-reinforced concrete building in the Southern Hemisphere.

The 141-year-old historic category one building designed by F.W Petre fell into disrepair in recent decades as it ceased to perform any significant function.

In the early 2000’s, Dunedin diocese was attempting to sell it. In 2005, a possible sale to a northern developer saw some initial minor development work take place. However, the sale and the proposed development never proceeded as the financial climate soured and the developer walked away from the deal in 2009.

From March, 2016, a section of roof with broken and displaced tiles and easy entry for the pigeons.

One of the perceived issues facing any proposal was the state of the roof. The slate tile roof needed serious repair with cracked and missing tiles which left the building exposed to the elements and with significant water leaks.

With a strong restoration culture concerning older buildings in Dunedin recently, the Dunedin City Council (DCC) urban design team leader at the time, Dr Glen Hazelton, prompted a fresh look at what could be achieved. It was acknowledged that the state of the roof was a stumbling block to any options for future use.

With the aid of Dr Hazelton, fresh options were drawn up to show how the priory could be made an attractive development proposition. The need to fix the roof was seen as the first priority.

The first step in the process came in February, 2016, when the DCC Dunedin Heritage Fund committed a grant of $100,000 to aid the project. The intention at that stage was to replace the most damaged tiles which involved about 50 per cent of the roof.

A further major boost to the project came a few months later with a grant from the Lottery Grants Board’s World War One commemorative and heritage committee of just over $485,000.

As this was a restoration of a significant historic building, the intention was to repair using slate tiles imported from Wales, as had been used originally. Due to a misunderstanding the initial order placed was not able to be completed at the time. That led to a rethink and a decision to do a complete replacement of all the tiles on the roof.

The replacement fund was further swelled in March, 2017, when the Otago Community Trust granted $95,000, bringing the total to some $680,000. This still left a shortfall of some $220,000 for the budgeted $900,000 project. But the extra funds certainly gave confidence in the decision to proceed.

In July, 2017, the first load of a total 30,000 slate tiles from Wales arrived and was lifted by crane over the wall into the priory grounds.

The work then began to replace and repair the roof in sections. It was then estimated to take six months to complete but is expected to be fully completed by early April this year.

While the roof tiles were being replaced, the opportunity was taken to do some earthquake strengthening by tying the roof to the walls, but it was not intended to do anything about the interior of the building itself.

The roof work also involved replacing the water disposal systems. However, with the building now watertight the major stumbling block to any future use has been solved.

Reported suggestions a couple of years ago were indicating that the building might be developed as a boutique hotel or apartment style operation by a sympathetic developer, as well as being open to the public perhaps with a cafe. Certainly the diocese was indicated as being keen to see that any proposed use by developers was “sympathetic” with its past use.

With the building now secured from the elements and the birds, there will be less urgency regarding its future development or sale. It appears that there is some thought to not selling it outright, which would allow an opportunity for the diocese to enter into some partnership to develop the property. Any proposal would be looked at.

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