Historic Preservation Hero – James Blackburne!
In additional to spending valuable time with my family, I decided to celebrate my recent visit to New Zealand with the presentation of my Leisa Collins Historic Preservation Award to an extremely deserving individual. While national in scope, James Blackburne just happens to be based in the city of Gisborne where my family lives.
James is an architect whose passion is to see members of the community engaged in architectural preservation on all levels. A Gisborne native, he is the President of Historic Places Aotearoa Inc. and is the Chairman of Historic Places Tairawhiti Inc. and Tairawhiti Heritage Trust. He is a strong advocate for the protection and restoration of heritage buildings and has taken a leading role in a number of stellar preservation projects such as the Acton Estate, St Mary’s and Toko Toru Tapu Churches. He is currently working on restoring, the former Plunket Building in Gisborne, as well as the historic Potatu, which is a family heritage project.
Being that James has been actively involved with a number of amazing restoration projects, I let him choose which one he would like me to create an original painting of for the award. He chose one that is very dear to his heart, the Toko Toru Tapu Church. It is situated in Manutuke, a rural community just outside of Gisborne.
I completed the pen drawing of the church before leaving the USA, being that James supplied me with an array of quality photos of the subject. Once in Gisborne, I thoroughly enjoyed doing the next phase which is the watercolor part of the painting. I took over most of the dining room table in my mother’s tranquil hilltop home, which became my New Zealand studio.
The presentation of the award to James Blackburne took place right outside the main entrance of the Toko Toru Tapu Church. Around 50 local preservation supporters gathered on a lovely summer day to enjoy the occasion.
James worked on this restoration project for more than 15 years, his contribution going well beyond the usual architectural consultancy and designs. He was actively involved with the interior and exterior heritage restoration as well as a full structural upgrade and worked side by side with volunteers on hands-on projects. He drafted funding submissions and was also intimated involved with the fundraising efforts.
Toko Toru Tapu Church is one of the most important Māori churches in New Zealand and the structural strengthening of the building retains the integrity of the original building. Carbon-fibre, inserted behind exceptional whakairo (carved wooden panels), helped bring the church up to code, while appropriate materials, including a roof sourced from the USA, restored – or perhaps even improved upon – the church’s former glories.
Following the presentation we were welcomed into the church to marvel at the beautifully restored Maori carvings and original craftsmanship.
Following the award, an informal reception was held at the Opou Station Homestead, which is just down the road from the church. I have to say, that of all my award events and receptions held to date in conjunction with my historic preservation award presentations, this one now stands out as the most memorable. I want to thank Libby Kelt for graciously allowing us to use Opou for this occasion and all those who helped prepare the wonderful food and refreshments.
This beautiful Victorian homestead was built in 1883 and was designed by Gisborne architect William Peter Finneran for Thomas Bloomfield, nephew of Captain George Read. In 1852, Read bought the land on which the homestead stands from Thomas Halbert, who purchased the land from Maori owners in 1839. From 1911, the homestead was leased by John Clark, owner of nearby Opou farm, who named the estate Opou. His son, William Clark, bought the Opou estate in 1934. It has remained in the Clark family ever since.
Both the Opou Homestead and the Toko Toru Tapu Church are included on the New Zealand Heritage List.
To provide a little more background on the Toko Toru Tapu Church, here is a view of the church before restoration as well as some historic photos.
I would like to thank all those who worked with James on the restoration of Toko Toru Tapu Church. It now serves as a stellar example of a community coming together and working to bring an important landmark back to its former glory so that it can be enjoyed by future generations to come.
Additionally I would like to acknowledge the Gisborne Herald for their valuable reporting on local historic preservation issues. In fact, it was their stories that led me to finding James and deciding he should be my first New Zealand recipient. The paper also reported on this Historic Preservation Award event at the Toko Toru Tapu Church and my support of the ongoing restoration of the Plunket Building in Gisborne. Here’s the article.