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The ‘springy’ tiled floor in the foyer had been an ongoing concern for the Barker family, but has recently been resolved

Fifty years of restoration at Dunedin’s Larnach Castle – By Lee Suckling

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the RA Lawson-designed Larnach Castle being in the hands of the Barker family, and, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, 2017 also marks a milestone for the castle’s renovation efforts.

Situated on the picturesque Otago Peninsula close to the city of Dunedin, Larnach Castle – New Zealand’s only castle – is one of New Zealand’s premier visitor attractions. It began its life in 1871 when William Larnach started to build it for his first wife, Eliza. It took three years and 200 men to create the exterior shell, and master craftsmen spent more than 12 years on the extravagant interior. 

“My parents, Barry and Margaret, bought it in 1967 and I grew up there,” says Norcombe Barker, Larnach Castle’s executive director. “We’ve done 50 years of renovations and it’ll carry on, project after project. Something will always be required – we’ve got about three or four pages of what needs to be done.”

Norcombe Barker, Larnach Castle’s executive director

Mr Barker runs the castle today as both an economic entity that turns a profit by way of tourism, and a restoration project. “What we’re doing is showing that this kind of thing can be done as a private business, rather than being run by a trust,” he explains. 

The last two decades of renovations have been under the helm of Guy Williams, heritage consultant and project manager for Larnach Castle. “Guy was with Heritage New Zealand when we first started working with him,” says Mr Barker. “Everything we did, we had to get permission for, so we had a good relationship with him. Guy spent a couple of years putting together a conservation report of the buildings. He has this wealth of knowledge about the castle, and even though I grew up there, he still knows all these things I never knew.” 

Roofs, walls and floors

The first project Mr Williams was involved in at Larnach Castle was the veranda stairs, in 2000. He was then a heritage advisor at the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (now Heritage NZ), and provided resource consent on the project. 

Before completing the conservation plan in 2009 as a consultant, Mr Williams was involved in the restoration of the ballroom doors, and replication of the interior carvings (the originals were designed and made by the famous Godfrey family of carvers) and the chimneys. 

Throughout 50 years of renovations, which have included everything from room rebuilds to handrails, a common theme always comes up in the castle: there’s always attention to be paid to a roof, wall, or floor. 

“Issues of concern to do with the buildings and structures are usually brought to the attention of Larnach Castle by some apparent fault showing – a show of water staining on a timber ceiling, or water staining, cracking, or efflorescence on a plaster ceiling or cornice or in the plaster on a wall, or instability or sagging in a floor, or a door binding,” says Mr Williams.

“Issues such as these are constantly being noted by the owners and staff, and brought to the attention of firstly the castle trades staff for easy remedy where possible, and where clearly more complex, referred to the conservator for in-depth investigations.” 

Intrusive investigations

These in-depth investigations of complex issues usually involve some degree of “intrusive investigation”, Mr Williams explains. “In other words, that’s the removal of some element of the built fabric of the place to be able to see what is causing the problem,” he says. “And of course, the issue with a place of such historical significance as the castle is to gain that access to enable investigation without damaging or destroying the heritage fabric of the place.”

Gaining access for investigations and renovations has to be done without damaging or destroying the heritage fabric of the castle

One of the important intrusive investigations (and subsequent renovations) over the years has been the floor of the first-floor foyer, a key element of the castle’s most focal room. 

The movement or ‘bouncing’ of the tiled foyer floor had been an ongoing concern for the Barker family, with tiles loosening in their mortar beds and being damaged. “Margaret Barker had re-mortaring and re-laying repairs made in the past, but the problem became worse over time due to the increasing visitor numbers to the castle over the years, and the increased numbers of persons accessing the castle and the foyer at any one time,” says Mr Williams. 

“In 2015, investigations were undertaken in an effort to determine the condition of the structural elements of the floor, why it was so springy, and what remedial actions needed to be taken to rectify any faults discovered. To enable this investigation, access had to be gained under the floor tiles to the floor structure below.” This was done via insertion of lighting, cameras and tools between floor joists, and the drilling of small holes to enable thin wire rods to be inserted to measure floor joists. 

Though it was originally thought the problem was underlying decay, the key issue was discovered eventually: the floor joists were undersized for their span, and that the under-sizing was exacerbated by the added dead-weight of about 110 mm of mortar and tile overlay which all contributed to the excessive spring in the foyer floor. 

Access for renovations was gained via the history room ceiling (below the foyer), and steel flitch plates were bolted to the side of each of the foyer floor joists. 

In the last two years, other renovations of note include the dining room roof and exterior wall condition report and repairs, gardener’s cottage temporary floor repair, and the north bedroom and turret roof and exterior wall condition report and repairs. 

Never finished

Guy Williams says it’s essential to have a real interest in any approaches taken to renovations. “None of these things are normal construction jobs. With every renovation, you need to do as little as possible, while doing enough to last the next 100 years or longer. It’s not stock-in-trade: doing things that leave as much of what is original is important.”

Major renovations such as these are usually done during the off-season (autumn, before the worst of the Otago winter weather), leaving the castle in its best condition for every upcoming summer. Still, the castle remains open year-round. 

“There’s an ongoing concern: do we care that visitors will take photos of the castle when we’ve got scaffolding up?” says Norcombe Barker. “But we don’t apologise. The restoration of the castle is never finished. It’s always ongoing.”

Freelance writer Lee Suckling has lived and worked across the globe, but is now based in Christchurch; his specialties include interiors, architecture, construction and urban planning lee.suckling@gmail.com

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