Restoration of White’s Courtenay Hotel

RESTORATION: The White's Courtenay Hotel building in the 1980s which has now been restored by Joe and Tracey Brankin. PHOTO: HERITAGE NEW ZEALAND

Historian and district council staff member Wayne Stack continues his monthly look at Selwyn’s past. Anyone with suggestions for future features can phone Wayne on 021 119 9107. This month’s feature is on the restoration of White’s Courtenay Hotel

Restoring a dilapidated, heritage-listed building is not for the faint-hearted. It takes vision, imagination, money, patience, hard work, ability to problem-solve and, most of all, courage and determination.

Local real estate agents Joe and Tracey Brankin have proven they have plenty of these characteristics in restoring White’s Courtenay Hotel, one of the district’s oldest buildings.

The old hotel has significant historical importance to the district in that it was the earliest centre of local government. The East Rakaia and North East Roads boards held their first ever meeting (and subsequent meetings) in the lounge of the hotel in July 1865. These boards later morphed into the Courtenay Roads Board, the Malvern County Council, and latter, the Selwyn District Council. The building is also the sole remaining dwelling of a series of hotels and accommodation houses – such as the Halfway House Hotel near Courtenay, the Miner’s Arms at Halkett and the Clare Inch Hotel at Little Racecourse Hill – which had been established along the Old West Coast Rd and have long-since gone.

Although it has mostly been used as a private residence, the building was a purpose-built hotel when erected by Charles White in 1864. White had previously established a smaller hotel on the river flat near the Courtenay punt to service those crossing the Waimakariri River. He subsequently built the larger nine-bedroom, wooden weatherboard hotel alongside what was then the main West Coast Rd to provide accommodation and meals for the increasing volume of travellers passing through to the West Coast.

The hotel provided services for the Cobb & Co horse-drawn coaches and passengers from 1866 when the road over Arthur’s Pass was opened. Officially licensed as the Courtenay Hotel, the establishment was commonly known as White’s Hotel and it served as a staging station where the coaches changed horses. The stables at the rear of the hotel have long since gone.

The hotel became an important centre for the community, where a post office and telephone exchange were eventually housed within the building and local meetings were regularly held in the two lounges and tap room (bar).

When Charles White died in 1869 his wife Mary Ann and son, George, kept the business going, but the days of the hotel were numbered. The new railway from Rolleston to Kirwee was completed in 1871, which took most of the traffic away from the Old West Coast Rd. The growth of Kirwee led to the demise of businesses in Courtenay, which included the hotel, along with a store, a blacksmith, an Orange Lodge Hall and a library. About this time, the hotel license was transferred to the Kirwee Hotel, with White’s then becoming a private residence. However, the Post Office was retained in the building until 1924, when it closed.

In 1902, the property was purchased by Jack Bedford and remained in the family until 1994. By that time the building had been unoccupied since 1963 and was derelict. An internal chimney and one of the two sets of stairs had collapsed, with the weather and vandals adding to the general deterioration of the building.

As early as 1970, a local newspaper reported the likely destruction of the historically significant building, as the owner and the Historical Places Trust were not in financial positions to restore the property. At this time prospective buyers were put off by restrictive planning by-laws, with the old Town and Country Planning Act discouraging any potential restoration.

However, in 1993 resource consent to subdivide the land and restore the building was gained, resulting in the property being purchased by John and Diane Sugrue. Their initial vision was to restore the building to its original state and operate a country bar and restaurant. Over 12 months, the couple cleared the site of overgrown vegetation, guttered the building interior and exterior and prepared it for restoration.

By 1995, the building was weather-proof and to a lock-up stage. However, it was not until 2007 that the interior framing, wiring and water system installation was completed. At this stage, the exterior restoration had been done, and in 2012 their efforts were recognised when they won the Heritage Restoration category of the Canterbury Heritage Awards.

The second stage of the restoration came about when Joe and Tracey Brankin purchased the building in September 2014. Joe had been asked to market the property, but ended up buying it himself for a family home. Joe had grown up in the area and became passionate about the potential in the restoration project. At this time, the interior only consisted of a concrete floor and some structural internal walls.

After discussions with
Heritage New Zealand and the district council, the Brankins quickly set about sympathetically renovating the old hotel into a comfortable modern home, based on the original footprint and incorporating existing features, such as a hidden staircase and the original second storey floor and layout. A new main staircase was built and several internal walls were either moved or taken out. Replacement Kauri doors were installed and the décor now includes lamp shades and an old 1920s telephone that are not only in keeping with the character of the building, but also are a reminder of its past use. By December 2014, the couple were able to move into the old hotel, being the first residents since 1963.

Joe and Tracey spent the following year completing the landscaping of the grounds in character with the history of the property, which includes adornments such as wine barrels and a horse-drawn cart and gig – both more than 100-years-old.

Through their combined efforts, the Brankins and Sugrues have not only saved a historic building from imminent destruction, but have also preserved for future generations an increasingly rare physical reminder of the district’s colonial past.

Anyone considering restoring a heritage-listed building should contact Heritage New Zealand and the district council for advice and heritage funding inquiries.