George Troup designed railway stations. But that was a century ago and few of his works are still standing. Precious few.
The possible disappearance of yet another Troup station is forcing a band of Ashburton folk to make a stand. Their town's station, one of the last designed by Troup, has stood near the centre of the town since 1917. No train passengers use it, because no passenger trains come down the line any more. Its owner wants to demolish it and put up a new commercial building.
The Ashburton Heritage Trust, launched in 2007 to save the station, has pledged to fight proposals for demolition. The trust is embroiled in the resource consent process with the owner and discussions over purchase with the Ashburton District Council.
New Zealand's network of railway lines was once studded with 1400 stations. Ranging from complex structures to small shelter sheds, they were witnesses to a lost age.
In the era when railways dominated transport, they saw soldiers kiss wives and mothers goodbye as they headed to the wars. They saw bitter-sweet reunions when the men came home again, haunted by memories of death. They saw pupils clamber down from trains with knees muddied and shirts torn from school playground mayhem. They heard shoppers comparing bargains they had made in the far-off city. They felt the jollity of crowds sending newlyweds on honeymoon. They sensed the despair of men parting with a last shilling for a ride somewhere, anywhere, in search of a job. They watched the farmer loading his cream cans on to the train. They saw the store keeper collecting supplies for his shelves. They shared the apprehension of the young woman moving to the city to begin nursing training. They watched crowds on special trains to the races, company picnics, rugby tests.
As the days have gone, so have the stations. Fewer than 100 remain throughout the country.
Troup, as NZ Railways' chief architect, was associated with the design of many railway structures. He came to New Zealand from Scotland in 1884 and joined the railways department two years later as a draughtsman. He became the first official architect for NZ Railways, based in Wellington. He retired in 1925 and entered politics. He was mayor of Wellington for one term from 1927, sat on many boards and stood unsuccessfully for parliament.
The South Island main trunk (SIMT) began and ended with his stations - at Picton and Bluff. Picton's old station, doorway to the South Island for Cook Strait ferry travellers, has undergone great changes. Bluff's, once the southernmost station in the world, has vanished.
Along the 1000 kilometres of track that links these towns stands Troup's, and New Zealand's, most beautiful station, in central Dunedin. This 1906 temple of travel is one of New Zealand's most notable public buildings.
NZ Rail Heritage Trust chairman Euan McQueen calls Dunedin station "Troup's flagship". It is the only one of his stations built in stone. Its ornateness gained Troup the nickname Gingerbread George.
Ashburton station is not that grand but supporters say it must be retained for its heritage values. It is one of only five remaining timber stations designed by Troup on the SIMT, along with Mataura, Wingatui, Oamaru and Blenheim.
Ad Feedback Kaiapoi station still stands, too, but removed from its trackside location to the north bank of the Kaiapoi River. It looks attractive there but is only half the building it once was, after the onslaughts of weather and vandals at its previous site.
With no passenger trains operating south of Rolleston, and only one north of Christchurch, the remaining stations have been converted to other uses. The Oamaru and Blenheim stations, though on a different scale from Dunedin's, are pleasing for their proportions and the adornments Troup lavished upon them. Mataura (Southland) and Wingatui (near Dunedin) stations remain close to their original form.
Ashburton station is similar to Oamaru's, though smaller, as Oamaru's contains a full dining room. Ashburton's level of ornamentation is more restrained, a reflection of shortages of money and imported materials during World War I, when it was designed and built.
Other South Island stations with Troup associations that survive include Belgrove and Glenhope on the former Nelson line, Greymouth and Moana on the West Coast and Clyde in Central Otago.
McQueen says Troup's timber stations can be broadly classified as vintage and standard. Ashburton and Kaiapoi are examples of the vintage type.
The style and architectural presence of Troup's vintage stations "reflected the significance of the railway in the period in which most were built (1900-1908), and the importance of the railway station in the respective towns", McQueen says.
Ashburton Heritage Trust spokesman Don McLeod says Ashburton station is a reminder of an era in which the railway was a social hub and economic powerhouse for the town and the wider district.
Trust secretary Maxine Watson said at the 2008 resource consent hearing that the station was important to Ashburton from an historical, aesthetic and architectural point of view. It gave a sense of place, identity and continuity. The station is listed by the council and the Historic Places Trust as a heritage building.
Station owner Redson Corporation bought the building 20 years ago but has been unable recently to find suitable tenants.
Director Peter Hanson, who is overseas, told The Press in 2008 the only hope for the building was if the Ashburton District Council bought it. He had offered it for sale in 2007 but the council had declined.
To keep the building he would have to pay $450,000 to bring it up to Building Act standard. Fitting-out for a tenant would cost a further $400,000, Hanson said.
Redson's application for consent to demolish the station was declined by a commissioner at the 2008 hearing. Redson appealed the decision to the Environment Court. The outcome is still awaited.
Meanwhile, McLeod says the trust has attracted interest from three prospective tenants for the building. It will ask the council to negotiate purchase of the station and give the trust a heritage grant sufficient to pay for it, so the trust would own it. The trust is fundraising for the costs of restoring the building. It would let space at lower rates than a commercial owner would require.
Success for the trust would ensure a memorial to Troup.