Strengthening history at the seams

2 September 2020

The future of a 122-year-old building in the heart of Newtown is looking rosier thanks to a helping hand from Wellington City Council.

Newtown-based clothing designer Duncan McLean ironing cut demin for jeans he is making in his workroom.

Clothing designer Duncan McLean has been granted $14,000 to go towards a detailed design for earthquake strengthening of his Riddiford Street shop.

The grant comes from Council’s Built Heritage Incentive Fund which is to assist owners of heritage buildings to undertake conservation and seismic strengthening work where successful outcomes would be unlikely without assistance.

Duncan’s two-storey Victorian shop and residence was built in 1898, the same year as the neighbouring Castle's Chemist, and is within the Newtown Shopping Centre Heritage Area.

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He bought the building in 2002, saying he “just loved its character”. He moved in upstairs and opened his own shop on the ground-floor – designing and stitching his own line of bespoke jeans and unique ‘Newtown’ t-shirts.

An old photo of Duncan McLean's 1898 Newtown building on Riddiford St.

This came after 10 years of working in the fashion industry in New York. But sewing really is in Duncan’s blood. His grandmother was a seamstress – “she had eight kids and made all their clothes” – and his mother had a fabric shop called Clothesline in Hokitika.

“From when I was about 10 I’d say, ‘Mum, can you make this?’ She’d say, ‘You can make it yourself’. I always wanted something different than what was out there, so I’d end up making it.”

Duncan’s shop is now at the back of his property, accessible from Green Street, and the front area hosts a community of small businesses – Swell Gallery, Sweet Janes, and Health and Healing Massage.

Over the years, Duncan has had his Newtown shop repiled, rewired, reroofed, repainted, and replumbed.

When the building was ‘yellow stickered’ after being declared earthquake-prone in 2010, he knew he had a challenge on his hands.

“It's like carrying a monkey around on your back – you have no idea what you’re going to be up for financially.”

Duncan investigated funding options but says he was initially put off by the lengthy submission process.

“When you’re running a small business, you don’t have time to spend on filling in an application that you may or may not get.”

Eventually, however, he reached out to Council’s Senior Heritage Advisor, Eva Forster-Garbutt, about the Built Heritage Incentive Fund.

“I said ‘I think I’ll need some help with the application’ and Eva came out and helped me do it. When you’re not used to funding portals and how they work, knowing what to do can be tricky,” Duncan says.

“There’s so much information you have to go through, and I’m reasonably tech-savvy but at the end of the day I make clothes, so to have that help was amazing.”

Duncan McLean's Newtown 1898-built building, partially obscured by a tree, on the corner of Riddiford Street and Green Street.

Duncan, who experienced the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, says having the strengthening work completed by the 2025 deadline is now in the realm of possibility thanks to the grant to fund the design for earthquake strengthening work.

“I understand the power of mother nature – it’s crazy. Ultimately, it’s about getting the strengthening done so people are safe when they’re in the shop,” he says.

“There’s a lot of new buildings going up around the place but this one has got great character, and I’m passionate about keeping that.”

Council’s latest funding round for the Built Heritage Incentive Fund is now open and closes on Tuesday 13 October.

Eva says she and her team are more than happy to assist people through the funding application process, and she encourages anyone who needs help to “come and talk to us”.

“We are really keen to see people get started with the strengthening of their heritage buildings, beginning with the detailed seismic assessments and the detailed design.

“It is a great feeling when we can provide assistance by helping owners on this path.”

For more information and to apply for funding, visit: https://wellington.govt.nz/heritagefund or give the heritage team a call to discuss your project on 04 499 4444.