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Heritage Status for Ponsonby Baptist

Ponsonby Baptist ChurchThe heritage values of a cluster of well known character buildings in Ponsonby have been recognised by the country's lead heritage agency. 

The NZ Historic Places Trust has registered the Ponsonby Baptist Church complex as a Category 1 historic place, identifying it as a place of outstanding heritage significance. 

"Most people will probably recognise the impressive main Baptist church building, with its classical and Italianate architectural influences, on the corner of Jervois Road and Seymour Street—but it's not actually the original church building," says the NZ Historic Places Trust's Heritage Adviser Registration, Martin Jones. 

"The first Baptist Church on the site was the chapel building, which was moved to the back of the property when an adjoining section was purchased, making room for its replacement. The original building dates back to 1875 and is believed to be the earliest purpose-built Baptist chapel and Sunday School to survive in Auckland."

The later Sunday School hall was subsequently added to the same site in 1905. 

"What we have is a complex of three historic buildings—all of which are included in the registration," he says. 

The church complex reflects solid growth in numbers experienced by the congregation from the time the original church opened in the mid-1870s. 

Indeed at the time, the Auckland Star reported—somewhat cryptically perhaps—that there were "many persons in Ponsonby who hold the views of John Foster and Robert Hall"; two leading British Baptist leaders who popularised ideas connected with social reform, including anti-slavery and child education.

"Awareness of social justice issues was no doubt reinforced by one of the earliest Baptist overseers in Auckland, Rev Philip Henry Cornford, who had worked among newly emancipated slaves in Jamaica prior to coming to New Zealand," says Martin. 

"His experience reflected the involvement of many British Baptists in campaigns against the slave trade and slavery." 

The thriving Church community mirrored the growth in the number of people living in Ponsonby, which totalled 1640 in 1874. That number had doubled by 1881—and had doubled again by 1886. 

In 1885, a combination of large attendances at Sunday evening services and poor ventilation led the church to hire the nearby Ponsonby Hall for evening services, and for morning services as well later in the year. 

A new facility was clearly needed, and in 1886 the foundation stone for the new church building was laid. 

"The new church was designed by architect Edmund Bell, who also designed the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle at the upper end of Queen Street," says Martin. 

"The classical and Italianate-influenced design reflected a rejection of Gothic Revival style architecture favoured by more traditional church denominations. Well known English Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon, for example—whose son Thomas led the first service in the new Ponsonby church—strongly favoured neoclassical architecture for Baptist church design. 

"This general preference within the denomination was reflected in the architecture of many Baptist churches built around the world at this time." 

Philosophical reasons aside, the neoclassical approach to architecture made good sense for non-conformist denominations like the Baptists.

"Apart from the impressive front elevation, the rest of the church building is quite simple architecturally—though very functional," says Martin. 

"A floor sloping to the front of the church combined with a raised rostrum for the speaker, for example, meant people could see the preacher easily and hear what he was saying ñ particularly important as the sermon was regarded as the most important part of the service." 

Other features within the church are also important, reflecting different aspects of its history as well as wider social history. 

"The main auditorium still has its original pews complete with individual numbering, harking back to 19th Century years when pew rents were collected ñ a practice that was eventually discontinued in 1909," he says.

"A roll of honour also records the names of 42 members of the congregation who fought and died on European battlefields during the First World War."

One of the treasures of the church is a rare John Avery organ—believed to date back to 1779, and regarded as having international significance as the oldest organ to survive in Australasia remaining in a form close to the original. 

Restored in 2005, it is one of only 10 surviving Avery organs in the world, and the largest example of Avery's work to remain in recognisable form. 

Over the years the Ponsonby Baptist Church congregation has been deeply involved in addressing social concerns—including temperance, gambling and other issues. 

One of its earlier leading lights—Manchester-born Rev A.H. Collins—was a strong trade union supporter who condemned exploitation of workers, claiming that "Those who work most have least to eat". . . while . . . "those who work not at all . . . speak loftily about the improvidence of the working classes".

The thread of social justice is a recurring theme in the history of the church, and in 1988 Rev Mike Riddell and members of the church founded the Community of Refuge Trust to provide low-cost accommodation in Ponsonby and to assist in providing professional services, such as medical advice, to low-income households. The organisation subsequently became one of the largest housing trusts in New Zealand. 

"The Ponsonby Baptist Church complex is an important part of the built heritage of the community, and the registration formally acknowledges that significance," says Martin.

"It also acknowledges the social history of the church and the important part the church has played—and continues to play—in the life of the wider Ponsonby community."


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