Kiwis owe much to dedicated visionaries. Harry Ell was one blessed with foresight, and visitors to the Port Hills in Christchurch often learn the story of Harry and his vision.
As often as his tale is told, it is worth repeating. We need the Harry Ells of this world today.
Harry’s great gift to New Zealand is embodied in the Sign of the Takahe. It is the most ambitious of a series of buildings he and a dedicated team provided as staging points along the 30km route to the summit of Akaroa: the Summit Road.
Others include the Victoria Park stone rotunda, the Sign of the Kiwi, Sign of the Bellbird, Sign of the Packhorse and a stone hut to the south of Mt Bradley.
The grand venture commenced in 1908 with little financial backing or local support. Ell and his team ignored these difficulties and before his death in 1934 the Bellbird (1914), Packhorse (1916), Kiwi (1917) and the first stage of the Takahe had been completed.
Many of Ell’s architectural concepts were gleaned from English manors and inns. They reach their acme in the Takahe, the most ambitious of his projects.
It was originally intended as a Dickensian inn but Ell eventually opted for a Gothic baronial style.
The final building has a two-storey asymmetrical plan with a crenulated three-storey tower on the south-east corner. Two oriel windows overlook the Canterbury Plains in the northwest facade.
At some point local architect J G Collins became involved. Despite construction being well under way prior to his participation, he had a profound influence on the final design.
Ell used a great deal of Kiwi can-do improvisation to minimise building costs. Port Hills stone was quarried locally and the blocks hand-chiselled. Tools were forged on site from scrap metal.
The heavy Kauri beams in the entrance hall were salvaged from a Hurunui River bridge. Ornate friezes in the memorial and other rooms came from packing case timber.
Nonetheless, for Ell the financial struggle was interminable. When the first section opened to the public in 1920 he tried to operate it as a tearoom, hoping profits would help defray costs of future work. This was unsuccessful.
In the end, the Sign of the Takahe was largely saved by the Depression work schemes that enabled Ell to employ government-funded unemployed workers, known locally as Ell’s Angels.
Many were skilled artisans and are responsible for the detailed carving in wood and stone that characterises the Takahe inside and out. Despite Ell’s death, many of these men continued to devote time to the building up until the outbreak of World War II.
With the coming of the war, the Sign of the Takahe was abandoned. In 1942 the Christchurch City Council purchased it to save it from deterioration. It was finally completed in 1949 by colleagues of Ell, notably Architect Collins.
For any who have never supped a Devonshire tea there, it is well worth a visit just to see the wonderful blend of architectural styles.
An impressive collection of heraldry hangs inside. The dining room contains an exact replica of a fireplace in the historic Haddon Hall in Derbyshire.
The next time you are planning a trip to the Mainland have a quick glance at www.summitroadsociety.org.nz.