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Building’s tall tales were on the level

Today it is probably best known as Masterton’s tallest building, or the place you went to for your covid-19 jab. MARK PACEY of the Wairarapa Archive tells the origin of the Departmental Building.

In the mid-1970s, government departments were spread wide. Inland Revenue alone operated form five different sites in the area. It was decided that a purpose-built building to accommodate as many of the government departments as possible would be the ideal scenario.

But how big to make it? Inland Revenue had a decent-sized staff, as did many other departments. A governmental architect came up with a plan that would suit. It would be an impressive building.

Six stories of offices would eventually tower above central Masterton. The plans were set and some of the tenants were already earmarked to move in once the building was complete. A site was selected, and everything was ready for the construction to begin.

In October 1975 Masterton firm Dixon and McKinlay were awarded the contract. It would be a tame building for the major cities, but for Masterton, this would be a behemoth of a structure, taller than any other building in the town.

By March the following year, the site was a hive of activity. Concrete was being poured and steelwork was rising towards the heavens. Three months later the maze of steelwork had increased so much that workmen became vague silhouettes when viewed from the road, their details masked by all the metalwork.

Work progressed throughout the year, but it would be a long build. Such a tall structure with a decent footprint took up an enormous amount of steel, concrete and labour. By April 1977 the new building was four storeys high and was described in the Times-Age as “becoming steadily more imposing.”

While the building continued to go up, it was also fitted out on the lower floors. While in the earlier stages it was a shell of a building, by early 1978 the first five floors looked more like a finished building with windows and walls nearing completion.

The date set for the conclusion of the main build was October 31. Negotiations had been taking place with the proposed tenants and it was Inland Revenue was awarded the most space with two floors all to themselves.

While the concreting and steelwork continued, attention began to shift towards the interiors. Suspended ceilings, wiring, heating, partitions, and floor coverings all still had to be completed before the Halloween deadline.

On May 6, 1978, the final pour of concrete on the Government building took place. Workers battled icy winds six storeys up as they finished the last 30 metres of pouring.

The concrete had to be pumped from 86 feet below but with this last pour occurring in May, they were still well on schedule to have the building ready by the completion date.

With the main heavy construction finished it was the smaller fitting out that came next. This took several months, and the Departmental Building’s first occupiers started to move in in early 1979.

It was not quite a smooth shift. While some areas were completed and ready for their new residents, others were still being worked on.

Some office workers found the going a bit tough. Concentrating on the task at hand wasn’t helped by the sound of power tools and the unwanted incursions of dust and mud from the work going on outside. This stage hadn’t sealed the car parking area and became muddy after rains.

But in due course all the issues were rectified, and Masterton’s newest downtown office block had its grand opening on 29 March 1979.

Masterton Mayor Frank Cody hailed the new building as a significant milestone for the town.

“The new Government’s departmental building must be the most significant commercial or administrative building erected in Masterton and is likely to remain so for some years,” he said.

The new building now housed the public area for the Department of Social Welfare, Department of Labour and Māori Affairs on the ground floor, Department of Social Welfare on the first floor, Department of Health, New Zealand Forest Service and Ministry of Transport on the second floor, Inland Revenue on the third and fourth floors and the Ministry of Works and Development on the fifth floor.

Over the coming decades the government departments consolidated and are now primarily based in the bigger cities, the likes of Masterton no longer having offices. While the governmental departments may have moved out, others have moved in, and Masterton’s tallest building continues to provide businesses a fitting place to operate.

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