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A new vision for Carkeek Observatory

Carkeek Observatory in Featherston. PHOTO/FILE

Featherston’s community board has thrown its support behind stabilising the historic Carkeek Observatory, covering it to protect it, and building a replica nearby.

The observatory, which was built in the 1860s, is in a ruinous state and is destined to be lost completely if action is not taken.

Because it is sited on council land in Featherston, the town’s community board and South Wairarapa District Council have the final say on viable conservation options.

The Carkeek Observatory is a category 1 structure under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act.

This listing recognises it as an historic place of special or outstanding historical or cultural significance or value.

The Carkeek Observatory was built in 1867 by Stephen Carkeek, New Zealand’s first Inspector and Commissioner of Customs.

Carkeek was a keen amateur astronomer and when he retired in 1866, he built his own observatory on the Featherston farm he lived on.

The observatory would have been carefully oriented for observing the night sky with two separate areas including an octagonal equatorial room with a revolving dome, probably made of canvas.

After Carkeek died in 1876, the observatory fell into disrepair and was used for the storage of farm equipment and feed. Today, it stands in derelict condition and a walnut tree has grown up the middle of the structure.

Members of the Featherston Community Board [FCB] met last week to discuss potential options for its conservation.

The options included: recording the structure but doing nothing to conserve it; stabilising the structure; restoring the structure; and building a replica.

FCB unanimously agreed to support a combination option of stabilising the structure, covering it, and building a replica nearby that could have a functional use.

A report prepared by Cochran and Murray, Conservation Architects, said stabilising the structure would involve securing sections liable to further collapse, treating decaying timber, and trimming the walnut tree.

If elected members chose to just stabilise it, and leave it uncovered, “the life of the structure would remain very uncertain, given the vagaries of a living tree, the unpredictability and degrading effects of the weather, and the risk of keeping in some sort of order a place that would be hard for the public to understand and appreciate”, the architects’ report said.

“It would of course have no functional use, other than to be observed from a distance.”

Regarding covering the structure, there were a few options that could be considered when work progresses, including constructing a shelter building with a dome.

Having a covering like this would extend the lifespan of the original observatory.

This combined conservation option, along with creating a replica observatory was supported by Cochran and Murray.

They suggested the council develop and mount on-site storyboards to outline and explain the historic site, the building, and its connections.

They also suggested the replica be built adjacent to the original “for use as an historic astronomic observatory experience for visitors”.

The Wairarapa Dark Sky Association also regards the observatory as a key piece of infrastructure to help the development of a working regional dark sky reserve.

South Wairarapa District Council amenities manager Bryce Neems said there was an opportunity to get a cycle trail in the area and make it a site of interest for tourists

He said the replica didn’t necessarily have to be erected adjacent to the existing structure.

He suggested it could go at The Squircle, or Cherry Tree Park in Featherston so it was in a more accessible location for residents.

Any work on the original structure would have to be done by contractors approved by Heritage New Zealand, Neems said. — NZLDR

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