Heritage battler looks back

Former office: Jackie Gillies originally leased the Coronation Bathhouse after saving it from demolition

A Queenstown architect who saved at least three local buildings from demolition and was called “that bloody woman” by former mayor has retired. Jackie Gillies discusses her career highlights and lowlights with Philip Chandler

Queenstown has few enough historic buildings. And it would have three fewer were it not for the doggedness of newly-retired local conservation architect Jackie Gillies.

Originally from the United Kingdom, though brought up in Tanzania, Gillies started practising architecture in Queenstown 30 years ago, after an earlier stint in Southland.

“Coming to New Zealand as an architect passionate about old buildings was a bit daft, and then coming to Queenstown was certifiable, really.

“But I got in and started

stirring things up and made a nuisance of myself for quite a number of years.”

She successfully saved three buildings slated for demolition – Queenstown Bay’s Williams Cottage and Coronation Bathhouse, and the One Mile Powerhouse.

She calls Williams Cottage – Queenstown’s oldest house – her “first baby”. After convincing the council to buy half the property, she oversaw a big fundraising campaign to buy the other half and refurbish the building, and still chairs the trust that owns it.

Gillies says the council planned to demolish the Bathhouse nearby “because people were leaving condoms and needles around the place, so the obvious answer was to demolish it”.

It’s nowadays a restaurant but in the mid-’90s served as her office.

Another battle was with former mayor Warren Cooper who’d bought

Williams Cottage

the old council chambers, which he wanted to alter, and historic Foresters Lodge, which he planned to demolish.

“He referred to me as ‘that bloody woman’, which I’m very proud of – I knew I was doing it right if he called me that.”

Deciding she needed conservation architecture training, Gillies returned to the UK in 2002.

“I went back to York University to do a course that I wanted to do 23 years previously, but now I was on the opposite side of the world with two small children, it was obviously the right time to go.”

With Archie and Tessa, then eight and six years old, she headed over, leaving behind her husband, planning lawyer Warwick Goldsmith, “to earn the money”.

Once back she set up Jackie Gillies + Associates locally, with a second office in Dunedin.

“The thing I’m proudest of is building up a successful office with about eight employees across three disciplines – design, conservation and archaeology – under one roof, which was unique in NZ.”

She and her firm had a hand in just about every local heritage project, like the old courthouse, Eichardt’s post-flood rebuild and Paradise Homestead post-fire restoration, near Glenorchy.

The refurb of the Arrowtown Masonic Lodge included “an amazing find” – fresco murals on the original walls.

In Dunedin, she managed to save two old Speight’s Brewery buildings from demolition.

After the Christchurch quake, her firm consulted on the city’s broken-down Anglican cathedral – “we didn’t make ourselves very popular”.

In 2007, Gillies wrote the Queenstown council’s town centre character guidelines.

She’s asked about the controversial, modern-looking Eichardt’s building.

“It doesn’t comply with any [of those guidelines] – let’s just leave it at that.”

About three years ago, she sold her practice to an employee, conservation building surveyor Robin Miller, who shifted the business, renamed Origin Consultants, to Arrowtown.

Asked why she’s retired, Gillies, 63 next month, says “I’m fed up with the battle”.

“Since the quake, we’ve ended up having to do far more reports on buildings that were about to be demolished, than any adaptive re-use [projects].”

Reflecting on last month’s devastating Mount Aurum Homestead fire, at Skippers, she recalls it was the subject of her first conservation plan. Things like sprinklers for restored old buildings weren’t thought about 25 years ago, she says. That fire, however, has given her a spurt to get on with installing sprinklers and quake-strengthening the chimneys at Williams Cottage.

Otherwise, Gillies is looking forward to doing more painting, drawing and fabric art and maybe some writing. However she won’t stand still if more heritage buildings are threatened.

“I’ll probably stick my oar in various things, given the opportunity. I always enjoyed stirring.”