In the Eye of the Beholder

I learned earlier this week that the Church College of New Zealand is scheduled to close later this year, at the end of a 3-year-long process announced in June of 2006. What caught my attention, however, was a news report on opposition to the Church’s plan to dismantle the buildings that made up the school.

While in the United States the term “College” leads many to think of a post-secondary school, i.e., a college or university, elsewhere, including New Zealand, a college can refer to a high school. The Church College of New Zealand was a secondary school that covered school years 9-13 (approximately grades 8-12 in the U.S. system) and enrolled some 700 students, approximately 10 per cent of eligible LDS secondary students in New Zealand. The rest of these students attend local high schools.

In announcing its decision, Elder Paul V. Johnson of the Seventy and Administrator of Religious Education and Elementary and Secondary Education said that the policy and practice of the Church to discontinue operation of such schools when local school systems are able to provide quality education. The Church determined that New Zealand schools can provide sufficient quality, so the school was no longer needed.

Then in July of last year the Church announced that it would dismantle most of the buildings that made up the college and return the land to natural pasture, in order to beautify the area around the New Zealand Temple, which is adjacent to the college. But as the Church sought the required local permits, the city of Hamilton, along with some in the community, objected, saying that the buildings had historic value and should be preserved.

An editorial in the Waikato Times gives some background and suggests that the Church doesn’t see any historic value to the buildings; “That it was even considered that institutional buildings dating back to the 1950s were heritage items was met with what I would call some puzzlement,” a planning consultant for the Church said last year, according to the editorial.

But a city architect disagreed, suggesting that the buildings were “an internationally important example of American post-war modernism and part of Hamilton’s coming of age.” Apparently even the LDS Church members in the heavily Mormon Temple View neighborhood where both the college and the Temple are located disagree, because a poll conducted by a Temple View member and released to the Waikato Times this week showed 85 per cent of respondents, almost all of whom were Mormons, believed some buildings at the site had historic significance and should be retained.” (The editorial does indicate that the poll was not taken in a scientific manner).

To me the odd and perhaps ironic element to all this is that it is a kind of reversal of what has happened so often with proposed LDS Temples. It seems it doesn’t matter if the Church is constructing or demolishing a building, someone will object!

Perhaps more importantly it begs the question of what relationship we have with Church-owned buildings and when should Church buildings be preserved for historical reasons. Many here and elsewhere on the Internet mourned the loss of the Longfellow Park LDS Chapel to fire recently, some even hoping that it would be reconstructed exactly as it was, warts and all. I’m sure that kind of feeling is behind the views of local members, who invested in Education for two or three generations in the Church College buildings.

On the other hand, it is also easy to imagine the concerns of the Church’s local managers, who are faced with either paying for the upkeep and security of the buildings or finding another use or owner for them, or watching them fall into disrepair, becoming an eyesore next to an LDS Temple.

Truly the importance and even the beauty of these buildings is in the eye of the beholder.

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13 comments for “In the Eye of the Beholder

  1. If historical preservation becomes the rule rather than the exception (and I’m not just talking about churches), then we have the choice of remaining stuck in the past, or occupying new land and exacerbating urban sprawl. So my general position is that preservation should be required only for truly exceptional buildings.

    My rule doesn’t really apply in this particular case because the Church is terminating the activity housed in the buildings altogether, not seeking to move it to upgraded quarters. Still, my sympathies lie with the Church. Open space is important too.

    For those who enjoy historical preservation horror stories, see the following:

    And for the apparently happy ending thereof, see the following:

  2. Thanks for the heads up on this. On a personal note, my grandfather served as the first vice principal of the Church College in NZ and my father consequently spent three years of his childhood there, and was disappointed when it was announced that they would be torn down. My point is not a very original one—that the buildings there do have meaning for a lot of people. But you are right in pointing out the difficulties inherent in keeping the buildings—the cost of upkeep and maintenance would be difficult to justify.

  3. The issue of preserving historic Mormon buildings was actually a big issue in the 1960s and the 1970s when folks in the Church Building Department wanted to demolish, gut, or sell many historic pioneer buildings that were awkwardly built for current ecclesiastical needs. My understanding of the story is that the move was largely halted because of the intervention of Boyd K. Packer and Gordon B. Hinckley, who insisted on preserving many pioneer tabernacles as well as other buildings such as the Spring City chapel.

  4. “…it is also easy to imagine the concerns of the Church’s local managers, who are faced with either paying for the upkeep and security of the buildings or finding another use or owner for them.’

    I visited the New Zealand Temple in 2006 and was disappinted with what I saw. Instead of the usual first rate upkeep of the temple and surrounding grounds, I noticed significant lack of maintenance in the area around the visitor’s center. The brick pillar holding the name of the church had letters missing and the mortar joints needed repointing as well. It certainly wasn’t a blatant example of disrepair, just not the usual pristine appearance we have all become used to. It seemed the church had already begun a program of cutting back on the upkeep of the buildings.

  5. The issue of preserving historic Mormon buildings was actually a big issue in the 1960s and the 1970s when folks in the Church Building Department wanted to demolish, gut, or sell many historic pioneer buildings that were awkwardly built for current ecclesiastical needs.

    That came to a head with the demolition of the Coalville Tabernacle in 1968 or 69. There was a noisy, but unsuccessful push by preservationists to save it. My seminary teacher used it as an object lesson for why it is futile to argue with an inspired Church leadership. But the bad publicity had its effect and, to my knowledge, no building of comparable significance has been razed by the Church since. I have no idea, however, who was responsible for the change in attitude within the leadership (although Hinckley, with his PR background, is certainly a plausible guess).

  6. One of the things the demolition brings into focus for many is how little their opinions seem to matter in a centralised church. Many of those who live in templeview now are the children and grandchildren of the labour missionaries who gave months and years of service to build something for their children and their children’s children. Someone in Salt Lake can then decide that the money would be better spent elsewhere (thanks for the sacrifice, but we’re building quite an expensive shopping mall at the moment). Of course, from the position of the global church this may be the best decision. From the position of the local church members, however, it is hard to have something you worked and sacrificed for taken away from you.

    Of course, if the church decided that BYU was no longer the best investment they could be making it would be more difficult to pull the plug, the reason being that more of the true power players have an emotional attachment to the place (though I am not saying it would be impossible). Of course, some will say that it all comes through revelation and we just need to get in line. It is impossible to ignore, however, the very real influence certain power players can have. When one does not have a real voice in (at least the human part of) the decision making process, it can leave people frustrated and alientated. I think that is what you are seeing in some of the responses coming out of templeview.

    Other churches take a less centralised approach to expansion that empowers local members to make their own way and this entails both potential rewards and pitfalls. One of the potential costs of the Mormon model is the sense of disempowerment that comes. What is the point of investing in something when you really have no power over it and it could be taken away from you at anytime? It can lead to apathy and a lack of real ownership.

    Another thought is that in the McKay and Kimball years the Church College was very much immersed in the rhetoric of the Lamanites blossoming like a rose. The College always had a large number of Maori students, and this implicit mission of the school used to be much more overt. Did the weakening of this rhetoric in the age of DNA discoveries and the internet make it easier for Salt Lake to withdraw from this investment and put it elsewhere?

    Increasingly, the leadership in New Zealand is trying to move away from the mixing of enthnic, cultural and spiritual identities that are common amongst many New Zealand and Pacific Island members. They are trying to get people to identity first and foremost with the church. This is obvious from the kinds of messages we get at Stake Conferences with general authorities. I’m pretty sure they would also love to bring an end to the large number of ethnic wards in the country, but they also know they have to move very slowly on this one. They know from experience that there are many members in the church in New Zealand who are Tongans and Somoans first before they are anything else, and that if the church threatens to take their ethnic units from them they’ll walk if they have to. The irony is that since the early years of missionary work in the pacific it is the church itself which has encouraged this mixing of ethnic and spiritual identities.

    One has the feeling then that the church in New Zealand is at a crossroads. In real numbers the church is probably declining, not because of apostacy, but because of the significant number of members who continue to move to Australia (a Kiwi does not need a special visa to go and work in Australia and many continue to take advantage of this opportunity). Gains through missionary work are fairly minimial due to the general apathy to religion seen in New Zealand and Australia, not disimilar to what has happened in Europe. I would expect that the tithing revenues that come from the country have thus probably declined somewhat and this would have factored into the decision to close the college. Also, the buildings were going to require major work to bring them up to modern building standards and the investment simply was not seen as worth it.

    The growth of the church in New Zealand may have thus stablised (for at least the foreseeable future) and the explosive growth amongst Maori in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the injection of more white faces in the early postwar period followed by the injection of many Saints from the pacific islands in the 1970’s and 80’s may be a thing of the past. The demolition of the college thus marks the end of an era and signifies a shift in church investment away from the country and towards more productive fields. It may also mark a turning away from a certain polynesian romanticism that informed church policy in the Pacific most strongly in the McKay and Kimball years (though the church still does have church high schools operating elsewhere in the pacific).

  7. WOW. CCNZ Old Boy, I wish I knew what to say to that. I agree with your premise about the centralized, institutional Church not reacting to local feelings in decisions. But much of the rest of your comment comes from someone who knows the situation in country. Since I don’t know the situation, I don’t really feel qualified to comment.

    I really appreciate your comment, however, because it is the kind of thing that I do want to know about.

  8. The value of Church College of New Zealand has not been acknowledged in any way by those who have provided advice to those who made the decision to demolish the school. Its value is important to both members and non members of the Church in New Zealand, on several levels.

    The buildings at CCNZ, particularly the David O McKay auditorium and the Library, are the best examples of 1950s American post prairie architecture in the country.

    CCNZ is the largest complex in New Zealand that was built almost entirely by volunteer labour. Leaving aside the respect we have for the Laobur Missionaries and their mahi aroha (labour of love). On a purely community level the buildings stand as a monument to what can be accomplished by a group of motivated volenteers, way before Habatat for Humanity or World Vision and other volunteer organisations were thoght of.

    CCNZ as an institution has performed twice as well at educating Maori and Pacific Island students, who make up over 80% of the schools roll, than any other school in New Zealand. “in 2006, statistics showed that Year 11 students achieved well above the national average in NCEA Level 1 At this time, the College had a decile rating of three, yet performed at a decile 10 rating.” Education Review Office Report 2006. (decile ratings are a socio economic rating for schools in New Zealand) While this may not relate directly to the buildings heritage status they have provided the physical environment for outstanding level of educational achievement when compared nationally.

    Buildings at CCNZ have for 50 years provided a spiritual haven for those who have attended; they have provided a gathering place where those of like spiritual persuasion have found their own Zion.

    Despite some comments these buildings do not require major investments to bring up to standard. Originally one of the reasons given to demolish the school was that it was too expensive to bring them up to earthquake proof standards. This has been totally refuted by local architects and building engineers.

    I have been in meetings with the local Mayor, and Members of Parliament who have been very disappointed with the attitude of those in the Church bureaucracy they have met with to try and find a more constructive use for the buildings.

    This story has made the local paper headlines five times over the last week, the public relations damage this process is doing to the church will take a long time to repair.

    I do not wish to be seen to be attacking the Church, but I believe the decision to close the school and demolish the buildings was based on incomplete and in some cases erroneous advice.

    The school was established in response to revelation, I await a miracle that will enable some of the buildings to be retained, and have them put to a wiser purpose than returned to farmland.

  9. Could some of the structures be used to house a local ward? In Hawaii and Guam a number of ward buildings (some of them built circa 1990) consist of separate units connected by breezeways. It would be analogous to the use of educational buildings for ward functions at the BYU campuses.

  10. Three generations of our family have attended CCNZ. We all made wonderful friends and the social atmosphere was great. However, in all honesty, there was more emphasis on social/culture/sporting activities than spiritual or academic achievement. Over a number of years I have witnessed collossal waste of time and money at CCNZ. While there were a handful of wonderful teachers, there were those classes we knew we could skip and “buy off” the teacher with a moro bar or with a wink to “aunt” or Uncle” etc. We all thought it rather halarious at the time but looking back I can only wonder “what might have been”.
    Remembering the great times I had, we had enrolled our child at church college only to be appalled by the rapid decline in behaviour and attitude. We instead turned to another local school and found that not only did our child enjoy a great social life but excelled in academic achievements. They still received spiritual inspiration alongside the tens of thousands of other LDS youth around the world at early morning seminary.
    The leaders of the church are correct. CCNZ is well overdue to close. They are also correct in having the school torn down. It is holy ground and should be preserved as such. Lets not waste more money keeping a symbol we have no need for; our testimonies are stronger than this. The tithing funds of the church are better spent where there is a greater need; and that is not NZ.
    This is an opportunity for our youth to shine; let them. They are strong enough to be in the world and not of the world.

  11. The Church College of New Zealand has always held a contested place in the New Zealand church with both promoters and detractors. The most vocal critics, from my observation, usually come from the socially ambitious middle classes who are anxious for their children’s academic success and who do not see the College as the best bet for their futures. They don’t see any added spiritual benefits to the College that they can’t get for their children in their local units and they see a potential academic step backwards.

    What such parents often fail to recognise, however, is how the College was often a spiritual and academic step up for a significant number of those who attended. The success of the College was that it lifted those who came from less privileged backgrounds, not that it exceeded the expectations of mildly neurotic middle-class parents. As a result, some areas of the church in New Zealand will probably experience the loss of the Church College more deeply than others.

    Many will argue that the attachment many have to the College is more emotional than rational and I would tend to agree. I think the demolition of the College is part of the rationalisation of church operations in the country in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. I think the strength of the College and the church in New Zealand in its heyday was that it was deeply romantic and irrational, in the same way that the church Joseph Smith restored was deeply romantic and irrational. As Max Weber recognised, however, such moments are only ever followed by increased rationalisation and bureaucratisation. I think the last General Authority in New Zealand who was able to see the NZ church in a truly romantic way (in the positive sense of the word) was probably Rulon Craven.

    For me the irony is that over the coming years leaders will increasingly be scratching their heads (like they are now) over the retention of youth and young single adults in the country. This is because rationalisation does not always lead to deeper commitment. There is always something deeply irrational and romantic about our deepest commitments that achievement programmes from childhood simply cannot replace. The old model was built around community and commitment and at its best these were the things the College stood for. The newer models are built around programmes that try to keep people on track while they respond to the pressures of modernity and capitalism. The church is doing the best it can in responding to the times. I for one, however, would at least like to mourn the passing of an earlier model. Goodbye CCNZ.

  12. The first thing ought to be considered when weighing how much local preference should count in a case like this is how much of the budget for the institution derives from sources within the country.

    If the answer is 80% and the local membership highly values the institution, and for good reasons you say by all means let it continue. If the answer is 20% then a first class case for its continued operation would be required.

  13. I went to school there in the 1970s. I really wanted to come to the 50th party it was not possible. I also live in a community with a temple, an old building (tabernacle) that was converted to a Temple, after community input and reconsideration by the Church. I think the Brethren are open to options at every level, perhaps you should put some plans together and show what could be done. I don’t think a Temple was on the list in the 1980s when the Tabernacle was abandoned as a meeting place.

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