‘An ornament and a credit to the city’

Illustrated Australian News (Melbourne), Wednesday 26 January 1876 page 13

An engraving of the Christchurch Normal School soon after it was constructed. Image: Illustrated Australian News26/1/1876:13.

The former Christchurch Normal School was one of the city’s significant architectural landmarks. Built from stone in the gothic revival style, the building occupied a prominent position at the corner of Cranmer Square. The school was commissioned by the Canterbury Provincial Council and completed in 1875. An extension was made along Montreal Street in 1879 to accommodate a kindergarten and training department. You may have passed this building many times and admired the beautiful carving around the doors and windows but never really thought about how the building was constructed and why the building looked the way it did.


The Kilmore Street wing of the Normal School prior to the earthquakes. Image: Kete Christchurch.


A page from a field notebook that forms part of the written record of the Normal School. This page describes the types of windows at the Normal School. Image K. Webb

The Normal School building suffered severe damage from both the September and February earthquakes. Prior to its demolition in October 2012 the building was recorded by archaeologists. This week’s post takes a brief look at the Normal School building, and some of the results from our investigation of the building from an archaeological point of view.

Examination of a building using archaeological methods has the potential to reveal significant evidence relating to the history of New Zealand and may provide information that cannot be obtained through other means. Four different techniques were used to record the Normal School building; these included the creation of extensive drawn, written and photographic records as well as sampling building fabric for analysis and curation.

The foundations of the Normal School were made from Portland cement concrete and were up to 1.5 m deep and 1.2 m wide. The walls were built from basalt stone from the Halswell Quarry, here in Christchurch. Limestone, probably from a North Canterbury quarry, was used to dress the windows and doorways as well as for the cornices, string courses and copings. During demolition of the building a relatively large number of mason’s marks were observed on carved stones from around the windows and doorways. The marks were on the joint beds and non-visible faces of the stones. 


Some of the stonemason’s marks found on stones from the Normal School building. Image: K. Webb.

Stonemason marks were used for a variety of reasons; as well as identifying individual masons, they were also used to identify masons working under a particular master or workshop and also may have been specific to the building site. Marks were also used to identify how stones fitted together, as shown in this video. Therefore, the marks may not be unique to individual masons, making it difficult to trace masons from one site to another. The use of mason’s marks during the 19th century was probably a revival of medieval traditions and they are still used today by masons who wish to continue the tradition (Alexander 2008). It is unusual to find stonemason’s marks on 19th century buildings in Christchurch, let alone so many different ones.


Drawing of one of the turrets decorating the roof of the Normal School. This drawing is part of a series drawn in 1972. The plans are held at Archives New Zealand.

There were a number of turrets along the ridge of the roof of the Normal School. These were decorative and also formed part of a complex ventilation system in the building. The wooden arch-shaped louvres in the turrets allowed the egress of stale air through the ceiling of the first floor, while fresh air was brought into the building through a system of clay pipes built in to the buttresses that supported the exterior walls. There were also a number of ventilation grates in the south and west exterior walls. The cast iron grates were highly decorative and allowed air flow in the space between the ground floor ceiling and the first floor.


Some of the decorative cast iron ventilation grates found on the south and west walls of the school. Image: K. Webb.

Good ventilation was a matter of some importance in the design of the Normal School building. This concern was demonstrated by a discussion held by Board of Education in 1878 with regard to the lack of ventilation in the existing school school buildings despite the multiple ventilation systems already installed. The poor drainage of the grounds was also a common complaint made by parents of the school children (Star 13/7/1877: 3). We don’t know whether or not this problem was solved .

Ventilation - BOARDS OF EDUCATION. Star , Issue 3158, 23 May 1878, Page 3

Report on a meeting of the Board of Education regarding ventilation at the Normal School. Star, 23/5/1878:3.

When the building was extended to accommodate a kindergarten and training department the style of the addition was quite different from the original building. The carving around the windows and doors was less ornate than in the original structure, although small finely carved spherical label stops and bosses were used to decorate the window sills and arches. Each of these carvings had a different design, usually in the form of a cluster of leaves or flowers as well as birds and critters.


Some of the carved label stops and bosses from the kindergarten extension at the Normal School. Image: K. Webb.


The Montreal Street wing of the Normal School showing the difference in appearance of the original building on the right and the 1879 extension on the left. Image: Dalman Architecture.

Several cost saving measures were employed in the construction of the extension, in addition to the simplicity of the carving. The internal walls were constructed from brick, a cheaper alternative to the stone used for the internal walls in the original part of the building. This also meant that the foundations could be less substantial than those for the original building, and therefore use less concrete. There were no fireplaces in the new kindergarten. Instead, it was heated by a system of pipes that carried heated water throughout the building, so only one boiler needed to be fuelled rather than several fires. So, while no expense was spared in the first phase of construction of the Normal School (a total of £14,269 was spent on the building, not including furnishings), the kindergarten extension was built as cheaply as possible, costing less than £2,700 to build (Star 17/12/1873:3; Press 6/6/1879:3).

Unlike the personal stories of individuals and their families that are told through archaeological investigation of a house, the establishment of a normal school in Christchurch highlights the importance of education within the colony during the 1870s and the preference to train teachers here rather than import trained teachers from the homeland; a normal school was also opened in Dunedin the same year as the Christchurch Normal School. Along with documentary evidence the building can tell us what the key concerns of the Board of Education were when the building was designed, for example construction cost, ventilation, heating and drainage.

This post was just a brief excursion into the Christchurch Normal School, the full archaeological report will be available to view on Quake Studies when it is completed.

Kirsa Webb


Alexander, J. S., 2008. ‘Masons’ Marks and the Working Practices of Medieval Stone Masons’, in P.S. Barnwell and Arnold Pacey, (eds) Who Built Beverley Minster?. [online] Available at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/arthistory/research/staffinterests/ja/masonsmarks/

Archives New Zealand, 1973. CALW CH166 8/14 AC 5222 Christchurch Normal School – Spire base and chimney details. Christchurch Regional Office.

Christchurch City Council, 1982. The Architectural Heritage of Christchurch: 1. The Normal School. Christchurch City Council, Town Planning Division. [online] Available at: http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/Heritage/Publications/ChristchurchCityCouncil/ArchitecturalHeritage/NormalSchool/

Illustrated Australian News. [online] Available at: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/5729910?zoomLevel=1

Press. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast.

Star. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast.