NZ’s MELANCHOLIC RUIN

Auckland’s Herald newspaper recently published a short article in the travel section drawing attention to Dunedin’s amazing ruin of Cargill’s Castle. To my mind, it was a once-over-lightly piece that missed an opportunity to really point out the special appeal of this impressive ruin.

I used to live in Dunedin and visited the castle on a number of occasions. I even filmed a TV melodrama there. At that time, part of the building was still inhabited. The guy who lived there occupied the basement area despite the green mould on the concrete walls. At the time of filming, the ballroom still had a floor and it was possible to walk on the roof.

I moved away from Dunedin but a few years later, I returned and paid a visit to Cargill’s Castle. It was sad to see how the abandoned building had deteriorated so much. It truly could be classed a ruin. However, the location of the castle and the history of a time when it was one of New Zealand’s great mansions, makes it a very special place. Being a unique ruin, should have made it a major tourist attraction by now. Alas, it is still hard to find and most people are unaware of its existence. The shadowy grounds with their gnarled macrocarpa trees that surround the building, have been encroached upon by modern suburban houses but the atmosphere at the eerie remains of the castle itself is somewhat gloomy, even on a fine day, which only adds to the fascination of this Otago ruin. As a matter of contrast in fortunes, Dunedin’s other castle built by William Larnach at around the same time as Cargill was building his home, has become one of New Zealand’s best known tourist attractions with an average 120,000 visitors a year.

Cargill’s Castle (Ceidrik Heward)

STORY FOR INTERNATIONAL PUBLICATIONS

I have written various articles on the castle for publications in the USA, UAE and Britain and I have also featured it in two of my books on Dunedin. Below, I present the article that was published in Gulf News, Dubai’s major English language newspaper.

Cargill’s Castle is one of the most romantic ruins in the Southern Hemisphere.  The remains of this once magnificent mansion sit perched on a cliff top 300 feet (91 metres) above the restless waters of the Pacific Ocean, overlooking the city of Dunedin. The sound of the waves crashing at the base of the cliff and the screeching of the occasional seagull, creates a somewhat spooky atmosphere.

In 1875, businessman, Edward Bowes Cargill, son of one of Dunedin’s founding fathers, hired the country’s top architect, Francis Petre, to create a dwelling second to none in the colony. Petre used concrete, a new building material in the 1870s, to build ‘The Cliffs’ as the Cargill family called their stately home. It quickly became better known as Cargill’s Castle because of the castle like appearance of the Italianate design.

The home cost14,000 pounds, quite a fortune at the time. Edward wanted to build a more impressive mansion than his rival, William Larnach who was finishing his palatial residence a few miles away. Edward then spent considerably more on the finest furniture and fittings. The staircase was a wooden work of art with its finely carved railings and balustrades. A semi- circular driveway, designed to impress all visitors, was surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens.  This was truly one of the finest buildings in Australasia and quite a match for Larnach’s grand home on the other side of town.

The dramatic location, offered spectacular views, but this came at a price. The savage winds from the South Pole make landfall here. Despite this, Edward demanded all 21 rooms face away from the sun! It must have been quite a challenge keeping the large interior warm.

A fire completely gutted the building in 1892 but Edward had it rebuilt, adding a ballroom. (prior to this, guests used the spacious hallway for dancing).

When he died in 1903, Edward’s family sold the property.  The castle was the venue for a cabaret during WW2 and was popular with American serviceman. During this time, a second fire badly damaged the building. A bigger disaster struck when a young American sailor fell to his death off the cliff. After the war, the castle became a religious temple. One owner failed to turn it into a hotel.  Another failed in his misguided plan to make it an opera house.

The succession of owners and uses took its toll on the fading mansion. In 1974, the huge windows around the ballroom were removed. This allowed the wind and rain to eat into the heart of the building and it sadly deteriorated into the condition we see it in today.

Standing beside the ruins, the vastness of the Pacific horizon is breath-taking. The wind creates a melancholy symphony as it plays through the gaping spaces in the walls that once housed the magnificent windows. The weather-stained concrete on the tower is cracked and crumbling. The grand staircase has gone. The roof has gone. The clouds gather overhead. The wind freshens. The birds take to flight. Another storm is brewing. The macrocarpas moan as they push against each other. The ruins look hauntingly magnificent. This is a place of romantic melancholy. It whispers memories of triumphs and tragedies. There is a magic in the sadness here. The atmospheric ruin of Cargill’s Castle weaves its own special power, a power as unique as the ruin itself..

Ceidrik Heward