Monday, September 28, 2009

Prison Architecture

When you think of well known 19th century Canterbury architect, Benjamin W Mountfort, you’re most likely going to think of Christchurch Cathedral, Canterbury Museum and the very beautiful Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers as highlights of his architectural legacy. It is unlikely that you’ll be thinking about prisons and cell blocks. But the old Addington Prison is yet another fine example of Mountford’s Gothic Revival architecture.
The Mountfort Cell Block was built in 1874 – constructed in 60cm thick concrete, which at the time was a relatively new material. When it opened it housed both sentenced and remand prisoners and later, it also served as a woman’s prison and then a military camp. The prison was finally closed in 1999 and it stood empty until 2006 when the building was purchased by an enthusiastic couple, who have since renovated the protected building and converted it into backpacker accommodation. I was out walking with a friend the weekend before last – exploring the backstreets of Addington – and when we came upon the old gaol, we took it upon ourselves to go in and get a feel for the place. The people in charge of the backpacker operation were more than happy to show us through – turns out they get plenty of curious passers-by keen to look inside. From the huge original gates that have been incorporated into the external landscape, to the protected drawings on cell walls created by former prisoners, it’s a real treat. Another friend talked about feelings of ‘bad karma’ but I never took that from the building at all. Rather, to me, it has an almost cathedral-like feel to it – not surprising I suppose when you consider than Mountfort did in fact design Christchurch Cathedral. I found the interior beautifully proportioned and with its all-white paintwork, its splendid timber staircase and its beautiful ceiling and stained glass features, it’s hard to even imagine it as a prison - more of a monastery to me. That said, as a paying backpacker guest, I would want to make sure that the thick steel cell doors definitely had a key on the inside! One quirky additional fact that amused me: The prison’s first gaoler was one Edward Seagar, who was also Canterbury’s first police sergeant and Sunnyside Mental Hospital’s first warden. Clearly he was a man who liked to be in charge of the keys! Anyway, if you feel like a night in lock-up, check out

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