Wellington’s ‘anarchist house’ facing demolition after fire

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A Wellington heritage house is facing demolition after a fire destroyed it last night.

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The aftermath of the fire. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The property at 128 Abel Smith Street was built in 1898 and was a popular hang-out for political and community groups before being abandoned last year.

Investigators have been unable to enter the property today because it is too unsafe. Police said no one had been injured or killed in the fire.

The house was a private hospital and was bought by the Lebanese Society in the late 1950s. Aro Valley locals and activists volunteered to restore it the early 2000s. In 2007 it was raided by police as part of the Urewera raids.

It was commonly known as the “anarchist house”.

Aro Valley resident Asher witnessed the fire and returned to the site this morning to see the burnt remains in the light of day.

“It’s sad, it’s a beautiful house, I really would have like to see it fixed up and lived in, there’s not enough of these old houses around.”

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Another local looking at the damage today said it was a shame to lose such an iconic building.

“I’m sorry to see another heritage building disappearing, you know.”

A community activist and organiser, Emily Bailey, stayed at 128 Abel Smith street as a “live-in caretaker” until around 2010 and helped run it as a radical community centre – which included an op shop, art space and library.

“I think it helped develop me into the sort of person I am today, hanging out with people who were keen to make the world a better place and challenge stereotypes and norms.”

Abel Smith Street fire, Wellington.

Fire fighters battle the blaze. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

She was in shock when she heard the news last night – it was a special place.

“I’ve got lots of really good friends from that time and we still see each other and work with one another and I’ve got lots of photos and memories and I carry those. I’ll go by and see the site next time I’m in town.”

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Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul used to swap clothes and visit often when she first moved to the capital.

“It was definitely a safe place to be. You could go there and know that you are not be judged for what you’re dressed like or look like or the different communities you come from… there was a lot of history in that house.”

Historian Gabor Toth said the house was Wellington summarised within four walls.

“It was young, it was edgy, it was idealistic. It just had so much energy around that building. That’s what I really miss about it and it’s so sad to see it go like this.”

Abel Smith Street fire, Wellington.

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The Lebanese Society has owned the house since the late 1950s.

It says it was not formally occupied and had no power supply.

The society’s secretary, Stephen Wakem, said the groups that used the premises were asked to leave last winter because the building was not structurally sound.

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“We had a really good relationship with the groups that were using the building. That was last year that we finished those conversations.”

Police and fire teams have been at the scene all day with a road cordon in place. Police said the building would have to be demolished.

Inquiries are continuing into the cause of the fire and whether there may have been anyone inside at the time.

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