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The moving of the Museum Hotel

A slightly tongue-in-cheek, believe-it-not story by Tony Seager on the occasion of Chris Parkin's induction into the XOtaki College Hall Of Fame: 4 May 2018

In early 1993 a small bearded man walked into the office of a large building contractor in Wellington. He was received with considerable incredulity after he started talking about wanting to move the 3000-tonne Michael Fowler hotel which happened to be in the way of NZ’s future new National Museum. Tenders had been called for demolition of the building and work was underway to consolidate the site by dropping 30 tonne weights over the area to be occupied by the Museum.

The contractor’s cynicism grew when the gentleman said that he didn’t have any idea how to do this move, he didn’t own the building, he didn’t know where he wanted to move it to and he didn’t have any money.

That he didn’t get thrown out on his arse is a surprise, but probably because he laughed a lot and liked to pay for long boozy lunches – a sure route to any contractor’s heart.

So started a wild ride that culminated in the Museum Hotel de Wheels now being where it is.

The contractor had a Quality Assurance qualification – an important thing that enabled it to find an insurance policy that would pay compensation to Wellington City Council if the building fell apart in the middle of Cable St and paralysed Wellington’s traffic. A firm of engineers expressed their enthusiasm to take the project on, and a subcontractor emerged who happened to be ripping up the South Island’s railway lines and had a whole lot of gear that was eventually essential to the move.

Prior to deciding on this method however, all sorts of wild and wacky ideas for the move method were mooted. Greased steel plate runways, ball bearings, rollers, water pads were all considered and thrown out as were many other even more far-out schemes.

First, somewhere to put it had to be found – most suitable surrounding sites were owned by hard-nosed types who were less than eager to go along with this nutty idea. Finally a deal was done, and the railway bogey concept was able to take shape.

Most unreasonably in Chris’s opinion, the contractor and others involved said that they wanted to be paid for all this work. There was no money for this in his bank account, so there then commenced a most convoluted and prolonged series of tortuous meetings with lawyers, bankers, accountants etc to conjure up a significant amount of money from thin, or non-existent, air. These affairs normally extended to all hours of the night but also normally concluded with a refreshment or several to celebrate progress made or, more usually, to commiserate over lack of it. The amazing Parkin ability to have everyone working so hard on the basis that they might get paid for it someday if everything worked out OK was tested to the max during these trying times, and it was a true testament to that ability that everyone did it with a smile on their face and a song in their heart (usually).

A tender was submitted for the purchase of the hotel – a surprise for the then owners who had expected to pay for its demolition but, to their bemusement, along came this madman who wanted to pay them for it. Of course, it would be most unreasonable for them to expect this payment any time in the next thousand or so years and, surprisingly, they went along with this, as well as all the other BS they were fed.

So started the work – the rails were laid, the hotel was jacked up and cut off at its knees and it was put on the railway bogies. The workers were themselves pretty much bemused and amused by what they were doing, and the after-work parties became legendary. At one stage it was seriously discussed that the hotel should be operating while it was being pushed along the street, with a Grand Ball being held for the residential guests for the duration of that leg of the move – it would be a three-day affair. When that was knocked on the head, it was proposed to hook a railway carriage on behind during the move and have the party in there, with the party goers dressed in elegant wild west attire, smoking cigars, singing and drinking champagne from bottles. Relative sanity finally prevailed, until the party after the successful completion of the first move, when the Turkish Belly dancers proved very accommodating during an event that lasted well into daylight of the next morning. – you can’t have that kind of fun on a building site these days.

When sobriety finally broke out the engineers suddenly realised that the hotel was in fact sinking into the ground. This was a bit serious in terms of the likely damage to the structure and also the fact that it would have to be pushed uphill, so to speak. It was quickly realised that the sinking was being caused by the dropping of the weights on the Museum site. Again the Parkin luck came to the rescue, as the same contractor responsible for the move was also doing the weight dropping. When a dropping halt was called the sinking stopped, to everyone’s vast relief, not least the, by this time, very nervous insurance company.

The project was a once-in-a-lifetime blast for everyone who worked on it – it had so many ingredients – challenge, uniqueness, camaraderie and, above all, fun.  Apart from being a very lucky bugger, Chris brought his unique ability in forming and leading a great team that produced a great result. And it was all done with a lot of smiles, a lot of jokes and an atmosphere that produced subsequent lifetime friendships. Not many construction projects are like that.

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