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From academia to accommodation

1 June 2022

A stylish new Ōtautahi hotel breathes life into a series of beloved old buildings.  Interview: Josie Steenhart Photos: Jane Ussher  

More than a decade after Christchurch’s much-loved The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora was extensively damaged in the earthquakes, the recent opening of the Observatory Hotel marks a significant milestone in its $290 million restoration. 

Utilising what were originally three stone-clad, late 19th Century to early 20th Century buildings that once housed the physics, observatory and biology buildings of the original Canterbury College (later known as University of Canterbury), the 33-room hotel offers a truly unique and perfectly balanced mix of heritage and contemporary.  

Style spoke exclusively to two central forces behind bringing the extraordinary project to life, interior designer Jessica Close and The Arts Centre director Philip Aldridge.  

Jessica, tell us a little bit about your interior design background… 

I trained ‘on the job’ working for Gavin Houghton in London. I had seen Gavin’s work in The World of Interiors magazine and left for the UK expressly to work for him. He is an interiors genius and it was the most incredible experience working for him.  

Why did you choose to base yourself in Christchurch? 

I honestly adore Christchurch. I love the community, the people, the architecture, Hagley Park and of course my wonderful wider family – we all live a few hundred metres apart. My husband and I have three small children and I can’t think of a better place for them to grow up than in this city. 

As well as some beautiful private residences in Otago and Canterbury, local readers may recognise your work on the Christchurch Club, tell us a little bit about that….   

I set about making it feel like a home, ensuring that spaces felt calm and welcoming.  

The Club had a lot of existing furniture, which was a blessing, but we sourced additional antiques at auction alongside commissioning custom pieces.   

My favourite space is the Rhodes Room, a private dining room, where I have upholstered the walls and ceiling – it feels like a cocoon. 

What was your brief/concept for the Observatory Hotel and how did you achieve it?

The brief was simply to design a 33-room boutique arts hotel. I set out to approach it like I would a large home. Thankfully this approach spoke to Philip Aldridge, the Arts Centre CEO.  

In my initial pitch I proposed 33 different room schemes, which was a mammoth task.   

I liked the idea of visiting the hotel and being able to request a particular room that spoke to you. Every room has a distinct design scheme and personality.  

The design is my modern take on the Arts and Crafts movement. I used William Morris prints throughout – an historical nod to the movement and the Gothic Revival buildings the hotel is housed in.  

The additional design layers – paint, lighting, furniture design and contemporary art – pull the entire design into the 21st century. The more layers there are the calmer a room becomes. 

Did you do a lot of research into the history of the hotel buildings/Arts Centre?   

So much research! All told, I think I would have spent a month full-time researching The Arts Centre, the buildings themselves (the old biology and physics buildings and the observatory), and the Arts and Crafts movement before beginning design work.  

I moved into a little office in the clock tower for a year, which allowed me to quietly explore and document all the unusual architectural features around The Arts Centre. The design went through several iterations before I landed on the final version. I’ve used paint to highlight the various unique architectural features of the three buildings – you can see subtle transitions as you walk through. 

Do you have a favourite room/space and why? 

My favourite guest room is the second floor suite. I adore the generous proportions of the space, and always have. It has windows that look out onto the quad and Hereford Street. The scheme is calmer than some guest rooms. I’ve used William Morris Melsetter and Wilhelmina mixed in with some really luxurious Schumacher velvets.

All the furniture and furnishings have been made by local businesses, tell us a bit about some of them… 

I was passionate from the outset about using local suppliers for the project. It was so important to me that we reinvest in local business, which became even more critical during the pandemic. I worked with my usual roster of incredible makers – some of whom are one-person-bands who spent 12 months completing their commissions – to execute custom designed headboards, furniture, lamps and carpet. Their skills are extraordinary and I am so proud of what we’ve produced together.  

Paul Gill, who makes all my headboards, was a star. He spent the better part of a year templating my hand-drawn patterns, working through fabric placement and the various details unique to the 17 different headboard styles.  

David Shaw took on a huge amount of the furniture production, both upholstered and hardwood. We even made some lacquered turned lamps together.  

My curtain maker Lynette Mackie and her incredible workshop had a monumental task – no single window or room was the same size or location – a lot of measuring!  

And there is William Morris in every room, what is it about his textiles that are so special do you think? 

His prints are iconic and were an important historical touchpoint for me. William Morris was prolific during the Arts and Crafts movement (the historical period in which the neo-gothic hotel buildings were designed and built). The movement was a revival of traditional techniques, a celebration of the handmade and a rejection of industrialisation of design.  

This attitude was central to my own design of the hotel, a modern take on Arts and Crafts. More than anything though, the fabrics themselves are marvellous and I loved pulling out colours from the patterns and incorporating these in the overall schemes.  

Any advice for readers who would like to try something similar in their own homes?   

Paint! It would be unusual for me not to paint woodwork (gloss!) and walls (matte) different colours for a project. It’s a relatively inexpensive way of changing the feeling of a room. A lot less painful than reupholstering for a second time.  

All the colours for the Observatory Hotel are Resene paints, some of which I ended up custom mixing with Resene. They’ve created an Observatory Hotel colour edit, and some Jessica Close custom colours that you can find online or in their ColorShops.  

Philip Aldridge, The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora director

How/when did the idea for the Observatory Hotel come about?   

The idea arose from the strategic planning undertaken by the Trust Board after the earthquakes of 2011.  

The Arts Centre has always been populated by a multitude of tenants and visitors, and having lost all tenancies with the entire campus closed because of earthquake damage it was possible to reconsider the constitution of the site.  

The provision of accommodation is part of the Trust's mission and a hotel, an art hotel, evolved from those beginnings. 

What were some of the biggest challenges along the way?

Restoring heritage buildings is a long, slow and painstaking process. It is also expensive. The biggest challenges were buried in those descriptors!    

Any interesting little stories related to the renovations?  

My favourite is from the day of the catastrophic earthquake of February 22, 2011. The observatory tower had been damaged in the previous earthquake of Sept 2010 and security camera footage shows two engineers assessing the tower from the outside. The camera begins to shake violently and the engineers – counter-intuitively – run into the building, which the camera then captures collapsing. When the dust settles, all that’s left of the building is the stone doorway – and two engineers – who understood where the strongest part of the building was. 

What makes the hotel special/unique?  

The setting in the South Quadrangle, surrounded by cloisters, gothic towers and spires, the unique collection of concert chambers, galleries, performances and artists, and the extraordinary, vivid interior design of the hotel itself. 

This hotel is nationally significant. We’re not aware of any other hotel in New Zealand quite like it. 

Anything else people might be surprised to learn about the hotel?  

It is luxuriously affordable. 

Giveaway! The Observatory Hotel team have generously offered Style’s readers the chance to win a complimentary one-night stay in an Observatory King Room, valued from $269 per night. Turn to page 74 for entry details. 

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