Life restored to 150-year-old Rāpaki School building

Rāpaki School

Overlooking the tranquil blue of Rāpaki Bay in Lyttelton Harbour/Whakaraupō lies a “rare surviving example” of 19th-century heritage within a Ngāi Tahu settlement. Decades of use as a school and community building left it looking a little tired, but now it is being restored to its original condition – with a few modern extras – thanks to a $700,000 restoration.

Constructed in 1876, Rāpaki School served as a place of education for 70 years before transitioning after World War II to become a pre-school and community hub. In 2022, the building was used by Piki Films for the film We Were Dangerous, directed by Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu and released in March.  Now it’s following in the footsteps of Rāpaki Church, which was constructed in 1896 and restored five years ago, and is still occasionally used for church purposes.

Rāpaki Kaumātua Donald Couch

Rāpaki Kaumātua Donald Couch is writing a history of the old school building | IAIN MCGREGOR / THE PRESS

“Although they haven’t been used for those purposes a lot in recent years, the community wanted them to last longer, to record what the history had been for the last 150 years,” Rāpaki Kaumātua Donald Couch said. “If we get lucky, I think it will look like what it’s looked like for the last 150 years – we’ve purposely done that.”

The restoration, which started in February, includes “significant repairs” to the old school’s bones, with seismic strengthening. The building has also been slightly relocated to a less erosion-prone site. A new kitchen, showers and bathrooms are yet to come, which will ultimately make the building more available for educational and community purposes.

Rāpaki School

The restoration will leave Rāpaki School looking as it did in 1876 | IAIN MCGREGOR / THE PRESS

“Some of the weatherboards and some of the work inside has survived, [but] a lot of it hasn’t and so it’s been replaced,” Couch said. “It will be safe and, hopefully, good for another long time.” Work is expected to finish by the end of July. Couch, writing a history of the school, expects to complete his book by Christmas.

Andrew Scott, Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke general manager, said the restoration will strike a “balance between the heritage elements and ensuring that it’s functional as a building”. He admitted “cost-wise” it may have been easier to demolish the school and construct something from scratch, but that would eliminate part of Rāpaki’s history.

Rāpaki School

Rāpaki School was visited by the minister of education in 1907.

“It’s got lots of special memories for people who live here or elsewhere in Canterbury, or around the country, whose grandparents or great-grandparents or great, great-grandparents went to the school.” Of the cost, $400,000 has been contributed by the Christchurch City Council heritage fund, Parkinson Memorial Trust, Heritage New Zealand, Rata Foundation and Lottery Community Facilities Committee. Ngāti Wheke is now appealing to the public to help raise the final $300,000.

“It’s about maintaining a 19th-century building – and there aren’t many of those left post-earthquake around Christchurch, so it’s very important from that perspective,” Scott said.

Donations can be made here. A final $300,000 is needed to fund the restoration.

Learn more about the project.


This article was written by Brett Kerr-Laurie (The Press, May 1, 2024), details the ongoing school restoration project. You can find the original at: