History and heritage OBSERVATORY/BIOLOGY

The last major design by architect Benjamin Mountfort, the Observatory and Biology building was completed in 1896 to house the telescope gifted to the College by James Townsend.

Opened in 1917, the Physics building was designed by Collins and Harman in a Gothic Revival style. In 1918, an infill building ‘Biology Extensions’ was added.

The ground floor of the Biology building housed laboratories that were used for zoological dissections and plant studies, and was also home to a preparation room. The upper level was a professor’s room, storeroom and lecture room. The first floor landing led to the Townsend Observatory.

Prior to the earthquakes, the University’s astronomical department held public viewing sessions in the observatory, using the original 1864 telescope, every Friday night from March to October.


After its construction, the Physics building, which housed nine laboratories, was linked to the observatory to the design of architect Samuel Hurst Seager.

From 1937 to 1952, the basement of the Physics building was home to the National Radiation Laboratory and its research into treatment for cancer and tuberculosis. From this building, the Physics Department also contributed to the war effort in the South Pacific by conducting successful research into the best time of day for radio transmissions. After the war, the Physics Department moved to the University’s Ilam campus. The English Department moved into the vacant building, and remained there until 1974 before also relocating to Ilam.


Formerly home to the Townsend Observatory, the Observatory tower has been badly damaged during the 2011 earthquakes. The historic Townsend telescope, a 6-inch refractor made by Thomas Cooke and Sons of York, England in 1864, was recovered from the rubble of the Arts Centre tower, which collapsed on February 22 in the earthquake.

The Physics & Astronomy Department of the University of Canterbury is currently making plans to restore the optics and mechanics of the Townsend Telescope and these will ultimately be re-housed within a replica of the Observatory tower.

Rebuild and restore

Due to the additions made to the Biology building, there are very few connections between the existing structures and as a result the earthquakes caused significant structural damage to the masonry walls.

The collapse of the observatory tower in the February 2011 became one of the most striking signs of damage within the Arts Centre. Further damage included partial collapse of most of the gables on the two biology structures, a collapsed chimney and walls on the observatory building. The Physics building is the least damaged of all three buildings.

Looking ahead

The Physics and Astronomy Department are soon to commence work on restoring the telescope.

Available funding and construction restrictions, as well as impact of the new design on current heritage legislation and guidelines are all things that are being taken into consideration. The Arts Centre’s main aim is to conserve the site to the fullest extent possible, in a way that maintains and enhances the integrity of this nationally important complex.

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