Benjamin Wilson continues our new series – Halls of fame – where we look at the history of some notable Waipā landmarks.
“Not an Obelisk of stone but a memorial of utility, where the people could gather socially, and in meeting assemble.” this is what a Mr J.T Johnson said upon opening the Pirongia Memorial Hall, 100 years ago this August.
The desire for the hall dates to 1911, when Pirongia residents deemed their current hall to be in a state of disrepair. But its construction did not begin until after World War I, at which point, serving as a memorial as well was only appropriate.
Not many people know more about the hall than Ros Empson and Alan Hall. The pair are both associated with Pirongia Heritage and Information Centre and have a deep interest in its history and revitalisation.
Empson first became acquainted with the hall in 1986 when she moved to Pirongia. Before her work at the heritage centre, her children went to Pirongia School and used the hall extensively for their school events. Hall moved to Pirongia in 2002 and was previously the associate dean of education at Waikato University. He became associated with the hall following his work at the Heritage Centre.
The Pirongia Memorial Hall has fulfilled its dual purpose for the better part of 100 years. It has hosted dances, concerts, Anzac commemorations, harvest festivals, school productions, parties, town meetings, farewells and various other events and functions.
In the 1940s the hall was equipped with a projector and weekly movies were played in the hall until the projector was removed in the 1960s.
One of the hall’s most significant event in recent years occurred in 2018, when the Finn brothers graced it with their ‘Where’s My Room?’ national tour.
“It’s quite a reverberant building, because of its high ceiling and hard floor, the sound just bounces around,” Empson said.
Empson and Hall know many of the hall’s obscure details, such as the bizarre history of its Hotchkiss gun, which stands proudly in the front yard.
“There was three, they were there when the building opened, we just discovered that recently. But, during the Second World War, there was considerable concern when Japanese became involved, that if they flew over this, they may well see guns out there, so the locals took it to themselves to remove the guns and buried them,” Hall said.
The guns were excavated in the 1980’s by the Pirongia Lions Club, and with the help of some local fabrication, one gun was restored to the site in 2003.
Presently, the hall receives a fraction of the use that it once had. In 2018 the Waipā District Council considered the hall to meet less than 20% of the current earthquake safe standards. This meant the hall had to close, and its regular users had to find different venues for their functions.
In 2020 the hall was reopened, after a reassessment deemed it to be much safer than previously thought. Unfortunately, the disruption that was caused from it closing still lingers.
“It hasn’t really had a big public reopening since it closed,” Empson said.
“Now it is a bit in limbo, it is usable now, but there is quite a few of us locals who are keen to see it get a new lease of life.”
Although not comparable to its previous use, the hall is still used by Pirongia school for their student productions, the Heritage Centre uses it for their annual get-togethers, and a Zumba class uses it regularly. Next month, the hall will host an Anzac Day commemoration service, which will be its next big event. And in August, the Hall will be celebrating its 100th birthday.
Hall and Empson both want to see the hall receive more attention and energy from its community. Much work is needed to modernise the hall and make it structurally sound.
“It would have to be a process of applying for grants, and fundraising from the community, from the council and a wide range of sources. Because it is quite big money to look after a heritage structure like this,” Empson said.
The pair each have fond memories of the hall.
For the anniversary of World War I, Hall researched the names of the soldiers the hall honours. He made a display of these soldiers that featured their photographs, which allowed the soldiers to “not just be a name on a wall.”
The opening of Hall’s display is his favourite memory of the hall.
“It was a great occasion,” he said.
Empson’s fondest memory of the hall was her son’s wedding reception, although she said the clean-up was her worst memories of it.
“That jolly floor, it’s a big floor to clean.”