Grave Story #6
The earthquake that forever changed how Wellington looked also killed one of its most colourful citizens.
Baron Charles Ernest von Alzdorf had come to New Zealand in 1840 and bought land in the Hutt Valley but he preferred his grand new hotel on Wellington’s waterfront to being a farmer.
It had been standing in the earthquake of 1848 and had some damage before being rebuilt to two storeys.
Von Alzdorf boasted about The Wellington hotel built of brick and plaster.
He was justly proud of it, complete with European facilities like a steam bathhouse, one room with a vapour bath.
It was flash and new and the Premier at the time Henry Sewell called it quite the most pretentious building New Zealand had yet seen.
The Baron had derided the other buildings in Wellington built of wood. He thought brick was the way to go.
It would be fatal.
He had not learned the lessons that Wellingtonians had learned only seven years before when a series of earthquakes all but destroyed 80 brick and stone buildings leaving the wood ones standing.
On January 23, 1855, a massive earthquake struck Wellington and the Wairarapa area.
The Baron, who had had a stroke a couple of months earlier, had been sitting before a fire and a portion of the wall with the chimney on it fell in on him.
His son Walter and wife Mary were at their home in Lower Hutt.
The earthquake set the standard for powerful shakes, registering as 8.2 and originated on the Wairarapa fault and generated a tsunami in Cook Strait.
About 250 aftershocks were felt in the following hours.
His name is the only one readily found as being a fatality of the quake in news stories of the day. Several Maori died in Wellington and the Wairarapa, many when a building collapsed on them, but reports from the time don’t name them.
The Baron is buried in Bolton Street Cemetery, however his precise whereabouts is unknown.
This was, unusually, at his own request that there be no marker on his grave and that it be near his friend, Colonel William Wakefield who had died only shortly before him at the Baron’s hotel.
The destruction of Government buildings and banks built with brick led to a revolution in building in Wellington.
The Old Government building - now the Victoria University Law School - began in the 1870’s. Now a heritage site, the lesson had been well and truly learned.
But it wasn’t just the buildings, the Basin Reserve, formerly a swamp, began to drain, the coastline around Porirua was raised and thousands of miles of land in East Wellington were raised by several metres.
The remains of von Alzdorf brick-lined wine cellar have since been found in Bowen House. A display shows bricks from the cellar along with bottles recovered.
His only son Walter married and moved to Foxton where he died, leaving a large family. Their descendants are spread around New Zealand.