National | Blue Baths

Rotorua iwi has no current official position on 'staggering' state of Blue Baths

Photo / Mead Norton

By Felix Desmarais, Local Democracy Reporter

A faded framed picture hangs on a wall inside Rotorua’s Blue Baths. It shows a statuesque woman in a light pink dress and matching hat leaning against a pillar in the same building. She looks at the pool scene before her.

Poised for launch on the diving board is another woman, in a one-piece green swimsuit. Around the edge of the pool are men dressed in full suits. Dated to 1933, it’s a picture of 1930s luxury, leisure and sophistication - and social change.

The Blue Baths heralded a new era - men and women bathing together. This picture told the world New Zealand was progressive, modern, and open for business.

The photo now hangs in a darkened and empty room in the Blue Baths. Around it, the building gathers mould and mildew and corrodes from sulphur gases rising from the ground below.

Blue Baths, 1930s. Photographer unknown. Reproduced with permission of Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa.

Former Blue Baths leaseholder Jo Romanes says the picture was used as an official publicity image, likely for the Tourism Department, the first of its kind in the world.

“It was quite glamorous and sophisticated.”

The Blue Baths closed to the public on January 26, 2021 after a detailed seismic assessment found structural integrity concerns. It achieved just 15 per cent of the New Building Standard.

On November 18, council organisational enablement deputy chief executive, Thomas Colle, wrote to Romanes to advise her remaining belongings were to be moved out of the building before its Building Warrant of Fitness degraded on Christmas Eve.

She was asked to remove her things by December 16, after which, he said, the locks would be changed.

She wanted the public to see and hear about the “staggering” state the building was in and her fears it will only get worse, with closed windows preventing airflow and a lack of baseline maintenance.

The Blue Baths. Photo / Mead Norton

Plants and vegetation - already growing in the pool and through cracks in other parts of the building - would “only get bigger”.

“As those plants grow, they’ll just do more and more damage to the pool. The grass in the spouting out the front [of the building], that means that water [...] is just sitting up there in the guttering.

“All that ceiling up there [in the tea room] is mouldy.”

Romanes said the state the building was currently in was “disturbingly similar” - after only two years - to the state the building was in 1998, when her company first came in after the building had been closed for 17 years.

“You can put up a fence, but it doesn’t mean to say that you have to stop caring for the building, because this deterioration will continue. At some point, hopefully, somebody will care enough about this building to do something about it - and will it, at that point, still be repairable?”

Romanes said the Blue Baths had been and still was a “special place for a lot of people”, including herself, her family, and her staff.

There were also people who had experienced important moments like their weddings or receptions at the venue.

“It’s been a privilege to be in this place for more than two decades.

“While I’m sad for my company, my staff, I would be okay to let that go and move on if I thought that the building had a plan. If it didn’t involve me, that’s fine, so long as it has a future. That’s the concerning thing for me now. It’s hard for me to step away and let go, and know that no-one is advocating for it.”

An interior section of the Blue Baths. Photo / Mead Norton

She said it was not about her business and its losses.

“It doesn’t have an advocate.”

She believed the council had not been “fulfilling [its] duty” as the owner of the building, and “representing the best interests of the ratepayer” in relation to it.

Asked if the Government should step in and take control - and liability - of the building, Romanes said it needed to be explored.

Mould growing in the Blue Baths building. Photo / Mead Norton

“This council certainly is repeatedly saying, ‘We can’t do anything, we don’t have any money’, but I personally don’t think that absolves them responsibility of at least making a plan.”

She said she believed it wasn’t always just a matter of funding for councils, but also project leadership, management and financial stewardship.

Romanes said if the council didn’t have the money to address the building’s problems, it should be considering a plan for it, or how to fund addressing it.

She said given the issues with the Rotorua Museum, perhaps the “bigger issue” was that central government had to play a bigger role in stepping in to save heritage buildings - and time was of the essence, because the longer the building was left, the more the building degraded.

“When iwi gifted [...] this 50 acres of land, Government Gardens, for the benefit of the people of the world, [...] it’s being really disrespectful to that gift to just leave a building derelict.”

Romanes believed iwi should be involved and consulted with about the building.

“This land is still theirs.”

Grass growing in the gutters in the Blue Baths building. Photo / Mead Norton

Rubbish, such as beer bottles, had also accumulated on the perimeter of the building, and mould had accumulated on its south-facing exterior back wall.

Romanes couldn’t understand why council workers had not addressed more minor maintenance issues like that.

She said rough sleepers were also occupying the building’s back doorstep, and she believed security of the building was minimal.

“They will eventually push their way in; that’s what happened last time. There were three kids living in there.”

The building also held several historical items collected from the public, such as swimsuits from various eras, which had been made into a gallery in the former dressing rooms by the Rotorua Museum when the building was restored in 1999.

“At that time, there was all this publicity about people in the public coming forward with their stories [... which was] really lovely because this place is just about stories - people came here to have fun. The public came forward over those 12 months [...] and all of that was gathered and collated, and then presented as these displays.

“There’s been no contact from the museum to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got all our stuff here, all these stories, what are we going to do with them? People have given them to us’.”

Inside the Blue Baths building. Photo / Felix Desmarais / LDR

Romanes believed the items could be unsalvageable, as the building is now inaccessible due to the expired warrant of fitness.

“I’m just going to take photos, because one day somebody will wonder where all the history went.

“I feel like a lot of people in Rotorua have had some joy in the place. It has been the social hub of the city.”

She said she had arranged a meeting with Rotorua Mayor Tania Tapsell to speak with her about the building in January.

The building also held a grand piano, gifted by St Faith’s Church when the church no longer had room for it. Romanes understood it had been held by the church for a long time after it was originally brought in from Germany.

She had rung the church to see if they wanted to get it back before the building shut, but they had nowhere to put it.

“So it will probably stay here, rotting away.”

Rotorua MP Todd McClay said the Blue Baths “must be saved” and that he would discuss the issue with Tapsell.

“It would be truly a sad day if its state of disrepair became so significant that the bulldozers needed to level it.”

He said the city was blessed to have two of the country’s “truly iconic” buildings - the Blue Baths and the Rotorua Museum buildings.

He said the situation was “extremely challenging”, as in his view, the last council “spent a huge amount of money and ran up debt”.

Former Blue Baths leaseholder Jo Romanes. Photo / Mead Norton

“Therefore, it’s hard for the newly elected council to do everything - they have some legacy issues to work through.”

He said one idea was putting the Blue Baths in a trust “that can take on responsibility for its maintenance and eventual restoration”.

“The cost of protecting this important historic building cannot fall to the ratepayer. They cannot afford it.”

Asked what National would do about it if it were to form the next Government, McClay said he would be talking to the party’s relevant spokespeople about “how best to address this in the long-term”.

“We’ll also be looking at how we may be able to attract funds available now or that will become available with a change of government to benefit Rotorua and this building.”

He said local ratepayer bases shouldn’t be expected to meet the full costs of maintaining things that were of national benefit.

Salmond Reed director and heritage architect Lloyd Macomber said it would be a loss if the building became irreparable.

In his view, the loss would have three parts: the loss of the “good example” of the architectural style, the loss of the building as part of a set in the Government Gardens setting, and that it contributed to a “precedent” where concern was raised about a special building too late to save it.

He said part of the charm of the Blue Baths was its role as part of an eclectic set with other buildings nearby with varying architectural styles.

“You’ve got a bit of a fruit salad and that’s one of the things that’s endearing about it.

“It’s a very unique setting.”

The Blue Baths at the end of May 2021. Photo / Andrew Warner
The Blue Baths at the end of November, 2022. Photo / Mead Norton

He said the Blue Baths would therefore be “sorely missed” if it was lost.

Any building that was uninhabited and without regular airflow was at risk of accelerated deterioration, he said, and that was exacerbated by the geothermal conditions in the area and because the New Zealand climate was particularly harsh.

“There’s no better time, more cost-effective time, to do it than now.”

Ngāti Whakaue kaumātua Monty Morrison said the hāpu did not have a current official position on the building’s state.

Speaking personally, Morrison said he had used the pools as far back as the ‘50s, and it had been “quite a centre of community activity”.

“It would be a great shame if we were to lose that building. If it can be salvaged, it should be salvaged.”

He said it would be “nice to be brought up to speed” with what exactly was happening with the building.

Tapsell said she understood the reason maintenance had not been done on the building was because of safety concerns.

“I can understand [Romanes’] personal and business connection and interest in the Blue Baths means that she wants to see an outcome urgently.”

Tania Tapsell. Photo / Felix Desmarais / LDR

Tapsell said she was focused on the council’s “top priorities” in her first months as mayor, but remained open to discussions with Romanes.

“My focus and priority will be finding a solution for the museum first, before we are able to address the Blue Baths. However, I do take [Romanes’] concerns on board and will investigate the best way to minimise any damage without putting other people in harm’s way.

“Health and safety and protecting the lives of others will inevitably need to come first.

“I do not believe we are at risk of losing the building, but I do acknowledge the concerns of maintenance in the meantime until we have a confirmed solution.”

Echoing McClay, Tapsell also believed Rotorua ratepayers should not bear the cost of saving the Blue Baths building alone, and said she had already begun conversations with central government “to request further support financially”.

“The burden to ratepayers will be too heavy to bear alone.”

Tapsell said her preferred solution was partnership funding with central government as it had “great results, like the lakefront”.

Rotorua Lakes Council was invited to respond to Romanes’ comments.

It was also asked for an update on what work it had done on addressing the building’s issues since its last update in August, what plans it had to maintain and secure the building, and whether Rotorua Museum would salvage the historical artefacts in the building.

A council spokesman said there were no updates since August, when Colle had said the Blue Baths would likely be part of the next Long Term Plan cycle next year.

“We are always happy to speak with interested parties if they wish to discuss options with us directly.

“In regards to the grand piano, we understand the piano was gifted to the tenant. We are not sure why it has been left in the building.”

Ministry for Culture and Heritage policy and sector performance deputy chief executive, Emily Fablin, said the ministry acknowledged the significance of the Blue Baths building as a Category 1 heritage building, “which is a rare example of a Spanish mission-style geothermal bathhouse”.

She said the building was a “landmark” and “held in high esteem” by the people of Rotorua.

The building’s upkeep and future was a council operational issue and it would be inappropriate for the Ministry to comment specifically, she said.

“Central government values the importance of our heritage and has made a number of investments to support the future of heritage buildings in Rotorua in recent years.”

She said an example of that was the Sir Howard Morrison Centre, which received regional culture and heritage funding in 2021.

Local Democracy Reporting is public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air.