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Lyttelton Timeball all set to make its mark

Lyttelton Timeball all set to make its mark

Lyttelton will be dropping the ball on a daily basis once the rebuild of an iconic local landmark is complete. The Lyttelton Timeball Station will begin operating again sometime in the spring of 2018, after a major restoration by Heritage New Zealand following earthquake damage.

At exactly 1pm every day, the ball on top of the stone tower will be lowered, reviving a maritime tradition begun in the port in 1876.

In the 19th century, time ball stations enabled seafarers to calibrate marine chronometers – the devices used to determine longitude at sea.

When 20th century technologies made time balls obsolete, part of the Lyttelton Timeball was turned into a museum. The ball continued to be lowered, making it one of only five operational stations in the world.

“The Lyttelton Timeball was a special building providing a living example of marine navigation,” says Sheila Watson, Heritage NZ’s Director for the Southern Region.

The Timeball tower and the castle-like residence attached to it were badly damaged by the 2010 quake, and after the 2011 quakes reduced the residence to rubble, Heritage NZ focused its restoration efforts on rebuilding the tower and the time ball.

Hawkins Construction began work in July of 2017, with The Building Intelligence Group managing the project.

The difficult hill site has no drive-on access, so a 160-tonne crane was used to lift a smaller crane onto the site from Reserve Tce, to begin clearing rubble. Care was taken to ensure that the tower could be restored to near-original condition.

3-D modelling was used to scan each block of Oamaru stone before removal. The blocks were meticulously labelled and stored so they could be replaced in the same position wherever possible. Bosworth and Barthel Stone Restoration employed skilled stonemasons from New Zealand and Europe for the rebuild.

Construction of a central concrete and steel core inside the tower brings the Category 1 historic building up to current building and earthquake standards. Sharp-eyed Lyttelton locals will spot some changes to the restored landmark.

“The time ball was painted black and red sometime in the 1970s,” says Sheila. “We’re going back to the original colours, which were red and cream.”

The time ball, which weighs over 100 kilograms, also has a new zinc shell over the original wooden frame. The makeover includes a new operating mechanism that will lower the ball automatically. The original mechanism was damaged beyond repair, but Sheila hopes it may one day be displayed in another museum.

A new feature of the rebuilt tower is a lighting design by Kevin Cawley, which Sheila says this goes way beyond “your basic floodlight from the hardware store”.

“It will highlight the architectural features of the tower and the time ball and make it visible at night from around the harbour.”

The ruins of the residence have been stabilised and the grounds around the tower are being landscaped.

Park benches will allow residents and visitors to enjoy views of the port, while in another nod to the site’s maritime history, a flagpole will fly marine signal flags.

Finally, an interpretation display will tell the story of the Lyttelton Timeball, including a local legend about a canine fan.

A dog named Skippy would bark loudly at 1pm each day, as the time ball was lowered. Sheila says another dog has been visiting the site, so perhaps another local tradition is about to be reinstated.

She says Heritage NZ has had a “very positive” response to the rebuild, from locals and international interest groups alike. As this link between our city’s past and future continues to mark time, they’ll be keeping their eye on the ball.

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