The Premier’s House
Written and Devised by Dinah Priestley.
In the 1980s we were in danger of losing the Premier’s House with all its history dating back to 1843. But it’s history meant nothing to various developers who disparaged its “mixed building styles” and advised we should knock it down. This is the history of Sir Julius Vogel and darling dashing Polly, his wife, of Ballance the first prime minister to include a Maori, Sir James Carrol, in his cabinet. It’s the history of the staff, servants and gardeners who worked for Ward and Coates and their families. It’s the story of those who lived opposite ”the gentry” and out of pride hung lace curtains in their windows.
When the Labour Party came to power in 1935 Michael Joseph Savage decided he wanted none of the house’s opulence. The building was converted into a children’s Dental Clinic and was known by Wellington’s children as,” The Murder House”.
Eventually in the late 1980s the house was saved largely by the persistence of people like Tony Burton of the Thorndon Society and Michael Bassett, historian and Minister of Internal Affairs who happened to be living on the property and writing a book about Sir Joseph Ward at the time. Both people knew the likelihood of street kids climbing in the windows of the frail old building and setting it alight.
Both knew that if you can only hold onto a threatened historic house long enough, eventually someone who has the power and influence will recognise its importance and raise the money to restore it. Michael Bassett was that person. His enthusiasm combined with funding from the Lottery Board and the choice of the architect Kelvin Grant, created the circumstances for a unique property to be restored to its original use.
I found it immensely satisfying to interview and document the views of those who remembered the house’s history. Perhaps most touching were the memories of Lesley Robinson, the son of Coates’s Gardener. He had a photographic memory and an unshakeable belief that you’ve got to have progress but you’ve got to hold on to some things.
The Premier’s House was published by the Department of Internal Affairs in association with Anchorage Press for the New Zealand 1990s Celebration.