Tauranga's hidden gem

Quietly tucked away in Otumoetai  is one of Tauranga’s oldest historic homes, Maungawhare. Built 140 years ago in 1878, the private kauri homestead was once the hub of entertainment and elegant  garden parties.

I was introduced to the current owner, Hilary Revfeim, through a shared friend and was delighted to find she is an accomplished pianist, often accompanying singers. In one of the many rooms of the homestead, her piano sits, and clearly this house has enjoyed many hours of music within its walls.

“In the 1910s, TC Maltby, who was the commodore of the Yacht Club, did a lot of entertaining here,” says Hilary. “He used to like the English hunt, so he’d lead a group chasing rabbits on horseback. They’d meet at Waihi Road, gallop around the estuary, come up Coach Drive and call in here for breakfast.

“There were also garden parties and tennis on the lawn. He over-extended himself so sold off the library and billiard room to repay debts.”

The two south wing rooms were dismantled and removed to 13th Avenue, becoming absorbed into what is now Ultimate Care Oakland, a rest home.

The house, originally known as Woodhill, was designed by Hamilton architect Isaac Richardson Vialou, and built by S.H Brabant in 1878 for his magistrate brother H.W Brabant. Situated on the highest point in Otumoetai, and visible from surrounding land, distance communication was often carried out by semaphore.

In 1884, new owner H.B Johnston, the first president of the Tauranga Men’s Club, renamed the area Maungawhare or ‘house on the hill’.

Brabant took the name Woodhill to a new residence at 167 Grange Road, now the site of Woodhill Funeral Home.

The property, now reduced to 3.6 hectares from its original 20, has been in the Revfeim family since 1939. Nearby houses in Parkvale Road now occupy some of the original land, once developed into a farm and then an orchard.

I wandered around the garden with Hilary.

The Maungawhare parkland sits alongside the property, having once been part of the whole.

Hilary points out the four large Norfolk pines, seen on the skyline from many points throughout Tauranga, and planted sometime between 1884 and 1890. The northernmost, once the tallest in the Bay of Plenty, was struck by lightning in 1978.

“Ships coming in to Tauranga Harbour would line themselves up with the pines, to safely navigate the channel,” says Hilary. Although I’ve been unable to verify this very interesting piece of information having searched through Tauranga’s historic records, the Elms also has Norfolk pines that were used for this purpose, so it’s highly probable.

A covenant for the protection of trees was signed with Tauranga District Council in 1997.

 The house was entered into the NZ Historic Place Register in 1983.

It’s a daunting task taking care of the property, and managing the house renovations and maintenance, which Hilary has been doing almost single-handedly since her husband died.

The two-storey house, with steep gables mounted by finials, features delicate verandah fretwork. There are seven exterior doors and four original brick chimneys. Separate quarters include a kitchen with a wood stove where servants cooked and ate over 100 years ago.

That’s now a sitting room. Four upstairs bedrooms look out onto the flagpole, a grass tennis court, a 100-year-old creeping wisteria and the rebuilt shed. Under the stairs, Hilary keeps a collection of flags including the flags of Australia, New Zealand and Sweden, which she likes to run up the pole.

“It depends on which people visit,” she says. “The latest one was a British flag.”

We explore the house, and I can see that there have been additional renovations over the years. Major Hugh Wright rebuilt the house’s southern wing in 1931. Extensive work on the western side was done in 1972 by architect Geoff Keyte.  

“Most of the house was prefabricated, arriving in a package from Sydney,” says Hilary. “The kauri was shipped there, manufactured then shipped back. The bay windows were inserted ready-made into the walls.”

The Elms mission house was built in 1847, some 31 years before Maungawhare. The Brain Watkins House in Cameron Road was built in 1881, and is now a museum entirely furnished with previous owner’s possessions.

Within the walls of the Maungawhare homestead is the same sense of timelessness that I’ve felt walking through the two other homes.

There are canes and walking sticks, old dressers and plenty of oak.

Furniture dating from the 1840s that arrived with the Revfeim family from Whanganui mixes with furniture that came from Auckland in the early 1900s.

One of the historically significant elements of Maungawhare is the unpainted kauri board and batten ceiling that features in the main lounge.

Hilary loves the spaciousness.

“This is what I like about old houses,” she explains. “You can withdraw into the bedroom, shut the door, be quiet and read, and nobody is looking for you.”

Outside is an old pew.  

“It was given to my mother-in-law.

“It rocked, so a mother up the front of the church could rock her crying baby.

“I think it was rescued from the fire at Holy Trinity.”

A third generation resident, Hilary is an enthusiast, preparing the house for the fourth generation.

This year though, Maungawhare celebrates its 140th birthday, starting off with a garden party in last weekend.

Happy birthday Maungawhare!