06 June 2015

Auckland architecture: the classic Kiwi villa

One of the things I enjoy most about walking around the streets of inner-city Auckland is the architecture, in particular the feast of old villas that still grace the streets of suburbs like Parnell and Grafton, Ponsonby and Herne Bay, St Mary’s Bay and Grey Lynn.

Many moons ago, I owned and lived in one of them, in Ponsonby, in the days before they became the heart’s desire of the trendy young professionals with more money than sense who are willing to pay in excess of a million dollars for what is basically a small old wooden cottage. 

I suppose I should be grateful to those wannabe social climbers as at least their aspirations ensure the continued existence of these charming pieces of New Zealand’s architectural history but I can’t help but despair at how they gut the interiors of all remaining traces of the villa’s past and preserve only the facades, in the same way the developers of the late twentieth century gutted Auckland’s old office towers and hotel buildings.

Luckily, I only see the exteriors during my meanderings so I can fool myself that their interior heritage features remain intact. Luckily, too, most of the exterior ornamental elements on these old villas are to be found around the front entry porch or surrounding their generous verandahs or adorning the gable ends, so are easily viewed by the pedestrian.

I’m no expert on architecture, so here, briefly, is what those who are have to say about these charming old villas (Patrick Reynolds, Jeremy Salmond and Jeremy Hansen, Villa: From heritage to contemporary, Godwit, Auckland, 2012):

The villa as a style in colonial New Zealand assumed the dress of the Gothic revival, but fused this with the classical language of Italianate architecture, hybridising both styles into something unique to this country. (p.23)
The villa went through several phases covering the early and late Victorian eras (up to 1905), Edwardian (until 1910) and finally ‘transitional’ as it began to absorb elements of the bungalow style, and as a style of building it expired around 1920. (p.26)
At the height of the villa building boom, a dizzying array of fretwork, embellishments and bay window styles were available, used on both large gentleman’s residences … and on more modest buildings. (p.60)

Cast iron decoration

Above and below, wooden fretwork and friezes

Sometimes manufactured from cast iron, more often carved in timber, the embellishments you are likely to spot on these charming old villas include delicately designed fretwork brackets on the verandah posts, lace-like fretwork friezes and geometric lattice infill running along underneath the verandah roof edges, finely turned balusters on the verandah railings and fancy finials on the gable ends.

According to Stuart Arden and Ian Bowman in The New Zealand Period House: A conservation guide (Random House, Auckland, 2004, p.206), during the mid to late Victorian era and the Edwardian years, these ornamental elements of the villa’s architecture would have been highlighted by the paint colour schemes:

Complex styles usually picked out trim and framing elements. Veranda posts had brackets and mouldings of contrasting colours to posts; finials were a contrasting colour to their brackets; doors had the panels a lighter colour than the stiles and rails, and gable framework was a contrasting colour to the filigree details between. Cresting was generally dark, brackets under eaves could be a different colour to the cornice and the eaves another colour, usually light.

Sadly, many of Auckland’s old villas are nowadays painted in single, stark colours – plain white seems to be a particular favourite, which only serves to display their owners’ ignorance of the history of their property.

Stark white and characterless

Though there are already some restrictions in place, personally, I’d like to see Auckland City Council place much more emphasis on preserving the city’s built heritage, by more stringently limiting and controlling the alterations owners can make to heritage properties. Hopefully, then, what remained of the city’s colonial architecture would be preserved and conserved for those strolling the city’s streets in the future to enjoy. 

For images of the decorative gable ends of colonial villas, see Auckland architecture: decorated gable ends.

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