Historic Place Category 1
Sec 64 and Pt Sec 65 Blk XXV Town of Dunedin (CT OT128/232, DI S1731), Otago Land District
Extent of Registration
The extent includes the land described as Sec 64 and Pt Sec 65 Blk XXV Town of Dunedin (CT OT128/232, DI S1731), Otago Land District and the house, its fittings and fixtures (including the decorative iron-work) and the entrance gates and stone wall.
Dunedin is richly endowed with ornate Victorian architecture, one of the finest examples of which is at 521 George Street. This two-storey home was named ‘The Hermitage’ by its original owner, Robert Wilson (1832-1899).
Irish-born Wilson immigrated to Victoria and established a carrying business, including transporting goods to Otago. By 1862 he had set up business as a general merchant with a warehouse in Stafford Street. Business prospered and for a time Wilson was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Otago. He was involved in initiating New Zealand’s first refrigeration company; he also helped found the Colonial Bank of NZ and National Insurance Co. Wilson is best known, however, for establishing Dunedin Distillery Co. in 1869. Robert Wilson and Co., as the company became, was carried on by his sons, grandson and great-grandson. In 1963 they merged with rival merchant company Neill & Co., to form Wilson Neill Wine and Spirits.
In 1881 tenders were advertised for the erection of a brick residence for Robert Wilson in George Street. The architect was Joseph L. Shaw. Little is known about Shaw, yet his work demonstrates considerable abilities. Messrs Anderson and Godso were the successful tenderers.
The Hermitage was symmetrically fronted and rose above George Street behind cast iron gates and a bluestone wall topped with Victorian cast-iron lacework. The exterior was built of triple brick and plaster on a bluestone foundation. The interior contained 11 rooms excluding bathrooms, pantries etcetera. The ground floor contained dining, drawing, breakfast, and sitting rooms and included the kitchen. These rooms featured marble fire surrounds, delicately moulded plaster ceilings, and mock-grained four-panel doors. A handsomely balustraded staircase led from the entrance hall to six bedrooms and a servants’ room. A servant’s staircase was built in the rear. A wash stand under the grand staircase enabled visitors to wash their hands after travelling over dusty roads in open carriages.
In 1920 the Hermitage was bought by the Hart family who owned it for the next 50 years. The house was upgraded, particularly in the service areas but original features remained intact. Ben Hart planted many rare species and imported daffodil bulbs from the UK. As a condition of the sale in 1970, as a gentleman’s agreement, it was agreed that the grounds be maintained ‘in the manner to which they were accustomed’.
Professor G.T. Baylis, the new owner, converted the house into four flats but maintained many of the original features. None of the principal rooms were modified and all the original fireplaces remained. The entrance hall formed the division between two downstairs flats. The two staircases, including the servant’s rear stairway, provided separate access to the two upstairs flats.
In recent years the house has seen a change in ownership but it remains a rental property.
- Shaw, JL - Architect
- Anderson and Godso - Builder
- Original Construction: 1881 (circa)
- Modification: 1970
- L. Galer, Houses and Homes, Allied Press, Dunedin, 1981
- L. Galer, Houses of Dunedin: An illustrated collection of the city's historic homes, Hyndman Publishing, Dunedin, 1995
- Jane Thomson, (ed)., Southern People: A Dictionary of Otago Southland Biography, Dunedin: Longacre Press/Dunedin City Council, 1998.,‘Robert Wilson’ entry
A fully referenced Upgrade Report is available from the Otago/Southland Area office of NZHPT.
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