From Heritage New Zealand, Summer 2007
by Judy Siers
In which the writer moves into a new home and finds herself living in a tourist attraction.
"residence in George Street for C V Brown Esq" Floor plan, sectional details and elevations of the house for Charles and Mary Vigor Brown designed by Louis Hay
When I first moved from Wellington to Napier to live, in late 2005, a very anxious real estate agent, Ilona Kellar, who managed the purchase of my new house, rang me about the Art Deco Weekend of 2006.
She explained that a visit to the house had already been publicised in an Art Deco programme as part of the Beguiling Bungalows Tour, scheduled for February. How would I feel about opening my home, and it being available to the public? With relief, she heard me say what a pleasure it would be to take part and for me to present this wonderful architectural house to people who, like me, would appreciate the character quality. For me, it was love at first sight.
Later, I was to learn of its history and that Louis Hay was the architect, a renowned designer of remarkable talent.
But, first, I had to unpack and make a semblance of order about the place in just six weeks. I had cartons reaching the ceiling, there was no indication of the wonderful view from the sitting room, nor could visitors even negotiate a passage through to the verandah.
However, I was sure it was going to happen, and sure enough, on a beautiful Napier day, the bus arrived, and the first 40 guests came through. A happier and more enthusiastic group it would have been hard to find, and yet they kept coming.
Three more buses arrived, and then a walking group finished the programme in the early afternoon. Art Deco magic was in the air, the dress up was fashion “excelsior” and the ambience one of happiness and joy. This is the secret of the success of Art Deco, and Napier has perfected this branding of its city.
But, the city has to have the buildings and the events to make the occasions. Management is in the hands of The Art Deco Trust, inaugurated in 1985. The programme is constantly being enhanced, and other heritage areas are being developed. The Beguiling Bungalows Tour, first formed in 1993, is one example: bungalows in the Arts & Crafts and Californian bungalow style, designed by architect Louis Hay from 1916 to 1928 and built on Napier Hill, are selected. Visitors are given historical information, can enter the houses, talk with the owners and walk around the gardens.
My house is the oldest of these, built in 1916 for Charles and Mary Vigor Brown. A low, single-storey bungalow, of lath and plaster construction and roughcast exterior finish, it has a large roof, with deep eaves, a wide expanse of terracotta Marseilles tiles. The exterior colour scheme is made up of an orange roof, white walls and dark green painted timber doors and window frames. Louis Hay’s plans reveal the original intention to have been for a higher pitched roof and tall chimneys in the Arts & Crafts style, but the roof was altered during construction, and the chimneys fell during Napier’s 1931 earthquake, and were not replaced to their original height.
The design takes advantage of the situation on the hill, high above the area known as Ahuriri; a deep verandah (called a piazza on the plan) runs the full width of the house from where breathtaking views that once encompassed the lagoons of pre-1931 Napier can be enjoyed. Now, it’s all land spreading out to the original beach, Norfolk pine trees mark this edge and the eye continues to West Shore, Bay View and the wonderful hillscape to the north and west.
The address is George Street, part of the suburb now known as Hospital Hill but once part of the Moana Estate, land owned by Charles’s father, John Vigor Brown, a celebrity and colourful political figure who served as a Member of Parliament for Napier from 1908 to 1922, and as mayor of the city for three long terms: 1907-1917, 1919-1921 and 1927-1933.
He was a businessman and brought that experience to city affairs, also serving as chairman of the Harbour Board. A street is named in tribute to him. He gave a section of land that adjoined his own property on the hill to his son and daughter-in-law, Mary, around the time of their marriage. It was no surprise that Louis Hay was the architect chosen to design the couple’s new home, as Mary was Louis Hay’s “typiste” for a time, and shared his love of water sports, particularly aqua planing, the water skiing of the day.
The Vigor Brown house was intended as a family home, and was innovative for its time, embracing the best of the open plan bungalow style. Distinctive features included glass panes inserted into the upper portion of the internal doors to provide soft, natural lighting by day and artistic lighting at night – Louis Hay created a “signature” in his lantern-styled lamp shades for the lights that hung from the ceiling beams. Two pairs of heavy, French-styled doors open from the living room and main bedroom onto the piazza; pressed metal ceilings in the kitchen, bathroom and lavatory have survived 90 years and are still in excellent condition, as is the large meat safe, positioned near the back door and under its own roof, still clad with mesh walls.
But the features most admired by visitors are the inglenook design and the elegant stained-glass windows that are set into the front door and entrance window, and in the square bay window in the dining room. The latter are works of art that William Morris could have inspired. Romantic, stylised, long-stemmed flowers, maybe they are poppies or roses, and others are possibly water lilies. Although these designs are not included on the plan, they were drawn by Louis Hay, and are significant in that he clearly liked them, re-using them for another house that came after the Vigor Browns’, one that regrettably did not survive the earthquake.
The large brick inglenook miraculously did survive. It is made up of a full wall, symmetrically designed to include a very wide, centre fireplace, a high mantle-piece, with a recessed niche for displaying art works, and two boxed ingle seats that have leadlight windows above. Louis Hay titled this “ingle neuk”, a reference to the Scottish, describing intimate seating around a fire. An old term and one that Robbie Burns used in his poetry, for example: “In honest Bacon’s Ingle neuk Here maun I sit and think ... ”
Louis Hay was descended from Scottish immigrants George and Jane Hay, from Banffshire, who arrived in New Zealand in 1849, disembarking at Port Chalmers. They finally settled at Romahapa, inland from Port Molyneaux. Their youngest son, James, married Frances Greig, and they lived in the South Island during the first 15 years of their marriage. Louis, born James Augustus Louis Hay in 1881, their oldest child, grew up there until he was 14 years of age, when his parents moved to Napier, his father taking up the position of Chief Draughtsman with the Department of Lands and Survey. Louis attended Napier Boys’ High School and on leaving was articled to the architectural firm Charles Tilleard Natusch.
Hay set up his own architectural practice in 1906, and in 1909 designed his first house, for his widowed mother, a large two-storey English vernacular-styled home in Roslyn Road, Napier.
Many beautiful and highly distinctive houses followed. His career flourished through the first two decades of the new century, mostly domestic commissions with exceptions including the Soldier’s Club on the Esplanade, now a major landmark building; the wonderful brick Presbyterian Church, St Paul’s, and the Central Fire Station building in Tennyson Street, now the Art Deco Shop. The church was severely damaged in the earthquake and would eventually be demolished; but the latter building was less damaged. Hay’s first job after the earthquake was managing the repairs and the new strengthening. Louis Hay’s talents were much in demand, and he became an important architect in the rebuilding of the city.
Ironically, while Art Deco had arrived and would be important for the future of the city, Louis Hay was not a huge admirer of the style. By this time, he was following the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the design and construction style of the “Prairie-styled” houses in the USA, but Napier city post the earthquake gave him the opportunity to work on new designs in a size and scale not previously dreamed of. These commissions for large, public and commercial buildings brought the creative scope and freedom for an architect to provide the devastated city with new and distinctive work.
Amongst these are the AMP building in 1934, his own Louis Hay Chambers in Herschell Street and the new Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery across the road, in 1935. Structurally, these buildings were fine examples of engineering precision in earthquake strengthening according to the new codes established post 1931. The National Tobacco Company building, constructed in 1932, replaced the former brick building that was lost during the earthquake. Also known as the Rothman’s building. It has to be the best known of Hay’s work worldwide, and admired for its elegant front entrance.
Although his early domestic buildings do not get the same acknowledgement, they are highly regarded.
Louis Hay did not design a house for his own family. He always meant to, but they lived instead in a heritage house on Milton Terrace, Napier Hill, that can be traced back to Captain Bower of the 65th Regiment. Louis Hay follows in the footsteps of other architects who never got around to designing a house for their own families. As his daughter Margaret, born in Napier in 1928 and the only surviving member of the family, there having been no grandchildren, says, “We stayed where we were, and very comfortable too. I am still there.”
Had Hay designed a house for himself, the ideal family home may well have been along the lines of the distinctive, artistic, homely and comfortable Vigor Brown house – a beguiling bungalow indeed.
A Louis Hay house is included in Napier’s Beguiling Bungalows Tour in the Art Deco Weekend Napier, February 2008.