On fine days, it’s not unusual to see walking groups or the odd busload of heritage and architecture enthusiasts admiring the imaginative mix of styles that make up New Zealand’s first state housing experiment, and possibly the world’s first state housing scheme.
The cluster of one and two-storied houses can be traced back to the time of Richard Seddon’s Liberal Government in the early 1900s – a period when rents were rising rapidly, particularly in the Wellington region. Seddon’s dream was to move low-paid workers out of the unsanitary inner-cities and provide them with affordable, quality homes in the suburbs.
Legislation was passed in 1905, land purchased in the four main centres, a competition held for architectural designs and, in 1906, the first 25 houses were being built on Patrick Street – New Zealand’s first state houses.
The area became formally known as the Heretaunga Settlement, and the 24 surviving houses are today recognised by Heritage New Zealand as an historic area.
Shona Drake bought her 1906 Patrick Street home 30 years ago, unaware of its place in New Zealand history. But today, her home’s heritage is big part of its charm and value.
“The main thing about living here is the character of the building, and there’s a story that comes with the house,” she says.
She believes heritage buildings serve as a thought-provoking reminder of where we’ve come from as a community and nation, and how our values and cultural identity developed.
“It’s absolutely important to hold onto our heritage buildings. They’re a part of our history – they help us know where we’ve come from and who we are today.”
The Petone houses were based on seven designs. Shona’s home was designed by Wellington architects Francis Penty and Edward Blake, who a few years earlier had designed the original building at Victoria University of Wellington, now known as the Hunter Building.
Built using totara, rimu, kauri and matai flooring on concrete and brick foundations, the houses all had three bedrooms, a coal shed and a copper to heat water.
The front of Shona’s house features a touch of Elizabethan or Tudor architecture with half-timbering under the gables that continues down over the weatherboards. A cornice – a decorative horizontal feature – is supported by a row of dentils – small ornamental moldings that protrude from the wall.
She restored the frontage to as close to original as possible, including repainting the house in its original colour scheme, and developed a cottage garden to complete the picture.
Her home is listed as a heritage building on the Hutt City Council District Plan and has a category two listing with Heritage New Zealand, marking it as of heritage value and significance.
Shona says the listing hasn’t added any significant costs above what it would cost to maintain a house of this period. The main requirement is ensuring the house’s frontage is kept true to its original state.
Her improvements include replacing floors in the bathroom and kitchen, adding underfloor and ceiling insulation, extending the original tiny kitchen, adding French doors accessing a rear deck, and with help from a grant from Hutt City Council’s Built Heritage Incentive Fund, replacing the roof.
One of the benefits of living in the area is a close connection with other owners of these original state houses, including semi-regular social events. In 2006, the then Prime Minister Helen Clarke even turned up to the Heretaunga Settlement’s centenary celebrations.
“The whole street is a community because we’re all part of a historic precinct and there’s something special about that,” Shona says.
Seddon’s dream failed to materialise. By 1919, the scheme was wound up by another government with 648 homes built nationwide, far short of the 5000 target. The government began selling the houses.
In Petone, the cost of rents and commuting to work, as well as steeply rising construction costs, put the houses out of reach of the low-paid workers it was meant to help. But it paved the way for the large scale state housing programme of Michael Joseph Savage’s Labour Government in 1936.