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Real heart in a special house

Elegantly nestled next to the Maungawhare parkland in Otumoetai, a 139-year-old private kauri homestead is being prepared for the fourth generation of family residents.

Hilary Revfeim’s family has owned the historic house and property, now reduced to 2 acres from its original 23 acres, since 1939.

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 by semaphore.

The two-storey house with steep gables mounted by finials features delicate verandah fretwork that give an air of lightness.

Brackets secure canvas screens in summer to enable people to sleep on the verandah. There have also been interior modifications to the house.

In 1884, new owner H.B Johnston, and 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 Rd, now the site of Woodhill Funeral Home.

"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 Rd, gallop around the estuary, come up Coach Drive and call 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 Ave, becoming absorbed into what is now Ultimate Care Oakland, a resthome.

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

A covenant for the protection of trees was signed with the Tauranga District Council in 1997. The house was entered into the NZ Historic Place Register in 1983.

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

Hilary has been managing recent house renovations and maintenance. There are seven exterior doors and four original brick chimneys. Separate quarters include a kitchen with a wood stove where servants cooked and ate more than 100 years ago. It’s now a sitting room.

Historically significant is the unpainted kauri board and batten ceilings that feature throughout the house. Canes and walking sticks from the 1920s are propped up in one corner.

Furniture dating from the 1840s that arrived with the Revfeim family from Whanganui mixes with furniture that came from Auckland in the early-1900s. A grand piano graces another lounge off the library, where leather-bound books were once housed.

The table, dresser and old oak furniture go back to the 1930s. Oak becomes the theme.

Hilary incorporated pieces from the old shed into the bathroom. Cladding around the chimney features a Norwegian bell pull.

Upstairs, the spaciousness is a pleasant surprise. Four bedrooms look out onto the flagpole, a grass tennis court, a hundred year old creeping wisteria, and the rebuilt shed.

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

Under the stairs, Hilary keeps a collection of flags - Australia, New Zealand, Sweden.

"It depends on which people visit, the latest one was a British flag."

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.

The outdoor toilet is still in one piece. Recently sanded and painted it has two doors, originally with a lower toilet seat for children and a higher one for adults. Turned into a playhouse it is now used for storage, housing pig branding irons. The pig and house cow have long gone.

Work in progress is the taking up of the last of the original verandah.

"The kauri had to be removed because the boards were not supported properly. It was so old it was splitting."

The boards were replaced with Australian hardwood.

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.

"You’ve got to have real heart for it and commitment. You’ve got to put time into managing the whole property."