29 August 2011

The oldest building in New Zealand

The Mission House at Kerikeri
On my most recent visit to the north of the North Island in 2009 my father and I stayed in the Bay of Islands, which enabled us to revisit many of the historic sites in the area. One of my favourites was the Mission House at Kerikeri, pictured above. The last time I'd been to the Bay of Islands was when I was a teenager, and I didn't know much of the history of the region, and while I can remember being impressed with the Georgian solidity of the neighbouring Stone Store (1832-36), I didn't notice at the time that the unassuming white-painted timber dwelling next door was actually even older.

This building, the Mission House, was built in 1821 and 1822 for Rev John Gare Butler by the Church Missionary Society.  The location was endorsed by Rev Samuel Marsden, who is reputed to have held the first Christian ceremony on New Zealand soil some years earlier. In August 1819 Marsden wrote in his diary about the site that he'd chosen for the Mission House:

On the whole the survey we had taken were perfectly satisfied that a more suitable situation cannot be found in any of the adjacent districts of the Bay of Islands. There is a fine fall of water close to the place where we intend the new town to stand for a corn mill, saw mill or any other purpose, without the risk of expense of making a dam, which is a valuable consideration. At Kiddee Kiddee [Kerikeri] any amount of grain, etc., may be grown that the settlement may want for years to come, either for victualling the native children in the schools or Europeans belonging to the missions.  

Butler wrote to his colleague Rev Josiah Pratt a few months later in November 1819, after spending three months in the Bay of Islands, outlining his enthusiasm for the area and its potential for missionary work:

I have made it my business, as far as I have been able, to visit all the inhabitants around the Bay of Islands, and have everywhere been received with the greatest kindness imaginable; and the natives are everywhere begging and praying for Europeans to come and live among them, and their solicitations are beyond anything you can conceive. The prospects are indeed glorious, and I am fully persuaded that New Zealand is ripe for all the instruction and improvement that a Christian world is able to bestow.
But while the initial expectations of the CMS churchmen were high, the Mission House did not remain a centre of religious endeavour. At around the time of the construction of the Stone Store the Mission House became the home of the CMS blacksmith, James Kemp, and his wife Charlotte. The mission ended in 1848 and the Kemps remained as storekeepers and operated a kauri gum trading business, and the house remained in the Kemp family until it was passed to the NZ Historic Places Trust in 1974. 

The Mission House, also known as the Kemp House, has been considerably modified from its original small dimensions, with additional rooms added including a separate kitchen. You can gain a good insight into its rustic simplicity in these panorama views: lots of rough-hewn timber is on display. But its basic amenities cannot obscure the fact that the house is particularly significant for New Zealand architecture as a whole. Architect Jeremy Salmond summed up his view of the house's importance in 2007:

The mission house is remarkable, simply because it still exists. It is no less remarkable because it represents, in its architectural character and form, the epitome of domestic colonial building in this country. While its precedents were British by virtue of the backgrounds and frames of reference of its creators and builders, the mission house immediately became an exemplar for early settler housing in New Zealand. In this sense, it is an extension of a long tradition of design and construction throughout the United Kingdom, with local variation according to materials and trade practice, which contributed to that country's picturesque rural character. This tradition continued in New Zealand, adapted to the material most readily available - timber - and to the climactic demands of this country. That the work was carried out by both missionary carpenters and Maori sawyers is also a commentary on the process of European settlement in New Zealand. The quality of construction is regarded as being significantly better than other buildings erected for members of the mission, and may partly explain why it is still standing. 
- Jeremy Salmond, 'The Mission House, Kerikeri: An Architectural Appreciation', in Judith Binney (ed.), Te Kerikeri 1770-1850: The Meeting Pool, Wellington, 2007. 
Entry to the Mission House is by guided tour only.  

Oldest buildings around the world:

Australia: Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta, 1793
South Africa: Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, 1666-79
Canada: Maison des Jesuits-de-SilleryMaison Puiseaux, Quebec City, 1637

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