220 Green Road, Awahuri, Palmerston North

  • Highden, Palmerston North. Image courtesy of owner Avril Druker, Highden Manor Estate 2016.
    Copyright: Avril Druker. Taken By: Christine Fletcher.
  • Highden, Palmerston North. South west facade. Image courtesy of owner Avril Druker, Highden Manor Estate 2016.
    Copyright: Avril Druker. Taken By: Christine Fletcher.
  • Highden, Palmerston North. Reception room. Image courtesy of owner Avril Druker, Highden Manor Estate 2016.
    Copyright: Avril Druker. Taken By: Christine Fletcher.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 1190 Date Entered 30th April 2010


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes part of the land described as Lot 1 DP 69619 (CT WN9738), Wellington Land District and the buildings and structures known as Highden thereon, and their fittings and fixtures. The extent includes the main residence, Chapel, Accommodation Block, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, and the statue of the Good Shepherd. The extent excludes utility buildings such as the large sheds to the south and southeast of the main residence and the timber building north of the Accommodation Block, as well as the former Highden Novitiate Recreation Hall (now a residence). (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Manawatu District


Horizons (Manawatu-Wanganui) Region

Legal description

Lot 1 DP 69619 (CT WN9738), Wellington Land District

Location description

When travelling north-west from Palmerston North along State Highway 3, pass through the township of Awahuri. A well signposted intersection immediately after Awahuri demarks the point where to turn south-west into Green Road. The entrance to Highden is situated prior to the intersection of Green and Taipo Road. The entrance is on the north-west side of Green Road and is indicated by a large masonry gateway which also displays the place name, and also a yellow place sign on the opposite side of that road.


Highden, located south of Awahuri amid farmland and surrounded by localised native bush, is one of the grandest manor houses in the Manawatu. Completed circa 1897, Highden was originally designed by Frederick de Jersey Clere (1856-1952) as the country estate of W.W. Johnston (1839-1907), parliamentarian and prominent Wellington businessman, but for the majority of the twentieth century the property served as a Marist Novitiate.

Like many places in the Rangitikei-Manawatu Block, the land on which Highden was later built was subject to a protracted period of negotiation and protest in the 1860s and 1870s. However, the property had several European owners before Johnston, the first Member of Parliament for Manawatu, began farming it in 1888, and then commissioned the esteemed Wellington architectural firm Clere, Richmond and Fitzgerald to design a lavish residence which was called Highden. Cecilia Johnston continued to live there after her husband's death and she engaged Charles Tilleard Natusch (1859-1952) to design major additions. Cecilia was from a staunchly Catholic family and she was active within this community. As such, it was appropriate that after her death in 1922 the residence was sold to the Society of Mary to function as a Novitiate. The Marist order is intimately connected with the establishment and development of Catholicism in New Zealand and the Highden Novitiate allowed them to continue their work because it was a place for housing and training novices, a key step in becoming a Marist priest or brother. The Marists occupied Highden until 1990 when the maintenance of the site and declining numbers of novices made continuing there untenable. After the Society sold the property it changed hands several times and was used as a function and accommodation venue, as well as a school and alternative medicine clinic.

The main residence of Highden is an imposingly and elongated double-storey timber building that demonstrates remarkable design skill and craftsmanship, and features groupings of gables with decorative cladding, deep verandahs, and whimsical aspects, such as a turret. This is a Queen Anne style building which also incorporates aspects from other popular styles, an approach to domestic architecture which was common at the time in New Zealand. Highden has high integrity because it has undergone few major changes subsequent to the Natusch extension in 1908, although buildings and structures were added to the property by the Society of Mary throughout their occupancy. These simple auxiliary buildings, including the Chapel and Accommodation Block, document the changing use of the property and have a sober design that reflected their purpose, and contrast with the flamboyancies of the main house.

Highden is a residence of outstanding merit and is the result of work by two of New Zealand's leading late nineteenth and early twentieth century architects, Clere and Natusch. Highden is a landmark property within the Manawatu, and its grandeur is indicative of the high social status of its original owners, the Johnstons. The compliment of buildings and structures at Highden is a remnant of the Society of Mary's use of the site, which is also indicative of changes Catholicism underwent in the twentieth century.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Highden is historically important as the residence of one of the Manawatu's most prominent families in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and were among the elite of early Wellington society. Despite Walter Woods Johnston developing his parliamentary career and influence as a businessman in Wellington, he had a long connection with the Manawatu since becoming its first member of parliament in 1871. In naming the house Highden the Johnstons referenced the noble estate of Cecilia Johnston's (nee Goring) ancestors. Therefore, Highden has historic value as an example of the fact that while an established family name could be of use and was a source of pride, men like Johnston relied on their business acumen to succeed and flourish in New Zealand society in the late nineteenth century.

Highden also has significance because it was the first permanent Novitiate in Oceania and was a direct result of changes to Canon Law that affected Catholic orders worldwide, including the Society of Mary. This group had been instrumental in the establishment and development of Catholicism in New Zealand, and as a place of preparation for becoming a member of the Society of Mary Highden also has historical importance because it enabled the continuance of this order's work.

Aesthetic Significance or Value

One of the purposes of Highden was to visually demonstrate the social status of its original owners, and as such Highden's considerable aesthetic value is deliberate. The main residence has immediate visual impact due to its impressive and imposing scale and the disarming elegance of its architectural forms and detailing. The graceful simplicity and positioning of the supplementary buildings creates a pleasant grouping, contrasting with and heightening the impact of the main building. In addition the park-like setting of the substantial grounds, combined with the wider surrounding rural area, help to create a sense of the idyllic.

Architectural Significance or Value

Highden has considerable architectural significance because it is a building which uniquely combines, and excellently demonstrates, the design skills of two prominent New Zealand architects, Frederick de Jersey Clere and Charles Tilleard Natusch. The additions designed by Natusch are a remarkably adroit integration which respected and complimented Clere's existing building. As such, Highden is a cohesive statement of both Clere and Natusch's work and is demonstrative of their strengths in Tudor and other fashionable styles of architecture around the turn of the twentieth century.

Aside from the impressive scale of this large country manor, aspects of Highden, such as picturesque cladding features and the elaborate detailing and carving of the entrance hall and stairway, mean that the building has a grandeur which is sincere because the underlying craftsmanship and design skill is obvious. Flourishes, like the whimsical turret, create superbly timed instances of elegant flamboyance which add to the architectural value of the Highden. The skilled assimilation of these and other key elements and forms by Clere and Natusch is reflective of how various international architectural styles were at this time popularly borrowed from and then tailored to New Zealand conditions, materials, and the direction and desires of clients. Both Clere and Natusch were prominent exponents of this type of approach and therefore, Highden has architectural significance as both a building characteristic of each of these important architects individual work and representative of New Zealand stately domestic architecture in general in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Spiritual Significance or Value

Highden has considerable spiritual value because of its function for much of the twentieth century as a religious oasis at which an important formative stage was undertaken in the development of the brothers and priests of the Society of Mary. The Chapel and other supplementary buildings, as well as the statues around the grounds, are significant remnants of the period when Highden was a Novitiate and host to hundreds of people dedicated to exploring and developing their spiritual commitment, many of whom then went on to share this with Catholic communities around New Zealand.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

Highden establishment as a Catholic Novitiate, the first in Oceania, enabled the continuation of the training of New Zealand's Marist priests and brothers under altered Canon Law after 1918. Therefore, Highden is an important place because through its alumni the Society of Mary and Catholicism, which are representative aspects of New Zealand's history dating from the early period of European settlement, were nurtured and furthered for almost 70 years.

b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

As a house specifically built for Walter Wood Johnston, Highden has a direct association with the first Member of Parliament for Manawatu, who also held ministerial positions over a period of almost 15 years. However, Johnston also made his name through business and was successful to the point where he and his family became members of the social and economic elite of Wellington in the late nineteenth century.

Highden was designed in two stages by two of the pre-eminent New Zealand architects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Frederick de Jersey Clere and Charles Tilleard Natuschs. The domestic architectural work of these men has been identified as among the best proponents of Tudor style buildings nationally and as such has an important place within New Zealand's built history.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

Highden is a property of exceptional significance within New Zealand. Built for retired Member of Parliament and important Wellington businessman W.W. Johnston and his family, who were prominent in New Zealand society at the time, architecturally Highden is an exemplar of New Zealand stately domestic architecture from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Highden's architectural values are considerable. This country manor is representative of the individual work and approaches of its two architects, Frederick de Jersey Clere and Charles Tilleard Natusch, but the impressive and dexterous contributions of these architects to the residence on separate occasions also means that Highden is a unique building. The special significance of the property also derives from its importance as the first Novitiate in Oceania, which for the greater part of the twentieth century facilitated the continuance of the work of the Society of Mary, a group seminal in the establishment and development of Catholicism in New Zealand. As such, Highden is of outstanding national heritage significance.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Clere, Frederick De Jersey

Clere (1856-1952) was born in Lancashire, the son of an Anglican clergyman, and was articled to Edmund Scott, an ecclesiastical architect of Brighton. He then became chief assistant to R J Withers, a London architect. Clere came to New Zealand in 1877, practising first in Feilding and then in Wanganui. He later came to Wellington and practised there for 58 years.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1886 and held office for 50 years as one of four honorary secretaries in the Empire. In 1883 he was appointed Diocesan Architect of the Anglican Church; he designed more than 100 churches while he held this position. Clere was a pioneer in reinforced concrete construction; the outstanding example of his work with this material is the Church of St Mary of the Angels (1922), Wellington.

As well as being pre-eminent in church design, Clere was responsible for many domestic and commercial buildings including Wellington's Harbour Board Offices and Bond Store (1891) and Overton in Marton. Clere was also involved in the design of large woolsheds in Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa.

He was active in the formation of the New Zealand Institute of Architects and served on their council for many years. He was a member of the Wellington City Council until 1895, and from 1900 a member of the Wellington Diocesan Synod and the General Synod. He was also a member of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts.

Natusch, Charles Tilliard (1859-1951)

Natusch founded his practice in Wellington in 1886, having completed his architectural studies in England in 1882. He immigrated to New Zealand in 1886 after spending the intervening time in the United States, Canada and working in town planning in England. Over the years, Natusch was based in Wellington, Masterton, Pahiatua and finally Napier. When he was commissioned to work on the Feilding Club, his three sons had joined the practice and the firm had offices in Wellington, Pahiatua, Napier, Gisborne and Palmerston North. Natusch is particularly well known for his residential buildings, which include Bushy Park (Register Number 157), Gwavas (Register Number 173) Matapiro (Register Number 171), Maungaraupi (4916) and Wharerata (Register Number 1188).

Kelly, Albert

Brother Albert Kelly

Brother Albert Kelly was born in Christchurch and before becoming a member of the Society Mary he had worked as an architect. He was a novice at Highden in 1954 and later worked there between 1957 and 1960. ('Highden', NZHPT Registration Report (Record no. 1190)).

J.L. McMillan Ltd

J.L. McMillan Ltd was a longstanding Manawatu construction company founded in the late nineteenth century. In the 1960s it became known as J.L. McMillan and Lockwood Ltd and designed and constructed the Manawatu Co-operative Dairy Factory at Longburn, and constructed the Palmerston North Railway Station. ("Highden', NZHPT Registration Report (Record no. 1190)).

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Various iwi inhabited the Manawatu, primarily along the rivers, for approximately 300 years before European incursion into the area began. Of the several fortified pa of the Upper Manawatu area, which encompassed parts of the Ahuaturanga and Rangitikei-Manawatu Blocks, only Awahuri was situated inland of the river amongst a heavily forested and swampy landscape. Despite the presence of many riverside settlements the region was not heavily populated, but it was known as a wonderful hunting and gathering ground for eels, waterfowl, and other native birds and fruits. There were instances of dispute between the various Manawatu iwi and hapu, perhaps the most significant sustained period of conflict occurred in the early nineteenth century as a result of the southward movement of some Waikato tribes and Te Rauparaha.

As such by the late 1840s the right to sell the Rangitikei-Manawatu Block to the Crown was contested between several iwi and '...there raged for years a storm of litigation around the Rangitikei-Manawatu Block which not only strained the relations between [iwi and] European settlers, but at one time threatened to break out in inter-tribal war.' Therefore, it was not until the conclusion of several Native Land Court cases in the late 1860s that the European settlement of the block was able to progress to any extent.

Awahuri, which was within the Rangitikei-Manawatu Block, became the centre of a large 'Native Reserve.' The land which Highden later occupied was gifted to Annie McDonald in 1874 by Ngati Kauwhata, who originated from the Waikato but had occupied the Awahuri area in the 1830s. The generous gift of land was made in recognition of the important role her husband, Alexander, had played in helping to secure the land titles for the reserve. This assistance included advising the hapu, but in particular Alexander's protest action 'to stop the main road through the principle reserve...by shooting the leading horse in the mail coach.' This action was credited with finally inducing the Government to issue titles for the land, but also resulted in a three year term of imprisonment for MacDonald. The land was later sold several times before passing into the hands of the Hon. Walter Woods Johnston (1839-1907). The 1,000 acre farm was purchased by Johnston in 1888, but it was not until circa 1897 that Highden was completed to function as the primary residence of the Johnstons.

The house at Awahuri for the Hon. W.W. Johnston

Despite being based in Wellington, Johnston had a long connection with the Manawatu, including being the electorate's first Member of Parliament from 1871 to 1884. Johnston had immigrated to New Zealand with his parents as a young child. Walter began his career working for his father's Wellington based mercantile business, Johnston and Company. After a period on active duty in the Wellington Militia in the 1860s he became a partner in Levin and Company with other high profile Wellington businessmen, William Levin and Charles Pharazyn. However, upon their father's retirement in 1878 Walter and his brother, Charles, ran Johnston and Company. During the early 1880s Johnston balanced his business commitments with important governmental positions, such as the Postmaster General, Minister for Public Works, and a member of the Executive Council. However, in 1884 he retired from politics to concentrate his energies on the family business. Johnston later became a Bank of New Zealand Board member and then a director and government representative on the Board. Until Highden was constructed the Johnstons were based at a large house in Wellington, on Tinakori Road, which is said to have been complete with 'a well-patonised ballroom.' They also had farming properties in the Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay. Johnston was an adroit and successful businessman which was reflected in the considerable £500,000 estate he left upon his death.

The economic and social position of the family was well-established by the late nineteenth century which meant it was appropriate that only a noteworthy architectural firm design Highden. Therefore, prominent Wellington architects Clere, Fitzgerald and Richmond were engaged, but it seems likely that the design was primarily undertaken by Frederick de Jersey Clere (1856-1952). Clere had established a connection with the area when he lived in Feilding during the 1880s. As an employee of the firm, John Sidney Swan (1874-1936) was also involved in the Johnston contract. Swan entered the practice of Clere, Fitzgerald and Richmond as an office boy, a move which seems to have inspired him to train as an architect. As such, he was articled to Clere and eventually became the firm's Chief Draftsman. This is perhaps why his signature appears on plans for Highden. In 1900, a few years after the completion of Highden Clere branched out on his own with Swan going too as an architect partner.

Upon completion of the grand house the Johnston estate at Awahuri was called Highden after Sir Charles Forster Goring, 7th Baronet of Highden's property in Sussex, England. The connection to the Johnstons was that Goring was the grandfather of Walter's wife, Cecilia Augusta. The size and design of the house befitted the status of the Johnstons as members of Wellington and New Zealand's 'economic and political elite.' However, it is clear that it was not merely sufficient for the house to be a superficial marker of the social status of the owners as the specifications for the building state that the materials and craftsmanship were expected to be of the 'highest class.' Tenders for materials for the building were called for in late 1896 and the building seems to have been completed the following year.

It is said that Highden was one of the largest stately homes in New Zealand at the turn of the twentieth century and 'a commodious house with every convenience.' Such grandeur required a large staff and Highden reportedly had an indoor staff of 11, with another 14 people employed to maintain the gardens. In 1907, after the death of her husband and within a decade of the original construction of Highden, Cecilia began an extension project at Highden with primarily the extension of the servants' accommodations in mind. Charles Tilleard Natusch (1859-1952) was responsible for the changes, completed in 1908, that included the addition of a new double storey wing to supplement the original servant accommodations and service area, the creation of verandahs on the upper levels of the existing house which also necessitated raising the turret, as well as the building of a conservatory. The choice of Natusch to complete the addition was appropriate because he was well-known in the area for this high-end domestic architecture having recently completed several large houses in the area, and both his firm and that of Clere are considered two of the three leading exponents of Tudor style architecture in New Zealand. In the same year as the extension project was begun at Highden, Natusch also designed Oakhurst at Awapuni for the eldest son of Walter and Cecilia, John Goring Johnston.

During the Johnstons' residence at Highden it was the scene of many notable family and local events which were reported in the press. Among the happy moments celebrated at Highden were the wedding celebrations of at least two of the Johnston daughters, one of whom married into the Pharazyn family. This further connected these two families who had been closely linked since Walter Johnston and Charles Pharazyn were in business together in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1904 Highden was also singled out in reports of 'the most alarming [earthquake] since the great shock of 1855' which caused damage in many places throughout the lower half of the North Island. At Highden the damage amounted to all but two of the chimneys being toppled, as well as a window falling in. It was feared that one of the walls was structurally damaged but it is unclear whether any repair or strengthening work was necessary. Later that year the Johnstons were caused more consternation when the large 1898 stable was destroyed by fire.

However, the Johnston association with Highden came to an end when Cecilia Johnston died in 1922. At this time the Highden estate was divided into two sections which meant that the house, as well as 220 acres of surrounding land, were put up for separate sale. The homestead property was purchased by the Society of Mary for £17, 000. The choice of Highden by this Catholic order was entirely appropriate, not only because of purchase price and the facilities, but also because Cecilia Johnston was Catholic and active in that local community. For example, in 1908 Cecilia Johnston paid for the construction of St Joseph's Convent School in Feilding, which was also designed by Natusch who seems to have been the family's architect of choice during this period. Moreover, because Highden was named after the estate of the Gorings in Sussex it was associated with a history of staunch commitment to the Church. The Gorings of Highden date back to before the creation of the Church of England and throughout this tumultuous time, and the subsequent centuries when Catholics faced adversity, each adult member of the family is said to have made the choice to remain steadfast to their faith. Reportedly Highden in Sussex was also a safe-house for persecuted clergy. Therefore, the timing of the sale of Highden, Awahuri, and its purchase by the Society of Mary seem to have been a propitious happenstance.

Highden and the Society of Mary

When the history of Catholicism in New Zealand officially began in January 1838 with the arrival in Hokianga of the country's first bishop of any denomination, Jean-Baptiste Francoise Pompallier (1801-1871), there was a burgeoning population of faithful for this first mission to minister to. Whereas an Anglican mission was sent to New Zealand in 1814, and a Methodist equivalent in 1822, the French missionary party headed by the young Bishop only set sail for the Pacific on Christmas Eve 1836. The voyage of Pompallier, four Marist priests, and three Marist brothers took them to several islands, such as Tahiti, before they arrived at their Oceanic mission base, New Zealand. The pre-dominance the Society of Mary in this and the subsequent Catholic Oceanic missionary expeditions is not surprising because this order was founded with a missionary purpose in France by Father John Claude Colin in the same year that Bishop Pompallier and his group launched the mission. Once the initial set up of the mission in New Zealand was completed, priests and brothers were instrumental in branching out to found and run Catholic churches, schools, and other institutions throughout New Zealand.

The path to becoming a Marist priest or brother has several stages, with the novitiate training and experience being one of the key early steps. A Marist Novitiate is 'geared to the religious state rather than the ministerial priesthood.' Nonetheless, a key purpose of the Highden Novitiate House, which was also known as St Mary's Novitiate, was as a place for prospective priests to go for 'spiritual formation and sanctification...so that more fully aware of the nature of their vocation they may fulfil its ideals.' While many men went through the process of becoming Marist priests and brothers prior to the establishment of Highden, it was the first permanent novitiate in New Zealand and Oceania.

The necessity for Highden was a result of changes to The Code of Canon Law in 1918. This stated that the training of novices required separate facilities. Therefore, the Society of Mary was forced to seek out a suitable property in accordance with the new directive from Rome because at that time both the novices and those studying for the priesthood resided at the Scholasticate in Greenmeadows, Hawke's Bay. Happy with their purchase and with the approval of the Holy See, in 1924 the Marists began to use Highden as a place for housing and training of novices. In addition to the main house the circa 1904 stable was converted to provide more accommodation and was opened in 1927. The first professions of the initial intake of novices at Highden took place in early 1926. These novices had been under the instruction of the first Master of Novices at Highden, Father David Kennedy (1864-1936). Kennedy, who is noteworthy as the first New Zealand born Marist priest, held this position from 1925 to 1928, and then again for several months preceding his death.

The Scholasticate continued to be run from its Greenmeadows location, which meant it was subject to the devastating effects of the Hawke's Bay Earthquake of 1931. As a result of that event the chapel collapsed, killing a group of nine priests and students, and the accommodation quarters were also damaged. Therefore, it was necessary to distribute the clergy and students of the Scholasticate to other places while it was made functional again. The Scholasticate was divided into two departments, theology and philosophy with the theologians going to the newly constructed College at Silverstream, while the philosophers were housed at Highden. As such, Highden temporarily became the House of Philosophy during 1931. This also meant that the chapel, which was the former billiard room, could not meet the capacity demands placed upon it and a section of a recreation space in the stables accommodation block was converted into a chapel. One of the transferred students noted that his first impression of Highden was 'its calm dignity, its pleasing proportions and solid [timber] construction...a very reassuring sight to those of us who had had stone buildings falling about our ears.'

Later, in 1955 the Highden Novitiate itself faced danger in the form of a fire in the accommodation block and chapel. Luckily the fire was contained by the Rongotea and Feilding fire brigades and the main residence, whose timber construction would likewise have made it particularly vulnerable, was not damaged. However, the chapel was destroyed along with a recreation room, the library, and a sanitary block. Any such occurrences put economic stress on the Marists, especially because the farm at Highden was barely sustainable when the huge cost of maintaining the property was taken into account. Because of this the property was put up for sale three times between 1923 and 1974, and in 1938 the surrounding bush and pine plantation was felled to raise funds.

However, despite the economic pressures a new separate Chapel and Accommodation Block were eventually built in 1956. The new buildings were designed by Brother Albert Kelly, who had been an architect prior to becoming a Marist brother, and while the construction was led by J.L. McMillan Ltd., the Highden brothers acted as labourers. This cost saving measure meant that the brothers involved also gained skills and carpentry experience, with some later forming the nucleus of the group that built Futuna Chapel in Wellington. The new Highden complex consisting of a Chapel, two-storey Accommodation Block, and the Recreation Hall was opened by Archbishop McKeefry on 28 April, 1957, and included a covered walkway which connected each building to each other and to the main house. With the new buildings Highden Novitiate could facilitate the development of 20 to 25 novices at a time. Highden generally had three priests living there and they, and the brothers, resided in the main house.

Another person who had an effect on the property was Father J.B. Bennett, the Master of Novices between 1961 and 1968. During his time he made sure that the house was painted and some interior rooms were renovated. Bennett also organised some landscaping to be done as much of the garden had been removed by this time, and a swimming pool was constructed which was as much a fire protection measure as a means of recreation for the novices. The brothers would have been heavily involved in the implementation of these projects. Indeed, the brothers had an essential role at Highden, which included the running of the household, maintenance of the buildings and grounds, and the creation and running of a farm which was considered a model farm in the Manawatu specialising in cattle and pig production.

The Marist association with Highden came to an end in 1990, but not before several generations of novices had spent years at the property that were vital to their religious and spiritual growth. A priest who had been a Highden novice enthused in 1974 that:

'The two years I spent at Highden were two of the happiest of my life and maybe the most important.... May it always remain in the possession of the Society of Mary.'

However, by the late twentieth century the economic realities of maintaining the property and farm in the face of declining numbers of novices could no longer be held at bay and the Marists were forced to sell the section of the property which contained the buildings, but retained the surrounding agricultural land to be farmed on their behalf.

The section containing Highden changed hands several times after the initial sale in 1990 at which time it was used as a wedding and conference centre. In 2000 this function changed as the property was purchased by a Danish company which ran Highden as a complementary and alternative medicines facility, and creative centre. However, this occupancy does not appear to have lasted long and the property changed hands another time. After then lying dormant for several years Highden was purchased by its current owners in December 2008 who are re-establishing it as a luxury accommodation venue, and wedding and conference centre.

Physical Description

Highden is a large estate located in the quiet of the Manawatu, at Awahuri near Feilding, surrounded by a flat, rectangularly arranged rural landscape. The section is irregularly shaped and the house is sited towards the farthest boundary. Approached from the east along a kilometre-long drive, glimpses are seen between trees until the southwest forecourt and Main Entrance come into view. The house is long, and impressive in height and articulation. The exciting turret and verandahs are out of sight. To one side are later buildings associated with the Novitiate; opposite to the south are smaller structures associated with services. Roundabout, the gardens and paths, orchards and drives, are landscaped with dignity and purpose.

The house is two storey timber building, positioned with its long axis running almost (but west of) north to south. At the entrance the house is an imposing symmetry of gables and bays however the overall form of the building is more complex. The main section of the house is the northern part. It has two primary gables which run parallel with the long axis. At the same height, two further cross-gables extend out to the west presenting the grand symmetry of the Main Entrance. The northern most cross-gable also extends beyond, meeting the far gable. At the most northern corner, at the junction of gables, is an octagonal turret with extending, repeating octagonal-shaped verandahs. All around the roof are additional secondary gables and dormers of differing sizes in almost all available locations. This visual activity is a striking sight, giving a commanding presence.

The northern part of the house is the larger part. It was once the major part. At the south end, the two wings were small, parallel gables extending back. However the clever additions of the early twentieth century added about one third the size again in a matched and seamless manner. Originally, the south end of the main part of the house structurally terminated and joined what was the service wing of the house, part-two storey, part-single storey with a reduced height. The extended upper floor covered the entire single storey wings. The original Service Wing of the house is now a substantial, two storeyed double-wing making up about 40 per cent of the entire floor area. While the gables, windows, detail and form repeat the essence of the main part of the house, the scale and complexity are diminished. More recently small concrete additions on the south end have been added.

Highden shows the influence of styles of architecture that was designed to house the affluent middle class. The Queen Anne style, which drew on the Gothic forms being used at the time, makes the greatest impact and the turret is a pre-eminent feature of the house. Decorative effects (gable and verandah decorations, weatherboard motifs and shingles) show designs, both original and modified, that were influenced enthusiastically by styles in current usage. Queen Anne, Edwardian Free Classical, Victorian Gothick and the American Eastern Stick style all feature - illustrating the use, typical during this period, of aesthetically pleasing elements which were often irrespective of loyalty to one style.

The physical presence and style of the house is most clearly seen on the long elevations. The house has a steep corrugated iron roof, a timber-framed structure over a perimeter concrete foundation, rusticated and decorated timber weatherboards, timber joinery and clear glazing.

The west facing long elevation at the Main Entrance has two prominent two storey gables either side of the projecting gabled Entrance Porch. Large hip-roofed bays with double hung sash windows, toplights and dentils, extend from the gables at ground floor. The symmetry of the gables is maintained with decorative diagonal stickwork and secondary upper level window arches and finials. At roof level, two dormer vents with finials sit symmetrical over the entrance. On this, the main part of the house the weatherboards are highly decorated. Stickwork is applied at eave level and upper-floor dado level with horizontal, vertical, bracketed and arched shaping. Scalloped shingles feature within the upper window gable arch and also below the ground floor windows. Dentils are fitted to the primary gable.

Windows feature a variety of styles however on this face all windows are double hung and tall with toplights. A mixture of styles is used - the square Edwardian shape; the rounded Roman shape and the flatter Tudor shape on the ground floor. At the north corner is the large ground floor paned window in the conservatory style. At the upper floor, applied brackets give the appearance of an arched sash. A surprising sunrise motif appears on the upper level gables and the porch gable.

To the right the Service Wing of the house steps back from the main part and the ridge line steps down, twice. Two secondary gables extend out - one with a repeat gable over its windows. Gable ends and weatherboards have a reduced measure of stickwork decoration. Windows are double hung but without toplights, more widely spaced, smaller and (for the upper floor) at a different height reflecting the dropped floor level inside.

Directly on the opposite side of the house is the long façade of the building that faces east across the extensive park lawns. On this elevation, the prominent main part of the house is emboldened by the corner turret. It rises as an extension of the octagonal rooms below. It has walls panelled with a petal diaper pattern, and neo-Classically fashioned ribbon motifs of the Adam style. Its roof is sheet metal, a mix of overlapping metal slates and finely corrugated sheet. Corner brackets support the eaves.

From the roof, five secondary gables extend out, all with diagonal or vertical decoration. Further dormer vents mark the roof. Deep verandahs sweep around the octagonal north corner and halfway down the length of the building at both levels with glazed doors leading to all rooms within.

The verandahs are timber and highly decorated. The upper verandah has double posts, chamfered and grooved with Gothic arch motifs a between them at their heads. Above, the lintel decoration is timber fretwork fashioned to form arches of the Classical style. A large brass bell has been hung from the upper lintel during the Marist's occupation. Balustrading is similarly formed into arched openings, each with a silhouette cross. The double posts are directly supported through to double posts, similarly chamfered, below. Here, at the ground level verandah, lintel trellising has been applied and the balustrading is solid. Large windows and doors are visible within the depth of covered space and the south end of the lower verandah has been enclosed (since the original design) and has received large, tall, paned windows.

While the effect of the corner turret and decorated verandahs, on this substantial part of the house, is one of playful grandeur and a commanding show of presence, the lower second part of the house is modest in comparison. Again, in a manner similar to the west side, this half of the double-wing has reduced stickwork, limited weatherboard decorations, and a greatly diminished window allotment. The change in structure with the lower ridge line is evident. While the change from owners' quarters to service wing is clear in the change from embellished to modest, the 1908 additions are harder to pick. The careful attention to detailing of the timber, the matching form and progression of gables and a similar arrangement of elements suggest additions that were designed to look as if they had always been a part of the house. Given the passing of time, the weathering and the patina of use, this assumption increases.

In contrast to the long facades, the two shorter facades are mere ends. At the north of the house, the verandahs turn the corner and terminate at the gables of the west. This façade includes the distinguishing features of walkways at both levels across to the Novitiate Accommodation Building - an open balustraded upper walkway above a timber colonnade.

The south end of the house is the termination of the double service wing. The two wings (two storey) are separated by several metres. Doors and windows open out into the long corridor-like atrium space. The space, which once was open between two single storey wings, is glazed and partly enclosed from above by roof and rooflights, and at the end by a large roller door to a later two storey concrete addition (in style of a lean-to).


Ground Floor

The ground floor of Highden is a vast array of all the various sized rooms that a large country house might have. The main Entrance Porch is a small room of timber panels, glazing and panel doors. Beyond, the Hall is reached - a magnificent display of exquisite craftsmanship in the use of native timber. Totara, rimu and matai (primarily) has been used throughout in both the structure of the interior as well as linings, joinery and fittings. As spaces, ceilings are high and lavish, floors are richly timbered, and joinery is graciously fitted. Internal doors are generally clear-finish six-panel doors; architraves, skirtings and scotias are elaborately moulded; and fixtures (such as light fittings) and furnishings reinforce a grand elegance. While both natural finishes and painted finishes feature in the house and some restoration work involves new fittings (an example is the fireplaces) the overwhelming impression of this part of the house is of grand reception, elegant living rooms and generous bedrooms.

The Hall is a large timbered reception room of exceptional craftsmanship. Tall Tudor-arch style windows face out on the entrance courtyard and through the Entrance Porch. The ceiling is coffered, floorboards are exposed and walls are panelled and match-lined. At one end, a timber fire surround and chimney breast project out from the wall. At the other, a wide and splayed staircase rises with a gentle lavishness. The stringer and stair dado curve to take in its height. Balustrading is turned; newels and drop newels are solid and turned with an urn-shaped top on the newels.

The size of the upper floor area is supported by a post - to take weight from joists overhead. It is an immense but elegant structural element that is finely carved to add grace to the room. At is head it joins the beam with a capital, finely carved in the Edwardian style with acanthus motifs. The length of the post is chamfered and reeded; its lower portion is carved with panels showing a vine motif; and at its foot is a carved acanthus pedestal.

Further carved timber is found in the panelling and reeding around the room, in the wall panels, the finely carved candled brackets and in occasional motif work, particularly the three small mantelpiece panels.

From the Hall, several rooms can be directly entered. North of the Hall directly to the left of the Entrance Porch, is the Drawing Room, a large living room with the bay and its tall windows facing out onto the Entrance Courtyard. Doors on its north side give access the lower verandah. The room has freshly-smooth plaster walls and ceiling, a deep rolled scotia and an ornate fire surround.

From the Hall, beyond and across to the far side of the house are two large rooms that were once separate and are now joined to form a large Banquet Room with a new large opening between them. To the far corner is the room that includes the octagonal alcove. It has the finishes and trimmings of the Drawing Room but has opening doors in both directions, a tiled fireplace with timber mantel, and (most remarkably) a flat plafond ceiling with mouldings that repeat octagonal shapes, divided and embellished. With its corner position and ample glazing, the room is bright with light despite being beneath the verandah.

Alongside is a room of similar size but much simpler decoration. Windows are fitted into the wall facing out over the park lawn. This is an added wall where the verandah has been in-filled. The ceiling is marked by simple beam-and-joist divisions, lined between in plaster. A dado trim runs around the room. Flooring in both rooms is natural finish timber which occasionally shows its wear.

From the Hall, directly south and incorporating the other bay window facing the entrance courtyard, is the Office - a smaller room with plastered walls and modest trim. Scotia, picture rail and skirtings are less ornate however the windows which feature as an exterior visual statement add great dignity to the room. An exterior door gives direct access through a small gable porch to the outside garden. The porch also allows direct access beyond to the service wing of the original house.

From the hall, and under the stairs, the Buffet Room is reached. This is formed from a hall and two small rooms of the service wing with freshly plasters walls showing the remnants of the original rooms and floors showing the considerable wear they endured.

Ground floor Service Wing

Beyond the Buffet Room along the west service wing are further rooms which once would have contained the operations of a large home. They now provide that facility for the house as a venue. The first room is large with match-lined walls and ceiling, dado trim and two windows facing east. Beyond the service wing, it divides into the stairwell and rooms with access onto the atrium. This is the part that was once single storeyed.

Directly next to the Banquet Room and with access to the Buffet Room is the Kitchens and Pantries. These are commercially fitted out with wall sections, linings and any decorative finishes removed. The kitchen is located in the original service wing of the house and the pantries in the addition. Joinery and finishes are not recently fabricated however the cabinets and stainless steel benches have long since replaced the original layout of both walls and fittings.

First Floor

There are two stairs from the ground floor to first floor level. The main staircase in the Hall leads up at the south end of the main part of the house. The Servants' Stair in the service wing (the position of this has been change from the original design) now rises at the northern end of the Service Wing. Thus the two parts of the house have independent means of access.

Generally the walls above are directly supported by the walls below - a feature which has enabled the load of the floors to be transferred through to the ground. The upper level is almost entirely sleeping accommodations. Where en suites have been installed they have generally been incorporated within walls that already exist, reducing the overall number of bedrooms. Nevertheless there are at least 12 bedrooms upstairs, varying from the sumptuously large to comfortably cosy. The standard of room presentation is extremely high in every room, achieved by careful retention of room features such as rolled scotias, panel doors, the native timber floors and the windows and doors. Fireplaces or fire surrounds remain a feature in some rooms although no longer operating as a functioning heating device and in some cases recently installed to provide a decorative focal point. Picture rails or frieze rails feature in a number of rooms. Architraves, skirtings and scotias vary according to appointment - from the deeply moulded to the brief.

For the bedrooms within the main part of the house, the joinery providing light and access to the balcony is similar for each. Doors are panelled with, alongside, a double hung sash window of the same width. Above these are toplights, and below the window sill the weatherboards are scalloped. The height of the joinery is at its maximum reaching to the underside of the match lining of the verandah roof. The consistency of design of the doors and windows, and their ability to provide easy climate control, adds a sense of elegance to the bedrooms.

There are currently five bedrooms in the main part of the house, the original owners' quarters. They are accessed, as was customary, via the Hall, the Main Staircase and the Upper Hall. Four of the rooms have direct access onto the long verandah balcony.

The Service Wing currently has seven bedrooms. While these are no longer servant's (or possibly children's quarters) they still can be accessed via the Servant's Stair. More often now they are reached through the passage that passes between the two parts of the house.

At the top of the Main Stairs is the large Upper Hall. In size it is identical to the Hall beneath. It has panelling, flooring doors windows and coffered ceilings that are equal also. The staircase with its turned balustrading and magnificent newel posts is a notable feature of the room. The coffered ceiling, while a little lower, is match lined with its beams and lintels expressed with mouldings. Walls are match lined with dado panels beneath and a rolled dado trim. The depth of colour of the timber finish is brightened by six large windows - those windows that appear either side of the Main Entrance.

From this hall there are doors to five bedrooms and a door that goes through the connecting passage.

The Turret Bedroom is the largest of the bedrooms and incorporates a fire surround, the highest level of trim timbers and most importantly the added space and windows of the turret room. Access to the balcony can be gained in both directions - north and east, and the views are both out towards the park lawn and also towards the novitiate Accommodation Building. The bedroom is well lit both from the double hung windows and glazed panel doors as well as the chandelier fittings.

An en suite to the Turret Bedroom has been provided in the room immediately to the west, which may have once been a dressing room -a bathroom with modern and restored fittings, a painted timber wainscot and the window and trim timbers that were part of the original room.

In the extreme northwest corner of the upper floor is the bedroom next in size - a large room with two windows within the gable that marks the front entrance so distinctly. The windows look out over the entrance courtyard. The room is smooth with new finishes but also retains the timber floor, skirtings and an original shape. A door in the far corner leads out to an en suite, positioned in what would once have been verandah space but has long since been enclosed. Access to the balcony is both from the bedroom as well as the en suite.

Across the hall (and into the room within the other corresponding front entrance gable) is a moderately-sized bedroom, with its two windows (within the gable) looking out onto the entrance courtyard. Trim timbers and joinery are retained - well maintained, and the flooring is polished. The en suite for this room passes through where there was once a fireplace and into one of the service rooms of the Service Wing. Here the walls are fresh and fittings are new. A wainscot runs around the room. The window is double hung with a diamond pattern division of its glass.

The remaining two bedrooms of the main part of the house are moderately-sized double rooms that appear on the original plans (and remain) interconnected. Each has a door to the hall and joinery to the balcony. The joinery and finishes match the authenticity of other bedrooms. The fireplace has been removed however both rooms sport mantelpieces. The further bedroom has a door through to the en suite that serves them both and is located in the Service Wing. The en suite which may have once been a Linen Room is long and narrow with a simple window looking out to the park lawn. Finishes are similar to other en suites.

Servant's Wing

From the Upper Hall of the Main part of the house, a door allows passage through to a lobby and down four or five stairs to the Upper Hall of the Servants' Wing. The lobby is fully timber match lined with rolled scotias, heavy lintel brackets and a large skylight the roof space above.

From this point the halls diverge into the two wings. On the east side the hall stretches away with 4 bedrooms of differing configurations (with their en suite arrangements). The bedrooms reflect the different status of this part of the house. While the original materials are consistent, the current condition is high and refurbishment luxurious, the complexity and scale of the elements in this part of the house are modest and mirror the exterior differences. Windows are a single simple double hung sash in each room. Architraves, scotias and skirtings are less complicated. The Servant's Stair drops down next to the atrium (the space between wings) and other rooms await refurbishment.

On the west side is the second wing. The hall diverges back and down a short flight of stairs to the second wing with its three further bedrooms (one with a connecting living room) and a bathroom. Again the decoration and elements are modest however the windows face out towards garden of the entrance courtyard and the floor timbers richly show the continuation of the structure of the house.

Other Features

There are several other buildings and site features that are worthy of note. From the Main Entrance there are three buildings to the north side relating to the house's time as a novitiate: the Chapel, the Accommodation Building and the former Recreation Hall, now a residence. In the gardens there are two spiritual alcoves featuring statues of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Good Shepherd.

Directly in line with the Main Entrance doors and a hundred or so metres to the west is the grotto. The white statue of Our Lady of Lourdes stands on a raised dais within a roughly cemented grotto featuring the Marist crest, surrounded by a cloak of ivy. This was constructed in 1936. The grotto faces towards the house (almost west) and would be visible with the absence of trees between.

Opposite the circa 1900 concrete steps between a pond and the eastern boundary of the property, and on an axis through the centre of the rose garden to the house's turret, is another white statue depicting the Good Shepherd. This too has a niche, but its surround consists of a gabled timber structure with trellis walls.

The Chapel is a small single gabled stucco building with a smaller gable to a large vestibule. It is aligned with the house and is a bordering structure to the courtyard. The front doors are up several steps from the Main Entrance Courtyard and face the open space. However, the original entrance was on the side of the porch. A flagpole is mounted to one side. The chapel has a symmetrical form and a rectangular floor shape. The exterior positioning of a series of windows corresponds to the spaces between large rafters, of the interior. The interior is generous but not lofty. An altar table is set on a raised dais.

The Accommodation Building is a two-storeyed gabled structure of similar construction to the Chapel - timber framed, stucco finished. It is aligned with the Chapel and the house. The entrance at its south end is directly in front of the house. The arrays of timber windows on its east and west facades corresponds to the arrays of single rooms on the interior- at both levels and on both sides of the long building. The rooms are generally identical in their layout and joinery and are distinctive to their purpose as a bedroom with study or devotional space.

The Former Recreation Hall, of similar construction to the Chapel and Accommodation Building is located in line with the two other stucco buildings. While its association to the Novitiate is evident in its appearance, there have been considerable alterations in turning the building into a residence.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1897 -
Highden completed

1908 -
Natusch extension and additions to original residence completed

1936 -
Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes built

1956 -
Chapel, Accommodation Block, and Recreation Hall constructed

Construction Details

Concrete, corrugated iron, glass, metal, plaster, stone, timber.

Completion Date

1st March 2010

Report Written By

K. Astwood & A. Dangerfield

Information Sources

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1897

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol.1, Wellington, 1897

Hodgson, 1991

T. Hodgson, The Big House: Grand & Opulent Houses In Colonial New Zealand, Random, Auckland, 1991

Salmond, 1986

Jeremy Salmond, Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940, Auckland, 1986, Reed Methuen

Society of Mary, 1974

Souvenir of the Golden Jubilee of Highden Novitiate, Awahuri, Palmerston North, New Zealand, Wellington, 1974

Hodgson, 2003

T Hodgson, Proud Possessions: Architectural style and the old New Zealand house, Wellington, 2003

King, 1997

Michael King, God's Farthest Outpost - A History of Catholics in New Zealand. Penguin Books, Auckland, 1997.

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central Region office

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.