Historical Significance or Value
E.R. Wilson was from an early and well-known Invercargill European settler family. The Wilson family was prominent in late nineteenth century Invercargill with Wilson’s father forging a successful business career. Being born and bred in Invercargill, and responsible for many important buildings in that city, Wilson too was an important personality. Therefore the house, which he lived in for almost 40 years by the time of his death in 1941, is of local historical importance.
Wilson House has local significance because it reflects the social status of Wilson, who was able to achieve affluence due to the building projects he undertook which were partly driven by a period of prosperity in Invercargill. Wilson House also has historical significance as a remnant of what seems to have been a key period of growth in the suburb of Gladstone at the beginning of the twentieth century. Wilson was not only involved in this as a resident, but professionally as well through the design of several houses in the area.
Aesthetic Significance or Value:
Wilson House has aesthetic value because it is a prominently elegant abode set within an impressive and picturesque garden environment. This visual appeal is enhanced because it’s landscaping and garden structures were deliberately integrated in the overall design for the property by its architect and owner, E. R. Wilson. Wilson House is also a landmark residence within its general locality and streetscape.
Architectural Significance or Value:
Wilson House is a confident expression of the Tudor style influence popular in New Zealand domestic architecture in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods, through the form of the building, the external stickwork gable end decoration, and internal features, such as the impressive but decoratively and proportionally well integrated staircase. Designed by prominent Invercargill architect, E.R. Wilson, as his family home, this building can be considered his domestic architecture manifesto in the early twentieth century, and therefore it has architectural importance. Wilson House has added value as a circa 1903 large family home of relatively high architectural integrity, with inherent craftsmanship, which is set amid garden features and structures also designed by Wilson.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:
The Wilsons were an early European settler family in Invercargill. This family prospered through business acumen, and from this base E.R. Wilson was able to establish himself as an architect and develop into a prominent citizen in his own right. As such, Wilson House is representative of the opportunities that New Zealand presented and prosperity that some early immigrants were able to eventually achieve and physically represent through impressive residences.
Tudor style houses, like Wilson House, were particularly popular among the upper echelons of New Zealand society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which is reflective of the desire to create dwellings that befitted and extolled affluence and social status.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:
From a prominent Southland family, E. R. Wilson became one of Invercargill’s preeminent architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but he was also influential within the profession nationally through his senior roles within the New Zealand Institute of Architects.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of theplace:
The design of Wilson House reflects popular architectural theory of the time through the holistic approach to the design of the building and its setting. The successful integration of the main house and its garden landscaping and structures is an accomplished example of this philosophy, and one carried out with a high level of craftsmanship.
Summary of Significance or Values
This place was assessed against, and found to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, and g.
It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.
Ancient stories tell the origins of southern Maori, with the waka of Aoraki becoming Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island), and its sternpost, Te Taurapa a Te Waka o Aoraki becoming Bluff Hill (also known as Motupohue). The Maui traditions are told in the south, with Maui arriving in his waka Maahunui, and pulling up the stone to be used as an anchor - Te Puka o Te Waka a Maui (Rakiura). Maui's achievements are recognised in place names in the south, including Omaui near Bluff, and Te Tapuwae o Maui and Te Rereka o Maui in Fiordland (Maui's footstep and Maui's leap).
Stories of the original explorers of the south are also told. The explorer Rakaihautu journeyed through the south with place names recalling his journey.
After Rakaihautu came the Takitimu waka with Tamatea Pokai Whenua. The waka was overcome by three waves O-te-wao, O-roko and O-kaka, coming to rest near the mouth of the Waiau (Waimeha). The three waves continued across the low lying lands and ended up as features of the landscape.
The early generations learnt about the land and its resources: stone sources were found, and stone (especially pounamu) became an important trading item. Kaika were established close to resources. Rights and resources and places were established, and traditions established which protected the manawhenua.
When traditions were written down Kati Mamoe and Kai Tahu dominate the history after Waitaha, with stories of war and peace, and intermarriage that spread through the south. In the early 1820s there was further fighting, with muskets first being used at this time, with major sieges in the more northern area of the South Island leading a retreat to the south. Ruapuke Island became the centre of leadership in the south, its isolation giving a measure of security. The final fight with the northern taua of Te Puoho and his followers at Tuturau in 1835-1836, where Te Puoho was defeated, saw the end of warfare in the region.
According to the Ngai Tahu Statutory acknowledgments in the settlement important villages along the south coast included: Te Wae Wae (Waiau), Taunoa (Orepuki), Kawakaputaputa (Wakapatu), Oraka (Colac bay), Aparima, Turangiteuaru, Awarua (Bluff), Te Whera, Toe Toe (mouth of the Mataura River) and Waikawa. Mokamoka (also known as Mokemoke or Mokomoko) was a settlement at the Invercargill estuary sustained by the rich resources found there. Tauranga waka occur up and down the coast linking land and sea trails with mahinga kai resources. Whaling boats plied the waters from the 1820s leading to changes in settlement patterns and resource use.
1853 saw the Murihiku purchase which left Maori south of the Waitaki (excluding the Otakou Block) with only 4,630 acres, the start of a long quest by southern Maori for justice questioning the legality of the purchase as well as the inadequacy of the land reserved.
Invercargill Township was laid out by chief surveyor John Turnbull Thomson in 1856, Thomson choosing the location for its centrality for both sea-based and land-based traffic, though the surrounding low lying swampy ground made the new settlement practically inaccessible. As with Dunedin further north, the development of the town was given an enormous boost with the gold rushes of the early 1860s.
By the 1860s Invercargill’s population numbered around 1000, and continued to flourish reaching 2400 over the next 15 year period, by which time Invercargill had overtaken Riverton as the main town in Southland. Edmund Richardson Fitz Wilson (1871-1941), better known as E. R. Wilson, was from a prominent Invercargill family who moved there in 1864, and himself went onto become a well-known local architect. All of Henry Fitz and Dorothy Wilson’s children were born in the burgeoning town and the family asserted itself locally in business and religion, with Henry being heavily involved in the Hospital and Bluff Harbour Boards, as well as within the local Anglican parish. Two of Wilson’s brothers went onto become priests. However, Wilson ventured in a slightly different direction. In 1897 he completed a seven year apprenticeship with Invercargill architectural practice MacKenzie and Gilbertson, becoming a partner in Mackenzie and Wilson upon the retirement of Charles Gilbertson.
Wilson’s Invercargill Town Hall (1905-06) has been cited as an example of the ‘prosperity of New Zealand’s Southern most city.’ If this is the case, then the house he designed for his family a few years earlier is reflective of the comfortable living which was the reward for being one of area’s popular architects. Wilson had purchased a large section of land in Invercargill’s northern suburb of Gladstone, fronting Grey Street and Gladstone Terrace, in 1901. This area had initially been owned by Walter Henry Pearson who had been Commissioner of Crown Lands in Invercargill. The early twentieth century appears to have been a growth period in Gladstone with Wilson designing a house for his neighbour, F. D. Morrah, in 1903, the same year as it is thought he did his own. It was also in 1903 that Wilson became the sole owner of MacKenzie and Wilson, continuing to practice under this existing name.
Wilson’s large house on Grey Street, replete with landscaped garden also designed by Wilson, became the home of his young and expanding family. Wilson had married the previous year, with his bride being Elizabeth Alice Mary Dickinson, daughter of B. A. Dickinson (1840-1908), a longstanding employee of the Bank of New Zealand in Invercargill and founder of the Invercargill Building Society. After suffering the distress of a stillborn child in 1902, the couple’s eldest son, born early in 1904, was the first of their five children to grow up in the new house. Indeed, this growth is manifest in the building itself with all members of the family leaving their mark on it by charting their heights into the dining room door frame. The house and garden are said to have been well-known because of its location along the banks of the Waihopai River, and in the early 1900s the Wilson’s entertained many visitors who were out on ‘river walks.’
For an architect it is said that one of the hardest things to design is their own home, because they are conscious of the fact it will no doubt be perceived by potential clients as the archetype of their architectural approach. Therefore, Wilson’s home, which he seems to have lived in until his death in 1941, can in effect be viewed as his design manifesto. It tells us that his domestic architecture was influenced by the revival in Tudor architecture in the late nineteenth century, which was particularly popular in New Zealand domestic buildings of the well-to-do. This building also demonstrates that Wilson was accomplished in using this style and the standard materials of the early Edwardian period to full effect.
The Elizabethan revival style aspects of Wilson House reflect the popularity of this type of architecture in New Zealand at the time, which is said to have been exemplified in the works of North Island architect, Charles Tilleard Natusch (1859-1952). Although not as grand a some of Natusch’s buildings, such as Matapiro Station Homestead and Maungaraupi Homestead, Wilson House shows similarities in its form to some of Natusch’s houses including, Mahoe (1904) in Feilding.
The first consideration of Wilson was no doubt to finish the house and then turn his attention to the garden. It is assumed that this would have taken some time, but the key structures, such as the streetfront gateway and western wall, and the patio terracing, may have been completed by about 1905.
Wilson died in 1941, leaving an accomplished legacy of buildings such as the original Southland Hospital buildings (1935-37) in Invercargill, and St Mary’s Church in Christchurch (1927). Wilson also designed the extension to St John’s Church (1913), and this important contribution is reflected within the building with a font in the narthex commemorating Wilson. Wilson was also an early and longstanding member of the Southland Branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects (NZIA) and continued in the institute for 30 years. Rather than merely being affiliated with the NZIA, in later life Wilson took an active role within the organisation, serving as the Southland representative on its national council during the 1930s after a presidency in the late 1920s.
The house on Grey Street appears to have been sold out of the family upon the death of Elizabeth in 1955, however, the Wilson’s original two acre property had been subdivided before then.
Wilson House, circa 1903, is a large family home, constructed mostly of brick, with walls and other garden features dating from a similar period. Mature trees and rhododendrons screen the building from its street front on Grey Street, however, its scale means that its Elizabethan/Tudor style stickwork decorated second storey gables can be seen from some distance among the residential buildings which surround it. Indeed, the house’s initial property stretched northwards and was bordered by the Waihopai Stream, and although now subdivided and occupied by several mid to late twentieth century residences, the initial property can still be read. This is primarily through the retention of Wilson House’s original western brick lane wall and also the Wilson’s former boatshed on Gladstone Terrace, which has been converted into a garage.
Despite mid-twentieth century subdivision, the house is still set within a reasonably large residential section. The main building is at the southern end of the property with a large patio area on its northern side, which is defined by small concrete retaining walls that are connected to the lower sizeable lawn by a set of steps. The garden structures are visually linked by concrete sphere motifs known as squire’s balls. For example, the entrance gate and steps are flanked by these spheres, the arched brick accessway in the rear wall has one positioned above its apex, as does the hipped roof of the former boatshed on what is now a neighbour’s property.
The design of these structures and the landscaping seem to complete the atmosphere that Wilson envisaged for his home, both complementing the scale and aesthetics of the main building. This type of holistic design approach for house and garden was fashionable in New Zealand at the time as a result of the growing popularity of Arts and Crafts philosophy.
As one would expect given that Wilson seems to have been an enthusiastic gardener, the property also has a simple gabled corrugated iron clad gardeners shed to the west of the main house. It is from this building that the lane wall stretches northwards, and there is a similar smaller section of this wall between the east end of the shed and rear porch of the house. Behind the original garden shed is a modern garage building.
Despite this later building being a timber structure with its appearance dominated by stickwork and battening, both Mahoe and Wilson House demonstrate characteristic Tudor revival style features, including a two-storey form dominated by a main gable and secondary gables. In the case of Wilson house the main gable runs from the north to south, intersecting with another large gable to the east. Each of these second floor gable ends have decorative stickwork, which is highlighted by being painted black, therefore contrasting with the white of the background plastering. These gable ends break-up and soften the effect of the red double brick used predominantly in all of the walls of the building. The foremost red hue of the building is also repeated in the clay tiles of the expansive roof. As such, the gable ends form a point of interest which draw the viewers eye upwards and create a vertical emphasises.
Typical of Tudor revival style architecture, Wilson House’s main bulk is also softened through the use of adjunct structures. At ground level there is a gable structure on the southwest corner. Despite the corrugated iron clad roof, which is not uniform the clay tiles used on the rest of the house, this does not seem to be a later addition as it conforms with the early twentieth century footprint of the building.
This utility area was also purposely partially screened from view using a stepped brick parapet on the northwest corner of the main façade of the building. This lean-to section seems to have been added after 1935 in a sympathetic manner, which because it is well-integrated suggests it may be of Wilson design and therefore date to the period immediately before his death. This inference of date is supported by the section having a bay window similar to those in typical 1930s-40s bungalows. The other window in the section is round headed and multi-paned.
In turn this leant-to is connected to the sunroom and verandah which adjunct the north façade of the building. The main entrance is beneath the broad eave of the east gable, this east façade also has a bay window with lean-to roof.
Other features include a preponderance of sash windows, containing a multi-paned upper sash. Generally, these windows have concrete architraves, and the external doorways have similar lintels. The three brick chimneys pieces are also important to aesthetic of the building, with the main two flanking the north gable and adding to the vertical emphasis created by the gable end decoration. Above the roof these chimneys demonstrate the bricklayer’s skill, having vertical ribs and corbel-like ornamentation at their summits. Making these utilitarian necessities into decorative and aesthetic features was common during the period in which Wilson House was constructed.
The overall form and materials of this building appear to be relatively original, with the exception of some instances which have already been detailed. Another instance of change was in 2000 when the back porch is recorded as having been reconstructed. It would also seem that the building was re-pointed in the late twentieth century as it was showing signs of degradation by 1983.
The rooms of Wilson House revolve around its sizeable entrance hall. Doors to the eastern dining room, the living areas to the west, and the bathroom and kitchen along the south side of the building, open into the entrance hall. It is also here that the staircase is located.
A notable aspect of the current dining room, located within the east gable section, is the Wilson family growth chart inscribed into the door frame. Subsequent occupants of the house have also repeated this tradition. Another feature of the room is the brown tile surrounded fireplace and its elaborate carved timber mantel. This is a contrast to its much simpler brick with timber mantel counterpart in the living room.
To the south end of the entrance hall are the bathroom and kitchen areas. The current kitchen is fitted in modern style and its long thin form seems to have been the result of interior alterations, such as the removal of walls, in 1996 or potentially earlier in the late twentieth century.
The changes to the kitchen seem to have included lowering the ceiling, which was apparently also done in the adjoining family room, although the stud height in this open plan space seems to still conform to that elsewhere. The ceiling in this living space has substantial exposed timber support beams, stained darkly. From the physical evidence it appears that this room was initially divided by a wall, perhaps defining earlier separate kitchen and lounge areas. The previous individual spaces are also apparent because the original moulded skirting, present in most rooms, is cut-off abruptly where the opening has been cut. The western section of the open plan space is also differentiated by an encircling plate rail. It is only these changes to the living area, kitchen, and bathrooms which have altered the interior layout and linings of the building to any extent.
A small sunroom off of the living space encloses the end of the verandah. The construction of the sunroom probably coincided with the building of the lean-to on the northwest corner, which it overlaps with.
The living area leads back into the entrance hall whose main feature is the impressive staircase. The original fittings and fixtures in the house are quite simple but executed in a way, and of materials, which demonstrate a high level of craftsmanship and care in keeping with the overall aesthetic of the building. As such, the building is indicative of the prosperity of its owners without being ostentatious. The staircase is an exception to this simplicity in its role as the showpiece of the house. This dog-legged stair has a mid-stair landing, which leads into a hall with in-built linen cupboard and then a bathroom area which has modern linings and fittings, before the stair continues on to the bedroom level of the second storey.
The balustrade and open string decoration are relatively elaborate and give a clear signal of the Tudor/Elizabethan revival influence which guided Wilson, particularly with the mid-baluster string of stylised heraldic shield shapes. The newel posts continue this robust form of ornamentation, with incised quatrefoils and acorn-shaped newel caps. The exception to this is the ground level newel post which, although it shares the same mid-post fluting, has more intricately carved floral emblems and newel cap, giving the impression that the subsequent newel posts are stylised versions of this entrance hall newel post. This is appropriate given that it is located in the most public space in the house.
The upper level features four bedrooms contained within the house’s substantial gables. The master bedroom is immediately to the east of the second floor stair landing, and has a couplet of large sash windows that are located directly above the dining room bay window. An aspect which distinguishes this room from the secondary bedrooms is its parquet floor. The subsequent smaller bedrooms have standard exposed floorboards, and all of the fireplaces have been removed. These second storey rooms all feature push plates and matching doorknobs, which appear to be original fittings.
Constructed and garden landscaping begun
Addition of northwest corner lean-to
Kitchen and bathroom areas altered and re-fitted
Back porch reconstructed
Brick, concrete, glass, timber
18th February 2011
Report Written By
Jeremy Salmond, Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940, Auckland, 1986, Reed Methuen
Shaw, 1997 (2003)
Peter Shaw, A History of New Zealand Architecture, Auckland, 1997
P. Sorrell, (ed) Murihiku: The Southland Story, Southland to 2006 Book Project Committee, Invercargill, 2006
Jane Thomson, (ed)., Southern People: A Dictionary of Otago Southland Biography, Dunedin: Longacre Press/Dunedin City Council, 1998.
T Hodgson, Proud Possessions: Architectural style and the old New Zealand house, Wellington, 2003
A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Otago/Southland Area 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.