Historic Savage Crescent state houses get upgrades
January 31, 2024 | Stories
Layout of the historic Savage Cres precinct (courtesy of Manawatū Heritage)

This is a story from our monthly newsletter, Heritage this Month.

David Watt | Te Papaioea Palmerston North

Kainga Ora has been busy completing upgrades to many of the historic state houses in Palmerston North’s Savage Crescent. 

Built between 1938 and 1945, Savage Crescent was one of the first state housing developments in New Zealand constructed under Government direction. It was named in honour of first Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage.  

In 1937 Prime Minister Savage opened the nation’s first state house in Miramar, Wellington. An iconic photograph taken at the opening shows him assisting the proud new tenants, lifting a cumbersome dining table towards the threshold through a cheering throng of people. That throng then stomped through the new home, muddying the floors and fingerprinting the freshly painted fixtures and eventually had to be firmly asked to leave by the tenants. 

This first state home has been recognised as a Category 1 Historic Place on the New Zealand Heritage List Rārangi Kōrero. Having been developed shortly after as another early housing initiative, the state houses at Savage Crescent are included as a heritage conservation area in the Palmerston North District Plan since 1999.

Prime Minister M. J. Savage assists with the furniture (Auckland Weekly News courtesy of Auckland Libraries)

Kainga Ora has been working its way through 60 of the state houses in Savage Crescent, completing refits with insulation and double glazing, and installing heat pumps. While about 70% of the crescent’s homes are now in private hands, Regional Director, Graeme Broderick says eventually all remaining 77 homes in state ownership will be made over.   

A total of 245 homes were constructed in the years encompassing WWII. They have housed a number of Palmerston North’s leading citizens over the years including former Cabinet Ministers Trevor De Cleene and Steve Maharey.  

The design of Savage Crescent was influenced by the ‘garden suburbs’ movement from England and the United States and planned to create a sense of community where neighbours would become friends, locals would look out for each other, and ‘chewing the fat’ over the back fence would be commonplace. Curved streets, varied housing styles and lower housing density were embraced to provide an ideal environment for family living.  

Prime Minister M. J. Savage addressing the gathering at the first State house (Auckland Weekly News courtesy of Auckland Libraries)

A central open park space, located in the middle of the housing area that many of the houses’ yards back on to, is a feature that greatly appealed to the families that took up residence. Children could safely play free from the hazards of the street, and locals could gather on summer evenings for picnics and a game of friendly cricket. Communal garages, another innovative original feature was later removed. The housing precinct was completed at the end of the war in 1945.   

Graeme Broderick says that the homes they have been working on needed a lot of attention. “By bringing them up to and above building code requirements they have been given another 50 years of good service. They will be warmer, healthier, and more functional and it’s great to be able to bring these properties up to standard whilst retaining their historic aesthetics.” 

Nominate a place for the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero
First State House (List No. 1360)
Anyone can nominate a place for the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero. To discuss a potential nomination, contact your nearest Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga office.
Savage Crescent
State houses
Watt, David (author)

David Watt | Senior Outreach Advisor Regional Services
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