Historical Significance or Value
The Frank Sargeson House is of very great historical significance for its close association with the life and work of Frank Sargeson (1903-1982). Sargeson was New Zealand's first full-time professional writer of fiction, an activity that he carried out from this bach for most of his literary life. His short stories and novels turned New Zealand literature in a new direction, influencing a new generation of young writers, and gaining worldwide acclaim from the prestigious Oxford Companion to English Literature, the Cambridge Guide to English Literature, and from international figures such as John Lehmann and E.M. Forster. Wrote Kevin Ireland, 'His immense erudition and his network of international literary contacts made the fibrolite bach a beacon of intellectual sophistication in the benighted 1950s.'
The house is important for its close association with other major New Zealand literary figures of the twentieth century, including Janet Frame. The house and its contents reflect significant aspects of New Zealand's social history during the middle decades of the 1900s, including attitudes to gardening, bohemian living and homosexuality.
The Frank Sargeson House has architectural significance as a possible vernacular expression of Vernon Brown's ideas. It is a tangible evocation of Sargeson's espousal of the 'ordinary person' theme in his works. Plain and unembellished, it has been equated to Sargeson's writing as well as embodying his life.
The Frank Sargeson House has very high cultural significance for its close association with the development of New Zealand literature in the mid twentieth century. It has social significance for reflecting unconventional attitudes and behaviours associated with notable parts of the literary community in New Zealand. Its garden can be seen to have spiritual significance as the resting place for Frank Sargeson's ashes.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The Frank Sargeson House and its contents reflect important and representative aspects of New Zealand history, including the development of professional writing, social non-conformity, and attitudes to homosexuality.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The house, its contents and garden are highly significant for their close association with Frank Sargeson, and many other significant members of the New Zealand literary world.
The place is linked with ideas of importance in New Zealand history, including the development of a voice for the 'ordinary person' and New Zealand English in New Zealand literature.
(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history
The Frank Sargeson House has a considerable ability to provide knowledge of twentieth-century New Zealand literary and social history through its extensive chattels and association with written archives.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place
There is strong community association with the Frank Sargeson House. The Frank Sargeson Trust comprises many prominent members of the New Zealand literary community, who formed the Trust to preserve and promote the property as New Zealand's first literary museum in 1986.
(f) The potential of the place for public education
Owned by a literary Trust, open to the public, and containing evocative remnants of Frank Sargeson's life, the house and its garden have high potential for public education about New Zealand literary history. It is very accessible, being located on an arterial route in New Zealand's largest city, and has featured on a North Shore Heritage Trail of the North Shore's literary heritage.
(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place
The Frank Sargeson House commemorates the literary achievements and life of Frank Sargeson, and can be seen as the symbolic heart of New Zealand literary life in the mid twentieth century. The site is also the resting place for Frank Sargeson's ashes.
(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places
The Frank Sargeson House is one of three literary houses in New Zealand open to visitors. It also contains an unusually extensive quantity of related chattels.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape
The building is one of a group of 1930s-1950s houses linked to the literary establishment on Auckland's North Shore. These existed partly because of Sargeson's influence and partly because of the North Shore's low land values and attractive coastline. Nearby residences in Takapuna include those of Kevin Ireland (poet and novelist), Keith Sinclair (historian), Graeme Lay (short story writer and novelist), and Karl Wolfskehl (poet).
This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The available text is the original citation considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration. Information in square brackets indicates modifications made after the paper was considered by the NZHPT Board.
Located in Takapuna on Auckland's North Shore, the land (allotment 32, lot 86) upon which the Frank Sargeson House presently stands was initially part of a parcel of allotments 29, 30, 31 and 32 that was transferred by Crown Grant to Patuone in 1852. In the 1920s the property was owned by William Joseph Napier and the Houchen family, amongst others. William Joseph Napier was a prominent barrister and solicitor who was a disciple of Sir George Grey, frequently staying with Grey at Kawau Island. He was also a legal advisor for two head chiefs of Samoa, Malietoa the elder and Mataafa, and was also at one time the solicitor for the Government of Tonga. The Reverend Edward Houchen and his family left England in November 1883 to serve the Diocese of Christchurch, arriving there in 1884. Houchen was in temporary charge of the parish of St. Marks, Remuera and St. Mary's, Parnell, and died in 1902.
On 8th October 1924, the Sargeson property was conveyed to the Davey family, at a time when Takapuna was becoming increasingly popular as a seaside resort on Auckland's North Shore. The quarter-acre plot may already have contained a single-room timber bach, and was located a few hundred metres from Takapuna Beach. The Davey family travelled to use the hut during the summer holidays, having previously spent their holidays renting a bach at Castor Bay.
Frank Sargeson and the Frank Sargeson House
Frank Sargeson was born Norris Frank Davey in Hamilton on March 23, 1903. After he left school he worked in a solicitor's office in Hamilton and studied law extramurally from Auckland University. He qualified as a solicitor in 1921.
In 1927, at the age of 24 he sailed to England where he first began to write. The following year he returned to New Zealand and tried unsuccessfully to combine fiction writing with the law profession. At this time he adopted the name Frank Sargeson, a symbolic rejection of his past in favour of a new future as a writer.
In 1931, as the Great Depression settled on New Zealand, Frank Sargeson moved into the Davey family's bach in Takapuna, living off relief work and the vegetables he grew in the garden around the house, including peaches, grapes, pumpkins, rock melons, sweet corn and kumara. He had temporarily lived in the bach in 1926, but his permanent move to Takapuna is likely to have been at least partly influenced by a desire to escape attention associated with a conviction for homosexual activity in Wellington in 1929.
After experimenting with various types of writing, Sargeson was published in the literary form with which he was to become so closely associated, the short story. His career as a published writer began in 1935 with the appearance of 'Conversation with my Uncle' in the radical Christchurch weekly review Tomorrow. In 1936 Sargeson's first book appeared, published by the Unicorn Press and called Conversation with My Uncle and Other Sketches. Another short story collection, A Man and His Wife, was published in 1940. His work at this time adopted the unusual approach of using the language and rhythms of everyday speech in New Zealand English. This was a method that Sargeson employed as 'an appropriate language to deal with the material of New Zealand life'. His early stories particularly dwelt on the constricting impact of a puritan and materialistic society.
In 1946, after 15 years living in the Davey bach, Sargeson's father agreed to transfer the ownership of the bach and property to him. The reason for this measure was to give Sargeson security of ownership and a basis for borrowing money to build a new house on the site. By this time the existing bach was near-derelict in what was becoming a respectable middle-class suburb. Neighbours had lodged complaints with the Council about the state of the drains and the lack of sanitary and bathing facilities so Sargeson had an architect friend, Vernon Brown, draw up plans for a three-roomed cottage. Vernon Brown is credited with developing a vernacular approach to domestic architecture in New Zealand, and created houses mostly for a group of left-leaning Auckland professionals. Although Sargeson could not afford to build the cottage, he would placate the neighbours by measuring out bogus foundations.
Sargeson capitalised part of his pension in 1948 and raised £400 towards the cost of a new house. Additional sums from his relatives Oakley Sargeson and Rachel Davey ensured that building could begin that year. However, because the Vernon Brown house plans would have been too expensive to build, Sargeson turned to his builder friend, George Haydn, who designed an alternative house out of cheaply available materials and built it at cost. Sargeson's only stated requirements were for 'lots of bookshelves, a kauri bench top and a sunken toilet'. It is likely that some aspects of the design - notably the monopitch roof, the open-plan spaces and built-in furniture, which were all signatures of Brown's work - were at least partly based on that architect's original proposal.
The new Fibrolite house was under construction in the front part of the Esmonde Road section by May 1948, and in the following month Sargeson was in residence. The old bach at the rear was demolished and burned. Sargeson wrote in his autobiography how the new building was 'divided into three rooms; first a large living area with, thank God, a fireplace, besides a built-in couch where I could sleep (and the carpenters had covered the walls with built-in shelves); and this area was divided from kitchen conveniences by a counter at which I and my friends and guests would eat while seated on longish-legged stools. The rest of the square was occupied by a small bedroom where a long writing table which was lowered at one end for typing had been built in; and there was as well the bathroom with convenience, hand basin big enough to wash my clothes in, and water-proof box with shower...' Partly due to its simple appearance and informal layout, the residence continued to be referred to by Sargeson and others as a 'bach'.
The style of the building was not however totally to Sargeson's liking, since he believed that a writing space should be internalised as 'a private retreat for one's personal and recuperative occasions'. Claimed Sargeson, 'My builder, who was also my architect, believing that houses should be flooded with light, had over-provided me with windows: they added up to fourteen, and most were a mistake.'
The new accommodation also saw an increase in visitors and it was about this time that Sargeson decided to buy an army hut for his friend Jack Whewell, so that Jack could live on the section and help out with gardening and household chores. Sargeson bought the hut from a photographer in Mairangi Bay and had it moved to Esmonde Road behind the new house in 1949.
Both before and after the construction of his new dwelling , Sargeson was generous in his assistance to young writers and supported many who later became known as the 'Sons of Sargeson', including Maurice Duggan, G.R. Gilbert, A.P. Gaskell, John Reece Cole, D.W. Ballantyne and Roderick Finlayson. Later 'sons' included Kevin Ireland, Maurice Gee and Bruce Mason. Sargeson's new house became an important focus for the New Zealand literary world and has been said to have been the country's most famous literary gathering place. German poet Karl Wolfskehl, R.A.K. Mason, C.K. Stead, Denis Glover, A.R.D. Fairburn, Kendrick Smithyman, Ian Hamilton, Graeme Lay, and the colourful Greville Texidor, for example, often met there.
Perhaps the most notable of Sargeson's protégés was Janet Frame, who wrote her first published novel, Owls Do Cry while living in the army hut at the rear of the main dwelling in 1955-1956. The house, and a character based on Sargeson - 'Mario Fabro' - figure significantly in C.K. Stead's novel, All Visitors Ashore. Janet Frame later described Sargeson's mentoring as the 'Great Irrigation Scheme of New Zealand literature'. The narrow channel he made all alone, she said, led eventually to the growth of an orchard - and 'what an orchard'.
The new house was furnished over time with gifts from these and other friends. One of the earliest was the nine-valve radio, built and installed by fellow writer, Bob Gilbert. While Janet Frame stayed in the hut, she produced a patchwork quilt that still sits on Sargeson's bed. Today, these and many of Sargeson's other belongings remain, ranging from his Olivetti typewriter to a sickle for cutting the rough grass around the outside of the house.
Sargeson faced a difficult period of writing in the 1950s, and it was several years before a publisher could be found for his novel, Memoirs of a Peon. However, by the 1960s and 1970s, his career was highly productive. He published the novels Joy of the Worm, Man of England Now, The Hangover, Sunset Village and the three volumes of his autobiography. In 1972 he was awarded an O.B.E., but declined the honour as a protest against the failure of the government to establish a public lending right to authors. He did accept, however, the honorary degree Doctor of Literature from the University of Auckland, conferred upon him in 1974.
During this period, modifications to the property included the demolition of the army hut, evidently before 1963, after it had become derelict and overrun by rats. The house itself was altered in 1967 after Sargeson was left with an inheritance upon the death of his aunt, Dinah Runciman late in 1966. With this money he planned to build another room onto his house for his lifetime friend and lover Harry Doyle. Doyle was a suspended horse trainer ten years his senior, who came and went from Esmonde Road for more than 30 years and lived there from 1967 until 1971, the year that he died. The architect, Nigel Cook designed the new room, which opened onto a porch to give Doyle a degree of privacy. The addition may also have allowed an appearance of social respectability at a time when male homosexuality remained illegal. Sargeson was publicly secretive about his sexuality until the publication of his memoirs in the 1970s, and maintained a resolute silence about his 1929 conviction his whole life.
The house surrounds also continued to change during this period, particularly after the Auckland Harbour Bridge was built in 1959, when Esmonde Road was designated as the main Takapuna-Devonport feeder road. Janet Frame noted of her 1963 visit that '[the] end of Frank's road, once secluded with mangroves, swamp sea, had been extended, the swamp filled in, the land reclaimed...Frank's bach had been almost surrounded by 'units' built upon what was now expensive 'real estate'...I felt sad as I bent forward to clear the ever-growing hedge with the honeysuckle as its sweet parasite, and trod the path that was now set with concrete paving stones, like stepping stones from one world to another '.
Frank Sargeson suffered from ill-health during the late 1970s, but in 1981 this became acute. He died early in 1982, a few weeks before his 79th birthday, having spent most of his literary life at 14 Esmonde Road.
The Frank Sargeson Trust and the Frank Sargeson House
Sargeson willed his home and contents to his literary executor, Christine Cole Catley, after which it was decided to preserve the home as a literary museum. The interior of the house was cleaned and its contents removed at this time for safekeeping. Many of his papers were deposited with institutions such as the Turnbull Library. The remainder of his belongings were returned to the house to replicate how its interior appeared in the mid-1960s, when Sargeson was at his writing peak. Outside, trees and bushes at the front of the bach were removed and a fence was built around the section. In order to raise money to operate a literary fellowship in his name, the rear garden was subdivided in 1984 in preparation for sale, and two townhouses were constructed in 1986. By 1986, the Sargeson Trust had been formed to administer the property. In 1990, Sargeson's ashes were scattered under a loquat tree in the front garden of the house. The event was carried out without religious ceremony, according to the instructions in his will, and was commemorated in a poem by Kevin Ireland, 'Ash Tuesday': 'Old friends always/take each other lightly,/so when we held your body//in a paper bag/no bigger than a bull's/scrotum and took turns//at jigging you out/under a loquat tree,/our only fear was that//the wind might blow you/completely away/before we could get you back//to your old roots...'
Few structural changes have occurred to the house since Sargeson's death. A switchboard fire in 1996 led the firm founded by the original builder, George Haydn, and his business partner George Rollett to undertake essential maintenance work on the structure at its own expense. Today the house and its contents continue to be administered by the Frank Sargeson Trust. [Anyone wishing to visit the Frank Sargeson House should contact the North Auckland Research Centre at Takapuna Library to make an appointment to visit the house with a staff member].
The single-storey house is located in a small garden, immediately beside the busy Esmonde Road. It is surrounded by residential housing, including two townhouses located in its original back garden. The structure is concealed behind a hedge and enveloping trees, with an original pathway leading from the road to an entrance at the rear of the structure. The current main entrance is through an open porch on the side of the building, erected as part of the 1967 additions.
The building consists of an original 6.4 m. (21 ft.) square structure, with a 1967 one-bedroom addition in a similar design projecting from its south-eastern corner. Externally, its walls are of unpainted flat Fibrolite with standard Fibrolite battens on the vertical joints. The windows are standard side-hung single-light sashes, while the doors are standard three-light timber. The roof is of monopitch type with exposed rafters, and is clad with painted, corrugated galvanized steel. The roof style appears to have survived from Vernon Brown's original design, possibly along with other aspects of the building such as its open-plan layout and built-in furniture.
Inside the building, there is a stud height of c.3 m. (c.9 ft. 6 ins.) at the front, or northern side of the house, declining to c.2.5 m. (c.8 ft.) at the back. All of the interior surfaces have been left unfinished, with tongue and groove rimu on the floor, Pinex softboard on the walls and ceilings, and unpainted rimu joinery throughout. The original rooms contain a variety of built-in furniture, including beds, bookcases, cupboards, a kitchen bench and writing desks.
When built, the layout of the house comprised three rooms: a bedroom, an open plan living room and kitchen, and a bathroom and toilet. An additional bedroom with porch was added in 1967. These, together with the front garden, are described in further detail:
THE FRONT GARDEN: Once entered through the famous hole in the hedge, it has a wild, free-spirit atmosphere with its canopy of trees including the coastal N.Z. karo and exotic loquat, avocado and paw paw. These were mostly planted after Frank Sargeson's death, and in the front garden the Trustees scattered Frank Sargeson's ashes. In his original bach garden Sargeson grew vegetables to supplement his meagre earnings. He was noted for his self-sufficiency and is said to have been one of the first people in the country to grow peppers. Friend and fellow writer Kevin Ireland plants seeds from Sargeson's peppers each year, in continuing tribute.
THE OPEN PORCH: It was here, on the bench seat amongst the trained grapevine, that Robin Morrison took his famous portrait of Frank Sargeson in 1975. The portrait is now with the Alexander Turnbull Library Collection in Wellington. The porch roof is made of both corrugated galvanised steel and transluscent roofing.
HARRY DOYLE'S ROOM: Entering the house across the porch and through the bamboo-curtained front door, you are in the particleboard room that was added in 1967 for Sargeson's long-term friend and partner, Harry Doyle, to come and go as he pleased. The room was designed by the architect, Nigel Cook, a family friend, and is light and sunny surrounded by windows with an outlook onto the porch and garden. On the wall is one of a number of paintings in the house by Frank's friend, Keith Patterson, dating from the 1940s and 1950s. There is a built-in cupboard on one side of the room with a detached bookshelf filled with back copies of Landfall and other New Zealand and overseas literary review journals. An old Kelvinator fridge with one leg missing is propped up against the wall.
THE BEDROOM: The room through the doorway is dim in the afternoon as the only window faces east and catches the morning sun. In here is a built-in bed and writing desk lowered for typing that was given to Sargeson by Christine and John Reece Cole, and the Olivetti typewriter, on which he typed on green paper as it was 'easier on my eyes'. Above the bed, placed there by the Frank Sargeson Trustees, is a photo portrait of Frank Sargeson. On the walls there are also recent photographs of the occasion held to mark the launch of Riemke Ensing's book of poetry, Dear Mr Sargeson. Framed are poems by several poets in honour of Frank, and snippets of Frank's life such as rates notices for the house, shopping lists and postcards plastered in a montage on the wall above the table. An editorial from Metro magazine describes the Trustees' battle to save much of Frank Sargeson's garden from the Council's road-widening project. By the door to the main room is a note reading 'Home in ½ hour'. Sargeson's door was always open for visitors to drop in, although never in the mornings, his writing time.
Leaning against the wall by the separate door to the backyard on the coat rack are the tools Frank used in his garden; the scythe with which he performed the back-breaking chore of cutting the grass, and the spade for his vegetable patch. Also on this wall are old hats, corduroy trousers and an overcoat, as well as the shopping trolley he used to pull along with him as he strode the streets of Takapuna. There are also a steamer and a suitcase, which travelled with him to Europe in 1927. On the wall next to the door to the living area hang three hooks with clothing Frank Sargeson was best remembered by the neighbourhood as wearing, such as his long fawn overcoat and black beret.
THE MAIN ROOM: 'Lots of bookshelves' was Frank Sargeson's request for the main all-purpose living room of his small house. This was the gathering place for friends to drop in and discuss philosophy, literature, anything they wished to debate. The built-in bookshelves are lined with volumes precious to Frank who would read and re-read and constantly refer to them. They include Everyman's Library novels, literary review journals such as Les Temps Modernes edited by Jean-Paul Sartre, Chaucer, Burns, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and a copy of C.K. Stead's Crossing the Bar presented to Sargeson on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
Low armchairs and wooden stools gave limited comfort to guests as they sat around and talked. The brick fireplace surrounded by paintings also has space for one of the many collections of photos of writers taken at gatherings at the house since his death. Along the north wall under the windows is a built-in couch bed on which is the patchwork quilt made for him by Janet Frame. He wasn't happy with the number of windows in this room, commenting that George Haydn (the builder and designer of the house in 1948) believed that a house should be 'flooded with light', and that he had been forced to spend more money on curtains to dim the glare. There is a built-in writing desk here too and the walls are lined with paintings and sketches given to him by his artist friends - Anthony Stones and Keith Patterson. Sargeson's dressing gown is draped over one of the wooden chairs beside a small Conray 'Flameshell' electric heater. The softboard ceiling that looked down upon the proceedings bears a series of water-marks caused by a leaking roof.
The second part of this room is the functional kitchen/eating area, with its long stained wooden bar at which friends would sit to eat and drink on long-legged stools. The bench today is covered with reminders of Sargeson's simple way of living: flagons of Lemora fortified grapefruit and lemon wine, a 'tucker' tin like those used by campers as a plate, a pair of spectacles and an old iron. The rest of the kitchen area is simple: a small Atlas 2 plate oven with a kettle on top, a sink bench and utensils hanging from hooks on built-in cupboards. To the right of the door to the bathroom is a gift from writer Bob Gilbert, one of the earliest nine-valve radios. Gilbert built the radio soon after the Second World War, and installed it himself in Sargeson's house.
THE BATHROOM: This crude bathroom and separate toilet, with its glazed exterior window, were actually superior amenities compared with what was available when Sargeson lived in the original bach. There the washing and toilet 'facilities' were under constant condemnation from neighbours and local authorities. Frank Sargeson did without creature comforts although his health was poor for most of his life. His only specification for the new bathroom was a sunken toilet as advocated by his friend, Dr. G. M. Smith. The bathroom had a hand basin big enough for him to wash his clothes in, and a huge waterproof shower box.
Room and deck added to main house (architect: Nigel Cook; builders: Stu Opperman & Peter Hollows)
Essential maintenance work on main house (Haydn & Rollett)
Timber frame, Fibrolite/ batten cladding, and corrugated iron roof.
31st August 2004
Report Written By
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
King, Michael, 'Sargeson, Frank 1903-1982', Claudia Orange (ed.), Vol.4 1921-1940, Auckland, 1998
King, 1995 (2)
M King, 'Frank Sargeson: A Life', Auckland, 1995
M King, 'Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame', London, 2002
Graeme Lay, 'North Shore Literary Walks', North Shore City Council pamphlet, Auckland, 2002
Graeme Lay & Stephen Stratford (eds.), An Affair of the Heart: A Celebration of Frank Sargeson's Centenary, Devonport, 2003
Frank Sargeson, 'Sargeson', Auckland, 1981
Takapuna Public Library
Takapuna Public Library
Frank Sargeson Photographic Collection; Vertical File, Frank Sargeson & New Zealand Writers held at North Shore City.
A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Northern 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.