Lilburn House, at 22 Ascot Street in Thorndon, Wellington, has historical significance as the home and haven of celebrated New Zealand composer Douglas Gordon Lilburn (1915-2001). It possesses architectural significance as an early, intact house designed to Modernist principles.
The house was designed in 1951 by Austrian refugee Frederick Herz Schwarzkopf (1888-1961) who had been commissioned by civil servant Richard Grey Collins to design a dwelling on an empty site at 22 Ascot Street in Thorndon, Wellington. Completed that same year, the single-storey Modernist house was nestled amidst the surrounding nineteenth century Victorian cottages. It featured a mono-pitch roof with wide overhanging eaves and was distinctively painted black and white. It included three bedrooms and was planned around a central core of utility spaces. In 1959, the growing Collins family sold the house to Lilburn.
Douglas Lilburn was the central figure in the development of New Zealand composition between 1940 and 1980. His move to Wellington in 1949 brought to a close his first highly productive phase of composition but enabled him to teach at the newly established Music Department at Victoria University.
Lilburn’s purchase of the central, yet private Ascot Street house in 1959 roughly coincided with his second phase of output, where he pioneered New Zealand compositions for electronic music at Victoria University. During this period, Lilburn’s house provided him with the essential conditions where he would not bother neighbours with noise for creating compositions and may have inspired his works. It also became a 'Mecca' for composers, musicians and artists.
Despite having a brief relationship with New Zealand artist Rita Angus, Lilburn was gay and had a number of romantic relationships with men throughout his life. He accepted and celebrated his sexuality in private with friends and was very open to discussing these matters with them but did not make any statements in public, as homosexuality was illegal until the law was reformed in 1986. Lilburn himself made a confidential submission on the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, stating that ‘Thunderers about perversion might realise that many homosexuals and lesbians are quite as chaste as the best of their heterosexual counterparts… And to legislate against [homosexuality] would be as rational as to legislate against rabbits and blackberries in hedges.’
Upon Lilburn's death in 2001, the issue of the house’s future arose. Lilburn had proposed that the house should be made available to the School of Music at Victoria University or scholars visiting the Alexander Turnbull Library. Following negotiations with the executors of Lilburn's will in 2005, the newly formed Lilburn Residence Trust arranged to purchase the property for use as a residence for composers. Since then, the house has bestowed that 'rare and essential condition' of peace and privacy upon a new generation of composers and encouraged the tradition of pioneering New Zealand composition founded by Lilburn himself.
Historical Significance or Value
The heritage value of the house chiefly derives from its historical and cultural association with Douglas Lilburn. Lilburn purchased the house in 1959 and remained there until his death in 2001. Prior to this Lilburn had studied music at Canterbury University College and the Royal College of Music in London. He had developed a number of landmark, prize-winning works, and served as Director at the first composers' class at the Cambridge Summer School of Music. His purchase of 22 Ascot Terrace roughly coincides with his second, highly acclaimed phase of output. During this period he established himself as New Zealand's central figure in the development and the promotion of New Zealand music. Lilburn went on to pioneer works in the 'new world of electronic music', and played a vital role in the development and promotion of New Zealand music by founding the Wai-te-ata Press Music Editions (1967), the electronic music studio at Victoria University (1966), and the Lilburn Trust (1984). During this period, Lilburn's house provided him with the essential conditions for creating compositions, and may also have inspired his works. The house was a focal point for artists, composer's and musicians during Lilburn's lifetime, and its recent establishment as housing for New Zealand's first composer in residence will ensure that it continues to serve in this way, providing the essential conditions for composition to a new generation of New Zealand artists.
The house at 22 Ascot Street has architectural merit as a relatively early, and unaltered example of a residence designed according to Modernist principles. Designed by Frederick Schwarzkopf, a contemporary of Ernst Plischke, the house features principles key to Modernism, such as the concern for privacy, the flat roof, the large living room, and the elimination of the separate dining room.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:
The house at 22 Ascot Street is directly associated with Douglas Gordon Lilburn (1915-2001). Lilburn is widely recognised as having pioneered the tradition of New Zealand composition, and was the central figure in its development and promotion between 1940 and 1980. Lilburn's employment by the Music Department of Victoria University College in 1949 prompted his relocation from the South Island to Wellington. After living at a number of places unsuited to his temperament and needs as a composer, Lilburn purchased 22 Ascot Street, where he remained until his death in 2001. The house provided the peace and quiet Lilburn considered to be a 'rare and essential condition' for his happiness and well-being.
During his residence at the house, Lilburn continued to be a primary influence on the development and promotion of New Zealand music. Lilburn also began pioneering New Zealand compositions of electronic music. It is unclear whether the house at 22 Ascot Street directly inspired his electronic compositions, but Lilburn postulated that environments 'impress themselves on our minds in a way that will ultimately give rise to forms of musical expression'. Of all his works, it is his electronic works that indicate that nature and the natural environment as a generating source, while Lilburn's biographical notes, which are filled with poems and reflections on the plants and the quality of light in his garden, gives rise to the impression that his garden may have been a key source of inspiration.
(e)The community association with, or public esteem for, the place:
The house at 22 Ascot Street has a specific community of interest - a group of people who value the place and for whom it has special meaning. Described as a 'Mecca for composers, musicians, and artists alike', the house is of importance to those influenced by Lilburn and his contribution to the development of New Zealand music. The importance of the house to New Zealand's artistic community is strongly demonstrated by its recent purchase by the Lilburn Residence Trust for use as New Zealand's first residence for composers.
(f) The potential of the place for public education:
The house has strong potential as a place of public education. The house has recently been established as a residence for composers. As such, the very purpose of the house is to support and protect New Zealand music.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:
The house at 22 Ascot Street has value as a relatively early example of a residence designed according to Modernist principles. The influence of Modern Movement design made its presence felt in New Zealand domestic architecture during the Second World War. This was largely due to the influence of architects, such as Ernst Plischke, who fled to New Zealand from Vienna to escape Nazi persecution during the Second World War, and were subsequently employed by the Housing Department. Schwarzkopf was a member of this group, arriving in New Zealand from Vienna in 1940. His employment by the Housing Department limited the number of private commissions that he undertook, the only other private example of his work is a house Schwarzkopf designed for himself in Wadestown. Schwarzkopf's design for 22 Ascot Street reflects features and principles that are key to Modernism, such as the concern for privacy, the use of the flat roof, the large living room, and the elimination of the separate dining room. The house has been largely unaltered since its construction in 1951, which adds considerably to its architectural importance.
Lilburn House is worthy of registration as a Category I historic place. The house is integrally associated with the output of one of New Zealand's foremost composers, Douglas Gordon Lilburn. The constant reference of the importance of the house to Lilburn's work, work acknowledged both nationally and internationally to be ground breaking, makes the house outstanding in its significance.
In 1951, civil servant Richard Gray Collins purchased two lots of land with a frontage on Ascot Street in Thorndon, Wellington. The site featured a number of cherry-plum trees and a bulldozed flat area suitable for a house. Shortly afterwards, Collins wrote to the Wellington City Council notifying them of his intention to construct a house on the lot fronting Ascot Street. He described the house he required as a 'single storey dwelling, in weatherboard, with flat roof, of an area of about 1000 square feet'. Collins then commissioned Frederick Herz Schwarzkopf (1888-1961) to design the dwelling.
Schwarzkopf was an Austrian refugee who had worked as a structural engineer in Vienna before the Second World War. To escape persecution by the Nazis, he and his wife fled to New Zealand in 1940, where he was employed as a structural engineer by the Housing Department. His employment by the Department limited his private commissions. The only other evidence of a private work by Schwarzkopf is a house, of a similar design to the Ascot Street house, that he built for his own use at 35 Margaret Street in Wellington.
Completed in 1951 for 2800 pounds, the single storey house at 22 Ascot Street was an example of 1950s Modernist design. It stood out in its setting amidst the nineteenth-century Victorian cottages that are predominant in Thorndon. The house featured a mono-pitch roof with wide overhanging eaves, and was distinctively black and white. Its beveled-back weatherboards are coated with creosote, and its door and window joinery are painted white, in a New Zealand Modernist tradition. The house has three bedrooms, and is planned around a central core of utility spaces. The open plan dining and living spaces, and the terrace opening from the living room to the garden, are key features of 1950s residential design. Elements such as the built in furniture and the joinery, including the skirtings, architraves, and cornices, are also typical of the period.
The Collins avoided altering the house during their residence and felt that extending it would destroy its essential character. Consequently, when Barbara Collins became pregnant with their fourth child, the Collins made the decision to put the house up for sale, rather than adding another bedroom. The house was then purchased by renowned New Zealand composer Douglas Gordon Lilburn (1915-2001).
Lilburn pioneered the tradition of New Zealand composition and was the central figure in its development between 1940 and 1980. He studied music at Canterbury University College and the Royal College of Music in London. His relocation to Wellington in 1949 to teach at the newly established Music Department of Victoria University College brought to a close his first, highly productive phase of composition. During this period he developed a number of landmark, prize-winning works, and encouraged New Zealand composers to find their own voice in his position as director of the first composers' class at the Cambridge Summer School of Music. As a lecturer at Victoria University, Lilburn went on to pioneer works in the 'new world of electronic music', and played a vital role in the development and promotion of New Zealand music by founding the Wai-te-ata Press Music Editions (1967), the electronic music studio at Victoria University (1966), and the Lilburn Trust (1984).
Shortly after Lilburn arrived in Wellington, he bought a house in Paekakariki, where he 'greatly enjoyed the coast for three years'. While the coastal scene inspired works created during this period, Lilburn found that he became 'too isolated from the main Wellington context'. In 1953 he purchased a house at 356 Tinakori Road. Lilburn noted that he 'refurbished it with great labour, but was never too happy there in a rather hostile neighbourhood'. The closeness of the houses meant that his piano practice disturbed the neighbours, and led to a tense situation between Lilburn and others on the street. Reflecting on his purchase of 22 Ascot Street in 1959, Lilburn noted:
In '60 I gained the house at 22 Ascot Terrace (precisely, had the key and opened the door on Xmas Day '59) and have enjoyed this marvellous quiet mid-city hospice and garden ever since, and hope that I may retain it until I die, or am no longer fit to retain it.
Lilburn remained at 22 Ascot Street until his death in 2001. Over that 42-year period, Lilburn left the house essentially unchanged. Its central, yet private location suited Lilburn's personality and requirements as a composer. Lilburn noted that:
I have a welcome supply of visitors from near and far, readily able to drop in for vino / coffee / gossip in this conveniently central area. Beyond that I want no sociability or functions, could not endure communal living anywhere, and would be desolately lonely out in some suburb. Above all I have the blessed peace and quiet here from any radio or TV sound other than my own, a rare and essential condition for my happiness and well-being.
Lilburn welcomed students to his door and the house became 'a Mecca for composers, musicians, and artists alike'. One of his students, Gordon Burt, reflected that
The door is always open...the house is lean, yet filled with books, several icons of New Zealand paintings. There is wine, a bowl of cubed bread, and cheese or olives, wild greenery against uncurtained windows, and a view - across Bolton Street knoll to the skyline and harbour - which, from just down the road, once took Rita Angus's eye. Quiet talk, fuelled by the rising warmth of the wine, drifts from chat about colleagues and friends to business at the university and so to all that is music and beyond...
Lilburn's move into the house roughly coincided with his second phase of output, when Lilburn pioneered New Zealand compositions for electronic music at Victoria. During this period, Lilburn's house provided him with the essential conditions for creating compositions, and may also have inspired his works. According to Philip Norman, Lilburn postulated that environments 'in a subtle way affect our manner of listening' and 'impress themselves on our minds in a way that will ultimately give rise to forms of musical expression'. Norman further noted that there is clear evidence of the environment as a generating source for the electronic music Lilburn produced from the 1960s. Lilburn's biographical notes, which are filled with poems and reflections on the plants and the quality of light in his garden, gives rise to the impression that his garden may have been a key source of inspiration.
Following his retirement in 1980 at the age of 65, Lilburn's reflections on his home are filled with references to it as a much loved and essential retirement home and hospice. Musings on his work in the garden occupy large tracts of his diaries in later years and appeared to provide him with particular comfort. Of this period he noted that:
...I coast along with chores in house and jungle as good therapy, and pleasure from them to combat boredom.
Upon Lilburn's death in 2001, the issue of the future of the house arose. Prior to his death, Lilburn had expressed a number of opinions about the use of his house. Lilburn emphatically, and consistently stated that he did not want the section 'developed' or the ambience that he had so enjoyed destroyed.
Please understand that I will not contemplate any idea of selling the property to some 'developer' who might bulldoze the beautiful trees, put up rows of garages south and east topped with 2-3 storey townhouses, and so destroying the whole ambience of the neighbourhood.
However, when the Wellington City Council proposed special zoning in the Thorndon area to limit changes to buildings, Lilburn resisted. The zoning meant that changes would be limited to those that would blend with the nineteenth century architecture that predominated in the area. Applying such rules to alterations to a house constructed in the mid-twentieth century was clearly inappropriate. Yet it is unclear whether it was this, or a general opposition to limitations, which prompted Lilburn to note that:
I emphatically do not want restrictions 'on all future external alterations, additions, fencing, painting', in terms of some irrational concept, anymore than I welcome fanciful ideas of a 'Tourist Walk' through my property.
In the early 1990s, Lilburn proposed that after his death, his residence be used as a guesthouse for scholars visiting the Alexander Turnbull Library, and perhaps the School of Music at Victoria University. He expressed this idea on a number of occasions. However his will instructed the executors to sell the property at a time of their choosing and to transfer the proceeds to the Lilburn Endowment Trust operated by the Turnbull Library Trustees. In 2005 the property was placed on the market and made subject to an NZHPT heritage covenant. It was purchased by the newly formed Lilburn Residence Trust that same year for use by New Zealand's first composer in residence.
The house is located on a garden section of 0.0474 hectares. The house is set apart from other houses in Ascot Street by a surround of well-established trees. Lilburn described the garden as follows:
It gets plentiful sun, and is surrounded with native and exotic trees which screen traffic noise and give unique quiet and privacy in the heart of the city. Camellias flourish, and lemons, and there is a small vegetable plot along with compost bins and a rough garden shed.
The single-storeyed house is an example of 1950s Modernist design. It features a flat roof with wide overhanging eaves, and is distinctively black and white. Its beveled-back weatherboards are coated with creosote, and its door and window joinery are painted white, in the New Zealand Modernist tradition. The house has three bedrooms, and is planned around a central core of utility spaces. The open plan dining and living spaces, and the terrace opening from the living room to the garden, are key features of 1950s residential design. Elements such as the built in furniture and the joinery, including the skirtings, architraves, and cornices, are also typical of the period. The house remains largely unaltered since its construction.
The exterior colouring.
The privacy created by the garden.
The open plan living spaces.
Original design and construction completed.
Roof replaced with one of the same design/ materials. (circa 1980)
The house is constructed on a concrete base, and is timber framed and clad, with a flat roof. The bevelled weatherboards are coated with creosote. The interior is sheet lined, with simple timber joinery.
27th November 2020
Report Written By
Rebecca O'Brien and Rebecca Chrystal
V. Harris, and P. Norman, (eds.), Douglas Lilburn; A Festschrift for Douglas Lilburn on his retirement from the Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, 1980
P. Norman, The beginnings and development of a New Zealand music: the life and work (1940-1980) of Douglas Lilburn, Christchurch, 1983
Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music
Phillip Norman, Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music, Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2006
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.