Celia Hay

Sir Miles Warren - his legacy for Christchurch

Sir Miles Warren (1929 - 2022) has endowed Christchurch, not only with numerous outstanding buildings but he has also gifted to the city his legendary Governor's Bay home and garden, Ohinetahi. Christchurch is a better place because of his work and Sir Miles's legacy is significant and ongoing.

Sir Miles founded the architectural firm of Warren and Mahoney with a Maurice Mahoney (1929 - 2018) in 1955. From their small beginnings in Christchurch, Warren and Mahoney remains a leading practice today and many of their designs are regarded as benchmarks of New Zealand Modernism. The Christchurch Town Hall (1972) is the most recognisable achievement of their work. 

Opening concert of the Christchurch Town Hall, September 1972. This photograph was presented to my father for his role as chair of the Town Hall Committee. Today, it is on display in the restaurant of the New Zealand School of Food and Wine in Auckland.

For my family, Sir Miles became part of our life with the construction of the Christchurch Town Hall as my father, Hamish Hay, was chair of the Town Hall Committee and this development dominated our family dinner conversations for many years. Later, I would get to know Sir Miles's nephew, William Trengrove and today still keep in touch with their family.

Hamish writes in his book, Hay Days (1989), "One of the most fortunate decisions was the awarding of the first prize in the New Zealand-wide architectural competition to the Christchurch firm of Warren and Mahoney, which was announced on 21 June 1966...(It) attracted 58 entries, of which five were selected to develop their 'preliminary concept' plans to more developed final drawings. A very important condition in the rules of the competition was that the cost was considered ...'of paramount importance' and should not exceed £1.2 million, exclusive of fees and furnishings."  

A critical decision was to decide how many people the auditorium should accommodate and how many the smaller theatre should seat. They opted for 2250 for the auditorium and 800 for the theatre but later increased to 1000 seats. It is always good to be reminded that the Christchurch Town Hall was funded by public subscription - people donated money to get this project off the ground and even to fund the purchase of the land in Kilmore Street.

From the competition date to the opening of the Town Hall in 1972, six busy years passed. Sir Miles commented,

"It's been a long time - six years - and I'm glad it's over as a continuing detailed responsibility, but we will miss the challenge and the excitement." (Hay p.55)

Cabbage trees and Thomas Henry Potts' house Ohinetahi at Governors Bay, taken 1867 by Daniel Louis Mundy.

Ohinetahi

In the late 1970s, Sir Miles, his sister Pauline and her architect husband John Trengrove, decided to build a house together to ultimately retire in but  “What we liked to do most was to make gardens.” 

Ohinetahi, in Governor’s Bay, dates from the 1850s and was errected from local sandstone barged across the bay. By the 1970s, it was in serious need of refurbishment. With large verandahs, established trees from oaks to Lombardy poplars to blue gums and a cherry orchard, parts of the original property sub-divided off over many decades including Cholmondeley House that was gifted in 1925 and converted to a Children’s Home for respite care for children between the ages of 3–12 years.

Sir Miles comments: “…we saw every borer hole, the evidence of leaks, buckets of water beside the fireplaces to damp down the chimney fires and the sagging decayed verandahs…

"My parents came to look at our purchase. At first I thought my father wasn’t going to get out of the car. He took a brief look inside and told Mrs Ensor (the vendor) he thought we were mad. Why on earth would the Trengroves leave their beautiful house and garden in Helmores Lane and come to this complete ruin?” (Warren, p.17)

And with this, the restoration of Ohinetahi began. The plan of the new garden was conceived based on an Arts and Craft concept and inspired by the great gardens of England. There would be separate spaces: a large lawn, rose garden, herbaceous borders each not less than 3.6m wide, a square walled and hedge garden inspired by Sissinghurst; a swimming pool, doubling as a water supply in case of a fire; a walk from the pool to a hedged oval at the highest part of the garden. Sir Miles later built a gallery to house his growing art collection.

Earthquakes

A sandstone house, is not the safest structure in an earthquake prone environment as witnessed on September 4 2010.

"I woke with a start...and then violent shaking and a thunderous crashing. I staggered out of bed and clung to the bedpost, not so much frightened for my life as stunned by the violence. It was all over in a few seconds...

"I crept across the hall, tripped over something on the floor, not realising it was the grandfather clock flat on its face, weaved through the furniture, books on the floor and everything off the mantelpiece...to get the one and only torch sitting on an upper shelf.

"I was blithely unaware that there was a gaping hole in the ceiling and that huge rocks lay either side of me that had fallen through the roof from the second floor gable. I very nearly had the distinction of being the only person killed in the first earthquake. It would have been a notable way to exit."  (Warren, p.109).

Major reconstruction was required and there was a serious risk that Ohinetahi would suffer the fate of so many Christchurch buildings and be demolished. Eventually the upper floors were demolished and replaced. The squared sandstone from the demolished upper floors now form terraces in an amphitheatre on the property.

 

Watch this interview with Sir Miles YouTube where he reflects on the events of February 22 2022.

Sir Miles Warren (1929 - 2022)

Click here to read the tribute from Warren and Mahoney.

You can visit Ohinetahi. Click here to find out more.

 

Celia Hay

 

References

Hay, H. (1989). Hay Days, Christchurch: The Caxton Press

Warren, M. (2014), Ohinetahi, Garden, House and Art, Lyttelton: Sir Miles Warren