A HAWKE’S BAY HOME WHERE GUESTS GO GLAM
Glimpses of the past meet visions of the future in this Napier villa where guests come to dinner in full-glamour regalia
Peter Wells and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins like to find and rescue neglected objects. Douglas, a writer and art curator, works part-time at an Auckland auction house, and says, “We tend to collect things that other people don’t value.”
The couple took that collecting hobby a step further 10 years ago when they bought a rundown 1906 Edwardian villa on Napier Hill.
Although based in Auckland, says Douglas, “We had been looking for a holiday cottage and Peter found this. My original thought was, ‘It’s too big, and too big a project.’” Peter adds: “The real estate agent asked us if we were going to bowl it.”
Built by Napier artist Alfred Harvey Finnis, the villa had at some point been converted into three flats and was in a state of disrepair. Wooden windows and doors had been replaced with aluminium joinery, softboard and pinboard covered the original wallpapers and wooden walls, and many of the high ceilings had been lowered.
However, the couple pored over original plans that showed the house as it used to be. Over the past decade they have respectfully renovated while adding their own mark, returning the house to its original glory. >
The greatest find was the sprawling artist’s studio. Finnis was a wealthy Hawke’s Bay landowner who painted as a hobby. The studio faced south for the best light, and was painted dark blue, a colour thought to make the subject of an artwork stand out. But the studio was carved into three rooms including a chilly bedroom. Douglas, who was director of Napier’s MTG (Museum, Theatre and Gallery) at the time, got up into the roof and saw the original skylights and 8.2 metre stud. The couple got excited. They pulled the softboard off the walls, removed the false ceilings and the walls, and turned the room back into the studio as it appears today.
It is now the centrepiece of the villa, currently decorated with a Japanese theme, with three Finnis watercolours hanging on the original blue walls. It’s the setting for the couple’s theatrical blacktie dinner parties, when up to a dozen guests arrive dressed in dinner suits and glamorous outfits befitting the occasion. “The women come in floor-length gowns, and their hair up and in jewellery. They love it; they end up making the effort for the house,” says Peter.
Guests eat off china plates from one of the 15 dinner sets the couple has “rescued’’. There are even fur coats hanging in a wooden dresser to don on chilly nights.
Interested in costume and fashion, Douglas co-wrote a book a few years ago about New Zealand fashion, The Dress Circle. His view is that New Zealanders are too casual. “I’m very interested in the way that New Zealanders refuse to dress up.’’
The kitchen, tucked off the studio, is tiny for entertaining in such a grand house, but the keen cooks argue that it’s a working space, where they can get messy. “We don’t need an audience when we cook,’’ says Douglas. >
After dinner, guests retreat to the library for figs and port in front of the roaring fire beneath shelves heaving with hundreds of books. At night, the crimson walls glow.
The painters loved painting the walls and bookshelves rich, vibrant colours. Says Douglas: “They said they hadn’t painted a wall that wasn’t off-white for 18 months.”
“It’s a very restful room,” says Peter, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy.
“When you’ve both been writing for 20 years, there is a big storage issue with all our books. We’re both writers and readers so we love this room,’’ says Douglas.
The house is filled with pieces they have collected, and feels a little like a gallery. Only the kitchen appliances and a couch in the library have been bought new.
Finnis House started as a creative space. That legacy continues today as Peter, an award-winning writer and historian, penned his newly published family memoir Dear Oliver: Uncovering a
Pākehā History in his study with a view of grapevines hanging over the verandah.
The book is a search for truth about his family history based on letters he found. His mother, Bess, grew up just down the road from Finnis House, which also reminds him of the villa his grandmother, Jesse Northe, lived in.
“Houses are all sorts of things – little lamps of memories, treasure boxes, window panes you look through. This house here protects Douglas and me and it connects me back to a past that means a lot to me,’’ says Peter. “It’s a lovely house to live in. It’s like a magic kingdom.”
RIGHT The breakfast room table is French and the chairs are 1960s Swedish; Peter bought the Turkish rug with payments from one of his books: “I try to buy something specific whenever I get royalties.” LEFT (clockwise from top) Copper utensils hang...