The Dominion Post

Grand job for fine lady

Jill Wild visits one of Wellington’s oldest homes and discovers a grand old lady with true inner beauty.


AFTER two facelifts an old inner city Wellington lady is rolling through her second century of life with graceful aplomb, experts say quite probably in better order than when she started out.

It’s nearly 150 years since Thorndon’s Lady Freyberg House was built, at a time when there were a mere smattering of houses on the foreshore of Wellington Harbour.

A former homeowner thought the house was initially built for a surgeon and his family, close to the city’s only hospital, located at the time in Thorndon. Today Lady Freyberg House has made the full circle and she is back in the hands of a family of five as a much-loved home.

‘‘We enjoy it here,’’ says Rachael Symonds. ‘‘The house is very well located, near to schools, the pool, a good supermarke­t, the stadium and of course the city. We find the house works very well and with the renovation­s we have done, the house has plenty of outdoor area, but also privacy, probably hard to find in the inner city.’’

The precise history of the house for its first few decades of life is hard to determine and historians have been unable to verify its background. But by the end of the World War I, the huge house was owned by the Lady Freyberg Trust and had been turned into a ‘‘welcome home’’ retreat for nurses returning from the war and their gruelling experience­s.

The home was one of three the trust acquired, linked by gardens to offer the nurses peace and tranquilli­ty. It was another base that Barbara, aristocrat­ic wife of Lord Freyberg, developed for the health and welfare of people. Lady Freyberg was well known for her commitment to welfare, in particular the care of New Zealanders.

As a part of the trio of trust homes, the house was next used for the care of the elderly and then Wellington lawyer Michael Reed QC bought the house in 1982. About 12 years later when listing the home for sale, Mr Reed told

the house was in a sorry state when he bought it. But after working with Wellington architect Gordon Moller, Mr Reed said the old lady had been returned to her former glory.

Now with new ownership Lady Freyberg House has undergone another hugely expensive facelift, this time being stripped back to bare essentials.

‘‘Project manager Carl Jackson and builder Robbie Verschoor combined to do the work and when they took the walls back to the totara frames, the original insulation was revealed – goat hair and mud. It was all removed and the walls, which are very thick, were packed with insulation, it’s made the house a lot warmer,’’ Mike Symonds says.

The old matron’s quarters that had been set up as a self-contained apartment when the Symonds bought have been replaced using the same footprint and original roof contour. A pair of bedrooms, bathroom and laundry are now where there was a bedroom, kitchen and living room for the matron in the days when the house was a home for the elderly.

‘‘When we bought the house 16 years ago the place next door was just one storey,’’ Rachael says. ‘‘Now it’s six twostorey apartments, so when we rebuilt the matron’s quarters area the architect considered the building next door to provide us with maximum privacy.’’

The enormous hall, over three-metres wide, has been used for entertaini­ng when Rachael and Mike need to seat a sizeable number at one time. Most recently they entertaine­d a table of 22 in the hall, a unique twist on hall use in the grand old home. Rachel says it proved a great dinner party area.

A front entrance porch with original coloured feature windows sets the mood for what is revealed behind the huge old kauri front door. The original ornate Carrara ceilings are a feature throughout and have been replicated in newly built rooms. The old house has a towering

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