The Components of the Humble Kiwi Villa

Throughout the closing decades of the nineteenth century, New Zealand was undergoing rapid population growth and huge urban development. Factors such as improved transportation and an influx of steam-powered woodworking equipment gave rise to a new kind of house: the iconic villa.

A family sitting on the veranda of their lonely rural villa, somewhere in the Ashburton District (date and place unknown.)

From the 1860s until the end of the First World War, villas were a very popular option for new builds. These bigger, more expensive homes were an iteration on the classic cottages which were so widespread in the preceding years.

Construction

Villas were constructed almost entirely of native timber, including fixtures and fittings, with a metal roof.

There were exceptions to the rule. For example, there is a bay villa on Wakanui Road, designed by Ashburton architect Harry E. Vincent, which was built using bricks from Crum’s brickworks instead of being of typical weatherboard construction.

View of the brick villa on Wakanui Road, from The Past Today: Historic Places in New Zealand (1987).

Thanks to advances in machine moulding and woodworking, many villas bore ornate features and ornamentation. These new accoutrements would have been out of the price range for many people just decades before the villa’s rise in popularity.

Some of these houses were architect-designed, like the brick villa, while many others were built from pre-prepared plans. The customer would choose their desired floorplan and accessories from a catalogue. As suburbs developed many of the villas seen dotting the streets were built in this fashion.

Two-storey villas were also not unheard of. In Jeremy Salmond’s Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940 it is noted that different features were more common in different regions: bigger verandas in Auckland, cast iron fretwork in Dunedin and narrower two-storeyed designs were preferred in Wellington.

Form and function

The concept of separating public and private spaces within the home was a central feature of the villa.

A villa’s central hallway would usually be cut in two by an ornate archway, which marks the dividing line between the public and private parts of the house.

Ornate arch separating the public and private sections of Weatherly House, West Street, built in 1910 and only recently demolished.

The parlour, or formal sitting room was used to receive and entertain guests (not for everyday leisure) and so it was at the front of the house, while the kitchen and bathroom were at the rear. The best furniture and family treasures were often found in the parlour, where they would be seen and enjoyed by visitors.

A combination of several villa floorplans, which shows us how the basic principle of the villa was extremely versatile.

The reasoning behind the parlour being at the front of the villa may have originated from earlier cottages, in which the closest room to the front door was the sitting room, or the front door opened into the sitting room which acted as a thoroughfare.

One of the most striking features of any villa is the bay window, which would typically protrude from the parlour room, facing the street.

Walking through the hallway, you would find a couple of bedrooms branching off the long main hallway before you reach rooms such as the kitchen, scullery and pantry. Larger bay villas would have squeezed in another bedroom, bathroom and laundry.

Hallway of a restored Moore Street villa, lined with heart rimu woodwork featuring an arch of the same.

Of course, you can’t forget the front veranda; an enticing perch upon which families would sit and enjoy the fresh air. Today we still see it as a prime spot for some outdoor furniture (an old crusty couch will do in a pinch.)

A kiwi icon

Villas are unmistakably, undoubtedly Kiwi. Each one is a slice of social history, a residential landmark, almost.

On many streets throughout Ashburton you will find at least one, or several villas with families or flatmates living in them. With a bit of care and insulation they quite often make great homes despite being what you could say to be a hundred years past their prime.

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 25 September 2021.

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