Historic convent taking shape

CALEB HARRIS
Last updated 10:02 20/03/2014
The former Brigidine Sisters convent at Pahiatua
CALEB HARRIS/FAIRFAX NZ

Danny Rattray outside the former Brigidine Sisters convent at Pahiatua.

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A century-old convent's transformation into a gracious family home got a tick from perhaps the hardest people to please - the nuns who used to live there.

The former Brigidine Sisters convent, built in Pahiatua in 1912, was bought and trucked to Greytown in December by retired academic John Bushnell to be turned into a four-bedroom home for him and his wife.

Builder Danny Rattray said two nuns "in their 80s" came by in January for a look around their former home.

"I told them it was going to be converted into a house and they seemed quite impressed and pleased by the concept."

Renovations will continue for most of the year, but Dr Bushnell and his wife are already living in the building after a temporary kitchen and bathroom were installed.

The former Wellingtonian has just retired as director of the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales.

He felt the building could be a "stunning family home" when he saw it while visiting his Wairarapa-based daughter.

"We're using the shell of the convent to create a home to our own taste, preserving some elements that can be preserved."

He said the couple were respectful of the building's religious origins, but its structure and aesthetics were what drew them to it. They have opened it up, removing walls and "an awful lot of corridors", seeking warmth, light and space.

They turned the building 180 degrees from its Pahiatua orientation so large windows in the living areas now face north.

The mainly totara structure was on concrete piles so it was much "straighter" than other historic buildings.

"There are tones of the mad people in [TV show] Grand Designs . . . but this is somewhat more modest."

After the Brigidine nuns left the convent, it was used by the town's Catholic parish for meetings, and later as refugee accommodation. What used to be a "grand reception area" and meeting room is now a main bedroom and ensuite bathroom.

Historic details will be preserved, such as a pressed tin ceiling and patched floorboards from a fireplace thought to have been damaged in the 1931 Napier earthquake, and recycled matai will complement existing native timber.

The house sits on a 2.4-hectare section chosen for its mature trees and views of the Tararua range, Dr Bushnell said.

"I came down here and I thought, we're never going to get anything better than this."

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