Saving a grand old lady

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 15/12/2013
Fairfield House
MARION VAN DIJK/Fairfax NZ
HEART OF NELSON: Fairfield House sits at the centre of much of the town's life.
Alan Stanton
MARION VAN DIJK/Fairfax NZ
HARD WORK: Alan Stanton has invested heart and soul into preserving and restoring Fairfield House.

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OPINION: When taking a leak in a rambling cottage garden, it's best to keep an eye out for climbing roses. This I discovered, to my cost, one fine summer's evening when I almost lost my family jewels on a viciously thorny vine at Nelson's Fairfield House.

Not that I make a habit of al fresco public peeing, you understand, but I was DJing in the courtyard at the time, and the toilets were miles away across a crowded dancefloor. When nature called, I was reduced to slapping a lengthy record on the turntable and legging it into the trees.

Fairfield House holds a special place in my heart. A grand old two-storey villa set among extensive gardens, it's the closet thing my city has to a Pakeha marae, playing host to a steady stream of weddings, wakes, whanau celebrations, workshops and feasts.

My daughter has gone to dance lessons there. Friends have gotten married there. The ashes of my mate Robbie's mother are buried in the meadow above the house. Another friend from Christchurch booked the place for his 50th birthday party soon after the earthquakes, and many carloads of shellshocked Cantabrians showed up to celebrate and forget - if only for a night - what awaited them when they drove back home.

I've had summer picnics in a woodland clearing up the hill and winter pot-luck dinners around the grand old banquet table, hewn from a huge elm that fell in the grounds. In autumn, I've walked up the bush track behind the house to a grove of old chestnut trees to scavenge the nuts.

In 1996, I went up to Fairfield one day and shook hands with the Dalai Lama as he passed through Nelson and planted a ginkgo tree in the grounds. A happier-looking man I'd seldom seen, grinning so broadly you felt the entire world was the punchline to some private cosmic joke.

I recall parking my arse on the Fairfield verandah one hot summer's day, sipping rum punch and eating Jamaican jerked pork while a reggae gig took place in the courtyard. With booming basslines rattling my ribcage, fierce detonations of chilli in my belly and the sun on my face, I remember thinking there wasn't a place on earth I'd rather be.

And to think that this priceless community asset almost became a pile of splintered firewood. Built in 1872 for a local MP's family, by the late 1970s Fairfield House was destined for demolition. The roof was full of bees, the floors infested with rats and there was dry rot in the walls. The stately old wreck had been vacant for a decade, and light-fingered locals had begun ransacking the place for chimney bricks, window sashes, banisters and French doors.

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Enter local toymaker, Alan Stanton. A warm-hearted soul with no shortage of hippie idealism, Stanton moved in alongside the rats and birds and bees in 1979, squatting among the wreckage to prevent further decay. This self-appointed caretaker unrolled his sleeping bag in the corner, cooked meals on a camping primus and slapped a sign on the front verandah reading "No more demolition or looting. This house is being restored for the people of Nelson".

Stanton convened a group of like-minded souls who began restoring the building in earnest during the 1980s. There were fundraising drives, benefit gigs and working bees. Builders donated labour, and government work gangs painted the place. Volunteers made paving cobbles by pouring cement into ice cream containers. As the building took shape, many of the previously pillaged building materials were anonymously returned in the dead of night.

Restored to its former glory, the grand old building is now a publicly-owned resource, and a visible reminder of what can be done if enough dedicated people mobilise behind a good cause.

Seven years ago, after suffering a stroke, Alan Stanton began writing a book on the Fairfield story. Now 68, he's since been diagnosed with motor neuron disease, which added further urgency to what he calls his "bucket list" project.

As with the restoration, Stanton's book rapidly evolved into a wider community project, with a team of skilled helpers rallying around to ensure it was completed while the writer was still alive to see it. A couple of weeks ago, it finally rolled off the press, and copies of Anything Is Possible: The Resurrection of Fairfield House are now available from fairfieldnelson.org.nz/book (RRP $39.99), with all proceeds ploughed back into the upkeep of the house.

It's an inspiring story of grass-roots activism trumping traditional business models, and ordinary people working together to create the meeting places they need. The simple language Stanton employs transmits a complex truth: this story was as much about building a more caring society as it was about rebuilding a house.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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