The jewel on the hill
A stroke and motor neuron disease have not stopped Alan Stanton from writing a book about Fairfield House's 34-year refurbishment. But as Naomi Arnold discovers, it is the remarkable Fairfield community that has carried it to completion.
Alan Stanton had to come straight from hospital to the winter solstice celebration at Fairfield House in 2006.
He'd had a stroke, but the annual solstice and equinox observations are popular events for the Fairfield community, and he wasn't going to miss this one - even if it meant turning up with a Zimmer frame, his speech slurred and the right side of his body out of action. Besides, he had an important announcement to make.
The 80 or so friends who had gathered for a pot luck dinner had moved inside so he'd be more comfortable. They gathered, talking and laughing, around a beautiful table made from an elm that had fallen on the property - and Mr Stanton announced that he was going to write the history of the grand old Nelson house at last.
"Everyone burst out clapping," Fairfield manager Catherine Brosnahan recalls. "So many times we've been asked to write the old stories down, but we've been so busy living it and doing it that there's never been the opportunity."
You can't quite say that Mr Stanton's stroke was a good thing, she says. "But he actually seized that moment to stop working and write the book."
After 18 months of intensive rehabilitation, Mr Stanton took a creative writing class at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and set to work on what would become Anything Is Possible. It will be launched next Thursday at Fairfield.
"The whole process of the book has been quite similar to the process of rebuilding Fairfield," Mr Stanton, 68, says.
The historic house stands proudly at the top of Trafalgar St. But it was a decrepit shell when, on a winter's day in early June 1979, Mr Stanton joined his friends Paul Star and Bob Anderson to see if it could be used as a shop for Mr Anderson's book company.
Set in several hectares of woodland nestled at the base of the Grampians, the house had long since broken open to the elements. It had been vacant for more than a decade, and enterprising Nelsonians had carted away the useful bits - the bricks from the fireplaces, windows, and even the bannister from the main staircase.
Eight pairs of French doors had been taken. The verandah posts and kitchen floors were decaying. Bees were nesting in the roof cavity, and rats hoarded walnuts beneath the floorboards.
Forgotten cans of peaches had leaked and rotted the foundations, and several healthy toadstools were growing behind the crumbling wall lining.
When he saw how rundown the house was, Mr Anderson shook his head and said it definitely wasn't what he was looking for. But as Mr Stanton stood there in the ruins, he was profoundly moved.
He felt a mix of outrage that the house's caretakers could have let it get into such a state. There was sadness at seeing such a grand old beauty looking so bleak. And curiosity and determination: could it be restored?
Mr Stanton was a toymaker, and didn't have any carpentry or building experience beyond that. "I couldn't even hang a door," he says.
But, feeling as though he'd seen his grandmother dumped on the side of the road, he decided that Fairfield needed to be saved. The only way to protect it, he remarked to a friend, was if someone moved in.
So a few days later, on June 9, Fairfield gained its newest resident. Mr Stanton toted in a sleeping bag, a few tools and a Primus stove, and put up a sign on the collapsing front verandah: "No more demolition or looting. This house is being restored for the people of Nelson."
"So bugger off, all of you, or words to that effect," he says.
He didn't know how long he would stay for. He didn't know for sure who owned Fairfield, or that the Nelson City Council was about to order its demolition. If he hadn't moved in then, it would have been too late.
His occupation made front-page news the next day. Mr Stanton told Nelson Evening Mail reporters that he had no intention of leaving.
"I see myself as representing the people of Nelson, and if it's necessary to break the law, that's unfortunate," he said.
"I think the house is actually worth more. At least if it remains standing, there's still hope of saving it."
Nelson College, which had used Fairfield as a boarding house, initially told him to leave, but a conciliatory deal was worked out under which he was granted honorary caretaker status.
Mr Stanton then put a public notice in the Mail, calling on Nelsonians to meet for a picnic at Fairfield that Sunday to show their support for saving it. More than 100 people turned up, and later formed Friends of Old Fairfield (FOOF).
For Mr Stanton, the house was a fulltime obsession. Figuring that somebody managed to build it using the tools of the 1800s, he thought it must be possible to rebuild it with the modern tools of 1979.
But it wasn't just up to him - it was up to the entire Nelson community. "It was always going to be their house."
At first, the good citizens of Nelson thought the hippies on the hill were simply caught up in another crazy save-the-world scheme. On June 12, a Mail editorial said: "Forlorn Fairfield is dying. The disease is terminal. It is a combination of unconscious neglect and the house's own internal weaknesses . . . All that can justifiably be done now is to try to be more vigilant of such indifference in the future and bid dear Fairfield goodbye."
The same week, Mr Stanton returned to Fairfield to find an antique dealer hard at work with a chainsaw, removing the frames of the sash windows in the living room. The windows were already in his car. They argued, with the man saying Mr Stanton and his friends would never manage to restore the house.
"I'd like to see Fairfield restored, too, but that's pie in the sky," the antique dealer told the Mail.
Mr Stanton managed to broker a deal - the frames would stay in the house, but the dealer would have to give the rest of the windows back if the renovation succeeded. It was two years before Mr Stanton was able to phone him to tell him it was time to surrender his loot. The windows are still there today.
But the restoration effort gathered momentum. Nelsonians began to rally around, bringing back the pieces of the house they had purloined.
All but two of those pairs of French doors have been returned, under mysterious circumstances. The beautiful front door and bannister were also returned - the door by architect Ian Jack, and the bannister by a man who came running up the staircase holding a piece of it, saying, "It fits the hole, and I think I know where the rest is - I think I can get it back'." He did, including the beautifully carved post at the bottom.
Mail reporter Arch Barclay put out a call for Nelsonians to eat more icecream - Fairfield needed 1000 icecream containers as moulds to make 3000 concrete pavers for new parking spaces.
Motivated, perhaps, by the controversial demolition of the grand old Provincial Government Buildings in the 1960s, the members of FOOF were united by a quest to save another historic Nelson building from the same fate.
They held working bees and fundraised, and nine months later the Mail changed its tune, writing an editorial praising Mr Stanton and telling the public that it was up to them to make sure the house got a second chance and to "show that Fairfield deserves a place in Nelson's life".
After all, Fairfield had been a part of Nelson's landscape since the first few decades of European settlement.
Arthur and Jane Maria Atkinson built it as a family home in 1872, and it was a grand sight at the top of the hill, gazing down Trafalgar St to the sea.
It passed to Nelson College for Girls in 1922, and then to Nelson College, which used it as a boarding house until 1964.
Nelson Polytechnic and various night classes used it until a probable arson in May 1971 destroyed the "chicken coop" dormitories outside. In dire need of maintenance, it was left empty until Mr Stanton moved in and declared it saved.
But it wasn't until the first government work scheme in 1981 that he was sure the campaign would succeed. The workers fixed the verandah and the foundations, repaired the roof and painted the building.
"There was no way it would go back from there. That was a turning point."
The last project he was involved with was the tower, which Mr Atkinson erected to indulge his stargazing habit. FOOF replicated it in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in honour of Mr Stanton's 50th birthday.
"People asked what I wanted for my birthday. I said, ‘I want to finish the tower'."
Fairfield House has been exceptionally well used by the Nelson community. A more welcoming, less formal venue than nearby Melrose House, it has became a popular meeting place.
It was decided early on that all the community groups using it needed to be bringing a "life-positive" message with them.
Its appointment book shows that last week, it hosted a Saturday wedding; a Sunday powhiri and hangi for the crew and engineers refitting the oil processing ship Raroa at Port Nelson; a holy day celebration for the Nelson Baha'i community; theatre with resident troupe Body in Space; a Neighbourhood Connections seminar; a cancer support group meeting; a community work gang working on the grounds; two volunteers building a summer house at the end of the meadow; and a Relaxercise session.
"It just offers so many wonderful opportunities to meet all the amazing, creative community people that turn up at the door," Ms Brosnahan says. "I never know what's going to arrive on my desk."
In June this year, Mr Stanton was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, a degenerative, incurable condition. At the top of his bucket list was finishing the book he'd vowed to write at that winter solstice celebration seven years ago.
The Fairfield community rallied again. Everyone stepped in to help, Ms Brosnahan says.
"It's another community project. It's just delightful to see the stories captured now and put into print for future generations.
"It's capturing the whole feeling of excitement that came from one person's feelings on the day of seeing this old building so uncared for, and how he was able to communicate that and draw in this wonderful group of people that bounced off everyone and touched hearts and were right there the whole way. Some of us still are, all these years later."
Close friend Rachel Ennor lifted the lot out of his computer - notes, ideas and first drafts - and sent it to Christchurch editor Anna Rogers. Motivated by the demolition of some of Christchurch's most beautiful homes, she did the appraisal for nothing.
Ms Ennor calls Mr Stanton and Ms Brosnahan "my surrogate parents". She finds it remarkable that when Mr Stanton had a stroke, he started a popular support group, Stroke Play, to help other sufferers with exercise and rehabilitation.
"[That] has been amazing for a lot of people. He gets motor neuron disease and says, ‘Let's complete the book'. He's a constantly inspiring model of love and gratitude. The way the book has come together is a reflection of the place he holds in all of our hearts."
Craig Potton Publishing managing director Robbie Burton acted as a publishing consultant, offering FOOF advice and overseeing the process.
"I've lived in [Nelson] a long time and had all sorts of connections with Fairfield in all sorts of ways," he says. Weddings, funerals, events - and his mother's ashes are buried in the meadow.
"I talked to Alan years ago when he was wanting to do this book, and I feel really strongly that publishing projects like this, which may not have a huge reach, are still really important records that should be done," he says. "Like many others, I was really keen to be involved.
"It's an inspiring story about how heritage gets saved. They worked their butts off on the bones of their arse for years. It's a fantastic testament to the idealism that was around in the 1970s."
Galen King, of Lucid Design, created the cover, and ended up helping in another vital way.
The King family have a long history with Fairfield and Mr Stanton. Mr King's father Bruce was a graphic designer and was involved with fundraising for the tower rebuild in the 90s, when he became close friends with Mr Stanton.
"Alan's been part of our lives on and off for the last 15 years, helping with building projects at my parents' place in Golden Bay," Mr King says. "We're very fond of him, and we're really aware of what a significant role Fairfield has in the Nelson scene and what a special man Alan is."
Bruce and Jessica King passed away in the past few years, but left some money in a trust for charity. When Mr King and his brothers Daniel and Ben heard about the book project, they instantly knew it would be a good fit, and offered $50,000.
"I cried for about an hour when I heard that," Mr Stanton's wife, Christine Bourke, says. The couple originally intended to underwrite its production themselves.
The money guaranteed that the book would be free of any constraints, allowing it to be published to a higher standard. The remainder will pay off Fairfield's mortgage, taken out recently when repairs were needed. Profits will go to FOOF.
"It totally seemed like the right thing to do," Mr King says. "We've done it in Mum and Dad's name; it's their legacy, and we have the opportunity to be able to route it for a good cause."
Anything Is Possible is more memoir than chronological history, with Mr Stanton remembering many of the hundreds of people who helped with its renovation.
"The book is as much about building the community as it is about building the house," he says.
"I feel really quite proud of it, and certainly a lot more than justified in what I did. I feel like the place is a huge success far beyond what any of us imagined in the beginning."
Since his diagnosis, the Nelson Tasman Hospice's care has been remarkable, Mrs Bourke says. In addition, a group of friends dubbed Alan's Angels helps to care for him, turning up daily at the couple's lofty hand-built home at Mapua's Silkwood.
They make food and do whatever else needs doing to ensure his comfort. Mr Stanton says he's humbled by their boundless care and attention.
The home has a cathedral-like atmosphere, and evidence of his craft is everywhere - in the smooth, heavy matai doors inlaid with paua, and the plentiful windows facing the sun.
Although Mr Stanton didn't know how to build when he made Fairfield his home in 1979, the house ended up teaching him how to build his own dwelling - and a community.
The book launch will be next Thursday, November 21 at 5pm at Fairfield House. Books, available for a discounted $35, are available from fairfieldnelson.org.nz/book. If you have memories and stories of Fairfield you would like to share - brief or long - email them to firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion on the Fairfield website.