A man's gift of happiness to the nation

OHINETAHI: Sir Miles Warren's beautiful and beloved home.
OHINETAHI: Sir Miles Warren's beautiful and beloved home.

Sir Miles Warren has gifted his home and grounds to the nation. CHARLIE GATES talks to the architect about his 35-year labour of love creating Ohinetahi.

Deep in Miles Warren's ornamental garden at his home Ohinetahi overlooking Governors Bay, a Latin motto is carved in stone.

It translates as: "He who plants a garden, plants happiness."

Is that true?

Warren pauses for a moment. He looks through the dappled shade of the garden he has spent 35 years creating and smiles.

"Yes, it is true."

Now, he wants to pass on that happiness to New Zealand.

Warren has given his heritage home and garden to the country, forming the Ohinetahi Charitable Trust and endowing it with enough money to maintain the house and grounds for future generations.

He has spent 35 years restoring the 1860s house and sculpting the grounds into an elaborate and unique attraction - a series of garden rooms furnished with 140-year-old oak trees, large sculptures and recovered ornamental stonework.

"So many gardens are made in New Zealand and the owners become elderly and the grounds fall into disrepair. It would seem a pity to spend 35 years making something and then walking away and letting it fall apart," he says.

"It would only continue if it was put in the hands of trustees and sufficiently endowed to cover the costs. We hope over time that the income from visitors will come closer to covering the cost of running it so the endowment will not be called upon to the same extent."

Warren says maintaining the grounds requires enough funds to pay two experienced gardeners and cover rates and insurance premiums. It takes three months just to trim all the hedges.

"It is a large baby to look after," he says.

Warren, 83, still vividly remembers first seeing Ohinetahi in 1977. Within 10 minutes, he knew he was going to buy it.

"My sister and I came to see it and immediately recognised the prospect of the property making a garden, whether or not the house was a plus or a minus we didn't know," he says.

The house was what might be called a fixer-upper.

"The front was so bedraggled we named it after Miss Haversham from Great Expectations.

"Wisteria had engulfed the front facade. It was a pretty neglected piece of land. One room was filled with timber. It was being camped in and wasn't particularly comfortable."

Warren, his sister Pauline and her husband, fellow architect John Trengrove, bought the place and began the daunting task of creating their slice of Eden.

"My father could not understand why we would leave our Edwardian home for this ruin. He said we were bloody mad."

They employed two carpenters who worked on the place for 18 months.

"We came here every weekend and slaved away. I remember stripping layers and layers of wallpaper with a hot iron. We did the donkey work.

"At the end of the job, one of the carpenters said: ‘It might be worthwhile after all.' He had been working here all that time and wasn't sure if it was worthwhile."

It took about 10 years before the garden started to take shape.

Warren describes it as "an extended Arts and Crafts garden with rooms" arranged along different sightlines.

"It was inevitable that an architect would design a garden like that. What I enjoyed was the pleasure of being a garden designer. We were amateurs practising an art rather than having to be professional architects. We didn't have a client and we could do what we damn well liked and make our own mistakes.

"It was very relaxing, the physical process. You didn't have a client looking over your shoulder so you could make a stuff-up and no-one would complain."

His sister and brother-in-law moved out in the late 1980s.

"That meant I could indulge in making things in the garden. I love the pleasure of making things, which is a compulsive architectural process."

Warren's love for Ohinetahi was put to the test when the September earthquake struck and badly damaged the masonry core of the historic building.

Falling masonry crashed through the wooden buildings that surround the stone core.

The local stone had to be removed from the upper storeys of the building and replaced with timber, while the ground floor walls were reinforced with concrete. By the time the February quake struck, the masonry had been removed, along with the contents of the house, sparing further extensive damage.

The removed stone was put to a new purpose, furnishing a new amphitheatre built in the grounds overlooking the harbour.

"Giving an architect a vast pile of perfectly squared stone, there is a compulsion to do something with it."

Warren plans to stay at Ohinetahi, even though his gift to the nation now makes him a tenant in the house.

"I will live here as long as I can, but at some stage I might be known as that grumpy old bastard on the first floor."

The Press