Editorial: Ohinetahi a special gift

Last updated 05:00 06/11/2012

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OPINION: Just as too much of Sir Miles Warren's architecture is disappearing from the face of Christchurch he has created a legacy that will represent his great talents far into the future. He has done that by giving Ohinetahi, his splendid house and garden at the top of Lyttelton Harbour, to the nation. It is a place that will always be closely linked with his name.

Like all great gardens and the interesting houses that often grace them, Ohinetahi is the expression of a vision. Great houses and grounds do not just emerge but are the result of an acute feel for landscape, acknowledgment of a tradition, plantsmanship and hard work. They are creations, and in the case of Ohinetahi the creation has been mainly that of Sir Miles.

When he, his sister and brother-in-law took over Ohinetahi, more that three decades ago, they were faced with an historic house and garden that had fallen into disrepair. What was once a distinguished garden created by Thomas Potts, an early conservationist and botanist, had retreated to not much more than a lawn and the house was showing its more-than-a-century of life.

The transformation that those three brought about was dramatic but acknowledged history. The house was recreated but retained its character and the grounds their old trees and the notion that a garden was a place to refresh the human spirit. What changed was the elegant absorption of the Italian formal garden and the English mastery of placing plants.

The result soon attracted the approval of the public and an international reputation, helped by the generosity of the owners in opening the grounds to the public.

This took place just as New Zealand was rediscovering the grand garden, after a century of decline. What was once thought to exist only in Europe and the United States was suddenly seen as possible of being created here.

Such gardens had not been a feature of New Zealand since the forced break-up of the great estates in the final decades of the 19th century. The magnificent gardens of dozens of large properties such as Waikakahi and Glenmark disappeared, lingering on to some extent in merchants' city properties, like that at Ilam, but they were few.

The wealth created in the 1980s, increased overseas travel and a general renewed enthusiasm for the seed catalogue and the compost heap, led to the creation of a few big gardens that were tended by money and vision. Ohinetahi was one such.

Now, these spectacular creations can be visited up and down the nation and they have spawned their own tourist trail.

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The worry for their owners is that future generations might not have the money or determination to preserve them - a lack that can begin the disintegration of a garden in a season.

Sir Miles - now the sole presiding genius at Ohinetahi - is in the position to avoid that by setting up a charitable trust in which he has vested the ownership of the property. Given sensible stewardship and enterprise, it should keep the Governor's Bay garden blooming and open to visitors.

Christchurch will benefit because it will have a beautiful drawcard on its visitors' itinerary and the nation will have in its possession an example of that idealised thing, an antipodean paradise garden.

For that act of generosity, Sir Miles deserves New Zealanders' thanks.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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