THE SIGNALMAN'S HOUSE
The Michael King Writers’ Centre is based in the historic Signalman’s House on Takarunga Mt Victoria in Devonport.
Takarunga is one of Auckland's volcanic cones and has a long Maori history. It also played an important role in the development of the port of Auckland, after Pakeha settlement.
In Maori, the mountain on which the house stands is known as Takarunga or "hill standing above". It was once fortified and occupied by successive iwi over several centuries. On the northern and north-eastern slopes, terraces and pits associated with dwelling areas and kumara storage can still be seen.
A signal station to assist the passage of shipping was established on the summit in 1842, and the new colonists named the mountain Flagstaff Hill.
Its sweeping views of the Waitemata Harbour and the Hauraki Gulf made it an ideal location. Ships in those early days could take as long as three days to tack into Auckland after first being sighted, and the signal station played an important role in the life of the young city of Auckland. Signals hoisted on the flagstaff not only guided ships into port, but were followed closely by residents and merchants who lived in the city. Different flags were used to identify different vessels, giving inhabitants information about the ships that were due to arrive.
Flagstaff Hill was renamed Mt Victoria in the 1840s, and declared a public reserve in 1880.
In January 1930, the signal station on Mt Victoria was discontinued for reasons of economy. The function was moved to King’s Wharf, although the flagstaff remained in position. In 1934 King’s Wharf was dismantled and Mt Victoria again became the main centre for signalling operations. As technology changed, a new signal station tower was constructed on the summit in 1954. By 1970 radar with a range of 45 miles had been installed. In June 2000 the signal station became fully-automated, with the radar monitored on screen from the Ports of Auckland operations centre on the Axis Fergusson container terminal.
The whole of Takarunga is registered under the Historic Places Act 1993 as an archaeological site, which protects it from modification, damage or destruction.
The Signalman's House
The first signalmen lived in a tent or a raupo hut on the top of Mt Victoria and later a house was built on the summit. The summit was fortified because of the Russian scare in the 1880s and it was eventually taken over by the Defence Department. In 1898 the Auckland Harbour Board decided to build a new house for the signalman on the current site, about half way down the southern slope of the mountain.
Architect Edward Bartley was asked to prepare plans and specifications. The house was built in the same year.
The house is built in the style of a New Zealand Victorian ‘corner bay’ villa but with some significant variations. It features a hip roof with an unusually steep pitch, showing to advantage the fine slate roof with terracotta ridge capping. In most houses of this era the kitchen was incorporated under a lean-to, but unusually in this case the kitchen situated at the rear of the house was also roofed in the hip form. Skillion roof construction has been used over the bathroom and, in both the kitchen and bathroom the ceilings with their visible rafters follow the roof shape.
In many of its details, the house could be described as ‘transitional’ and its decorative features anticipate the spindle work and bracketing of the Edwardian era that came some 10 years later.
The conservation report prepared before the renovation of the house describes it as ‘a well-proportioned and elegant building. It illustrates how an architect innovates within an accepted architectural style to produce a building that is both original and an improvement on the basic form.’
This same report speculates that Bartley may have opted for the steeply pitched roofline because he wanted to take advantage of the house’s prominent position on the hillside. ‘Evidently Edward Bartley was neither afraid to experiment with unconventional planning, nor with an eclectic approach to design detailing. This has led to a design which stands apart from other villas of the period.’
At the back of the house, a lean-to verandah connects with the outside wash-house, now converted into a writer’s studio. This building was the larger of two original out-buildings, the second of which no longer exists.
The conservation report further notes that the Signalman’s House is significant because of its unusual status as a surviving purpose-built dwelling associated with a nineteenth-century signal station, its relationship with the Auckland Harbour Board, its place in the history of the establishment of Devonport, its association with a number of people of historical interest, its importance as an interpretation of the villa style and its landmark value in Devonport.
The first signalman to live in the house was John Fisher. The last signalman to live in it was Arthur East, who died in 1943. His widow and family continued to live in the house until the 1960s, when the Harbour Board's lease on the site expired. At that time, the house was managed by the Devonport Domain Board and later by the North Shore City Council.
The Michael King Writers' Centre has published a booklet on the history of Mt Victoria/Takarunga and the Signalman's House. It is available for purchase for $10 including postage within New Zealand. To buy a copy of the booklet, please contact the centre.
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