Auckland lawyer and advocate for historic buildings Peter Macky's latest project is breathing new life into an old German railway station with regal beginnings.
Asked whether madness runs in his family, Peter Macky laughs. The lawyer and heritage champion has just bought a railway station ... in Germany. As you do.
"Anything exciting and worthwhile requires a bit of madness," says Macky.
What caused a well-known and established Auckland lawyer to indulge in such seeming folly? A passion for architecture, a bicycle, a bit of breaking and entering, and an element of serendipity is the answer.
There was evidence of the passion last year with the launch of Macky's sumptuous and erudite book, Coolangatta, A Homage. It told the tale of one of Auckland's most famous arts and crafts buildings, unceremoniously pulled down in 2006 through a process Hamish Keith eloquently describes as, "old and elegant Auckland falling to the bulldozers of greed". The book raised the profile of the heritage debate, reads like a thriller and has been greatly lauded. Unsurprisingly, it has also drawn the ire of the town-planning burghers it criticised. Macky is not one to shy away from controversial or difficult projects.
Interest in a house in Auckland is one thing, but a railway station in Germany? And not just any station, but one built exclusively for royalty - a Kaiserbahnhof , used only by the Kaiser (or Emperor) and his family.
Macky is no stranger to Europe having lived for periods in both London and Paris. Now Berlin is under his skin. He says there is something different about the city, the cafes and the arts scene.
"Berlin handles individuals very well. Life is very civilised."
In the best European tradition, Macky has become re-acquainted with something he hasn't touched since school - the bicycle.
"I almost live on one now. There are cycling paths everywhere. The weather's predictable, the traffic courteous, and it's flat. I would never cycle in Auckland, cars aim at you here."
He says he is now a serious cyclist without being part of the Lycra brigade. "I ride something you might see in a pre-war movie."
It was thanks to this new mode of transport that Macky found his Bahnhoff.
"I organised a trip for friends into the Spreewald area, to the south east of Berlin - full of lakes, forests and cycle paths. It was a week in August with no itinerary, staying in villages I didn't even know the names of. These were not big places; it was like arriving in Te Kuiti for instance."
In a small town called Halbe, Macky decided to go exploring while his friends looked through a bric-a-brac shop. He came across a red brick building adorned with four decorative towers and a For Sale sign. Something about the building charmed him, even though it was derelict.
"At the time I thought, 'that could be interesting'. But my friends were waiting and I decided the idea was maybe a bit nutty." Macky did not, at first, realise that the building he was looking at was a small Kaiserbahnhof , with its once-royal connection.
"Nutty" as the idea may have been, it stayed with him. A few weeks later Macky returned to Halbe to have a closer look, this time knowing he had to somehow get inside. A bit of unlawyer-like breaking and entering was required.
"It wasn't very difficult," smiles the enterprising Macky.
He found 20 years' worth of dust and rubbish. The station had been unoccupied since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
He returned to New Zealand armed with photos and the phone number of the real estate agent.
"I then did a huge amount of research into the building, its heritage, and what would be required to restore it."
A deal was concluded in December 2009. Macky's Christmas present to himself was freehold title to half an acre of German land with a train station on top.
History of the Kaiserbahnhof
The Kaiser had several train stations. All private. The one in Halbe, designed by the celebrated Berlin architect, August Orth, was built in 1866. As Kaiserbahnhofs went, it was relatively modest - a five-roomed stopping-off point en route to one of the Kaiser's hunting lodges. He would get off the train and walk straight into a private, domed salon with attached bathroom. His attendants would wait upon him in a large, vaulted vestibule next door.
The Halbe Bahnhof was seldom used and in 1912 was converted into three apartments for railway workers. In 1941 it was turned into offices for the German Railways, as Germany was about to invade Russia. Thirteen rooms were created out of the original five. The alterations were substantial but not structural. Fortuitously, they had the effect, to some degree, of preserving the columns and art work behind false walls and ceilings. "The gilding work and frescoes can now be exposed and restored," says Macky. "They're badly damaged, but you can still see exactly what was there."
With access to the architect's original drawings and plans, Macky intends to restore Orth's configuration of rooms. "I'm looking to create a museum in the vaulted area that was once used by the Kaiser's attendants. The King's salon will become a cafe. On the second floor an apartment will be created which I will use." As a German newspaper quipped, a New Zealander has become the new Emperor of a Kaiser's Bahnhof.
Restoration work started in earnest in the summer of 2010. Buoyed by excitement, and a certain amount of naivety, things started off smoothly. Macky employed a German project manager, before discovering how difficult the building process in Germany could be. "You would think master craftsmen were available, but they're not. Far from it," he says ruefully.
Trouble started with the roof. Half of the 48 solid rafters needed replacing. But once tongue and groove had been laid on top of them, Macky's keen eye picked up that the new rafters had not been put down evenly.
"The first thing an architect or engineer would do would be to check the levels. But nothing like that was done. I said to the contractors, 'stop!'."
Incredulously for Macky, the project manager said he didn't think the work was so bad; that an old roof could not be expected to be flat. Macky pointed to one of similar vintage nearby that was perfectly flat. "The new roof has to come off," he said resolutely, "the workmanship just isn't good enough. You have to start again and this time the beams have to be packed to the right heights." The workmen argued with him for three weeks before capitulating. Macky's patrician exterior belies his tenacity. He counts himself lucky to have been on site at the time.
The Kaiserbahnhof now has a flat new roof and a new project manager, this one hailing from Italy. Macky says that with his Latin temperament the new man is almost more passionate about the project than he is. The priority now is to find suitably skilled crafts people before restoration work begins again in the European summer. Otherwise Macky has vowed to complete the work with New Zealand builders and bricklayers instead.
"My aim is for the station eventually to become a starting point for bicycle tours. I've secured funding from the German State to set up a tourist operation from the Bahnhof, around the Spreewald area. Bicycle tours have become a big thing in Europe."
These are the early days of a wildly ambitious project. A "commoner", with a passion for urban design, Macky has gone from writing about the subject to actually doing something. He may not have been able to save Coolangatta, but his Kiwi hands-on/can-do attitude is breathing new life into another building of charm and historical importance. That it is situated in a country which had such a huge effect on the consciousness of a generation of New Zealanders is one of life's marvellous ironies.