A 1950s Barbara Ave bach which recently sold for $956,000 will live on thanks to its new owners – but the writing may be on the wall for many other classic Coromandel kiwi baches like it.

"Our disappearing baches" is increasingly common catch-cry of heritage enthusiasts to real estate agents, who say the landscape of Whangamata, Pauanui and all coastal holiday towns on the eastern Coromandel Peninsula is destined to change dramatically in the next 10 to 20 years.

Barbara Ave, Beverley Tce, Diana Ave and Winifred Ave are some of the most sought-after streets in Whangamata. Along with Seaview Rd, they hold a stock of old fibrolite baches which represent the post-war New Zealand bach.

Walking distance to Whangamata beach, which was voted the best in New Zealand late last year, 110 Barbara Ave is one of the last still on a full 809sq m site.

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She "witnessed much and outlived most" according to Murray Cleland's advert for the iconic bach he sold last month at auction, which drew a large crowd.

This Barbara Ave icon auctioned by Murray Cleland in Whangamata drew a crowd. Photos / Fred Christensen
This Barbara Ave icon auctioned by Murray Cleland in Whangamata drew a crowd. Photos / Fred Christensen

"There was a lot of interest in it and it was a high price, but it was no record price," says Murray.

"Anything within easy walking distance to the beach is sought after, and there are a few options for that site because it's zoned extra density, though the people who bought it said they intend to retain the old bach and probably build [elsewhere on the site]."

Whether or not the baches can continue to charm visitors and locals alike with their 1950s ways will be up to buyers, and nobody else.

There is only one scheduled heritage building on the eastern seaboard from Whangamata to Whitianga and that is the home of late author Michael King's house in Opoutere.

"Some people will struggle to think of Whangamata's fibrolite baches as having any values but when you see things like Beach Hop getting bigger every year, it brings up interesting questions about how you protect the real things that create the backdrop for a 50s festival," says Heritage expert Dr Ann McEwan.

McEwan wrote the recommendations for which buildings were included in Thames Coromandel District Council's proposed district plan, but none of her four suggestions for baches made it through.

"I think we have this idea that if it's in our lifetime, it can't be heritage because we're all so young, and by the time we really get onboard with mid-century heritage, we will have lost a huge amount of it."

In Mercury Bay, the board rejected scheduling heritage buildings but has set aside budgets for signs about heritage. So-called heritage signage, says McEwan, "is no replacement for the real thing".

"The evidence ... might not survive the next 10 or 20 years. To preserve it, you do have to do something deliberate."

This Barbara Ave icon auctioned by Murray Cleland in Whangamata drew a crowd. Photos / Fred Christensen
This Barbara Ave icon auctioned by Murray Cleland in Whangamata drew a crowd. Photos / Fred Christensen

McEwan agrees the fibrolite bach was never built with a long life in mind, but says, if local government was willing, it could use its discretion to help owners keep the character of an old bach and still be liveable, without applying the rules that govern new builds.

Builders can also play their part. "Don't just go in there and say this is a pile of [junk] let's put a match to it, they can make suggestions so people replace materials and insulate from underneath, for example.

"Heritage isn't about stopping the clock, but when the last fibrolite bach in Whangamata goes, it will be too late to have had that conversation if this is something that people value."

Murray Cleland understands property owners and buyers who are wary of asbestos and other hazards that are a component of many old baches.

"A lot were built and brought on car trailers out of the Waikato and Auckland in the early days. When you have fibrolite baches with asbestos, the new people are a bit nervous about them, so we're seeing GJ Gardner homes, A1s, Jennians and homes locally designed by architects like Diana Blake and Bruce Scott. That will change the town, it will be a big change in what's happening over the next 10 years."

Zoning

McEwan says zoning was key, with councils contributing towards the demise of this heritage when they zone extra density in the same streets where old baches still exist.

"In fact recent studies have shown that in Auckland, people will pay 4 per cent more for a place in a character area, so having a scheduled building is not the kiss of death."

If that is to work, it must be a whole street filled with beach bach character - not a lonely old bach with concrete footpaths and towering modern neighbours.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has the role as Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, and the Government has offered better regional assistance for owners of earthquake prone heritage buildings.

This means grants for half the costs of professional advice, including conservation reports and architectural work.

In the bid to preserve bach culture and heritage, it may be sea level rise taking its toll, says McEwan.

Perhaps the bigger threat right now though is market forces and political will.

National policy on heritage

McEwan says a survey of heritage experts on what is and isn't working was the precursor to establishing a national policy statement on heritage.

This would go some way to preventing individual councils choosing to listen to some and ignoring others, depending on how pro-developer an elected council is.

"The bach is emblematic of a Kiwi way of life. They were built modest, in the days when you could all share a bathroom.

"People don't realise that when it's all gone, it will not be the place that you hold dear and want to take your children and grandchildren to. So if you're not okay with that, put some talking points in the way."

Four generations of the Gorrie family have enjoyed the use of the family bach in Given Ave for 50 years. Photo / File
Four generations of the Gorrie family have enjoyed the use of the family bach in Given Ave for 50 years. Photo / File