When Susan and Graeme Stevenson were in the market for a smaller home six years ago, they never imagined they'd be moving into a three-storey heritage building with a full basement on Hamilton's main street. Now it is where they live and operate an educational institute started by Susan. Wintec journalism student ANNALESE WEBBER shares their story and the history of the building.

Built in 1925, the old Public Trust Office building stands tall as Hamilton's first government building, its two Grecian columns recently renewed from their former dull blue-grey with a coat of white paint.

The icon was designed by architect WG Young, noted for Dunedin's Knox College and Wellington's railway station, among other iconic New Zealand buildings.

After the Public Trust moved out of the building in 1998, it was occupied by Pinnacle Life Insurance, followed by private owners before the title ended up in the Stevensons' hands. The couple had initially withdrawn their original offer on the place, thinking it was "insane", and it wasn't until a year later while on holiday that they decided to go for it after all.

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"Our family all thought we were nuts.

"We thought we were nuts too."

In the five years since, they have been working on renovating and restoring the historical building: a long-term project which they are chipping away at bit by bit. Pulling away the ground floor's low ceiling panels—"the holey stuff that grandma had"—revealed high ceilings with elegant plasterwork, and under the bright red paint was a green not dissimilar to the mint colour Susan and Graeme had picked out for the same walls.

Initial plans to develop shops and a café in the space fell away after that. "You can't do that; it's got its own kind of spirit and personality."

Susan says restoring the building has been rewarding, but also frustrating at times: intricate chandeliers arrived in thousands of individual pieces for assembly, builders once removed the wrong wall; and sadly, broken pieces of pounamu coloured marble were found to have belonged to a greenstone staircase which once ran through the building.

Nevertheless, the process has been full of interesting discoveries. Two of the building's 17 room-sized safes are permanently sealed, not even the fire department could open them. Another contained a second safe within, which Graeme managed to crack after "many, many nights going down", only to find it contained a tin full of keys to locks unknown.

The door to the Public Trust Building from the inside, with Victoria Street on the opposite side. Photo / Tom Rowland
The door to the Public Trust Building from the inside, with Victoria Street on the opposite side. Photo / Tom Rowland

Some of the light switches — since repaired — could turn off lights in buildings down the street, which Susan suspects had to do with some illegal connections back in the day.

And a brick veneer on the foundations obscured concrete and a lot of steel.

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"People didn't know what concrete was and they didn't trust it," says Susan, which
explains not just the veneer but the vast amount of thick steel reinforcing the building.

The builders may have "overdone it", but on the plus side the building has needed little earthquake strengthening.

But by far the biggest discovery of them all was the history of the site itself.

The Public Trust Office Building sits about 600m from the edge of the Waikato River, on the site of the historic Kirikiriroa Pā. It was from there that, during the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s, the people of Ngāti Wairere were forced to flee.

The main room inside the Public Trust Building is illuminated by large chandeliers, with a teaching room set-up. Photo / Tom Rowland
The main room inside the Public Trust Building is illuminated by large chandeliers, with a teaching room set-up. Photo / Tom Rowland

The land was eventually confiscated by British forces and developed into the city of Hamilton.

"When I found that out it was like getting five children, because you had the sense that you had this responsibility."

Hekeiterangi Broadhurst is a direct descendant of the Ngāti Wairere people who fled Kirikiriroa. Over tea and asparagus sandwiches at her modest Huntly home, she relates their story. Born in Waiti, north of Morrinsville, during the Depression, her early days were spent living in a tin shack with the rest of the extended whānau in Tauhei.

"That's the sort of whare we had. We knew what it was like to go without."

Despite being "landless", Hekeiterangi talks fondly of her upbringing, living in harmony with nature, being surrounded by love, and everyone being "healthy as physically, mentally, spiritually".

The name Kirikiriroa, she explains, refers to the fertile sandy loam which makes up much of the soil around the area: kirikiri meaning small stones or sand, and roa meaning long — a long stretch of fertile land. Many knew Waikato as the "food bowl" of New Zealand, and though Māori knew how to cultivate crops of various types, when missionaries arrived in the early 19th century they passed on a new type of their horticultural knowledge on to the locals along with the gospel.

Potatoes, rīwai māori, kumara, and kūmarahou were just some of the many crops traditionally growing in gardens along each side of the Waikato River before Europeans came. The missionaries also planted peaches — hence Peachgrove Rd — and experimented with other new crops like wheat. Ngāti Wairere started to build up their economy, with up to 50 waka at a time travelling along the "highway river" delivering produce to Auckland, as well as trading with Australians at Raglan and Waiuku.

But while the Waikato was growing lush and green, and despite British Parliament orders not to forcibly take land, the British in Tamaki-Makaurau were growing green with envy.
"There was no beg your pardon about it, they were going to take that land."

In late 1863, Chief Hoera Taonui led several waka of Ngāti Wairere up to Rangiriri in response to a call from the Kīngitanga to defend the Waikato from the coming British army.

The entrance to the Public Trust Building on Victoria Street. Photo / Tom Rowland
The entrance to the Public Trust Building on Victoria Street. Photo / Tom Rowland

By the time they arrived, the war had begun. The British were expecting them, in their gunboats, thanks to spies posted along the river, and they were unable to get further than Lake Waikare, which was already littered with the bodies of the elderly and children.

In 1864, with Chief Hoera dead, and British forces moving ever closer to their settlement, the inhabitants of Kirikiriroa Pā fled to Hukanui, near Gordonton.

"The pā where my ancestors lived was taken, destroyed, sold."

First claim on purchasing the land went to the highest-ranking officials, which is why many of Hamilton's streets are named after the British fighters: Grey, von Tempsky, Bryce. The Public Trust Office site moved through several hands before it was 'bought' for the first government building erection in Hamilton.

After leaving Kirikiriroa, Hekeiterangi's grandmother found herself in Rangiaowhia where she was an eyewitness to the church fires and shootings of children and elderly inside.

"Every time my grandmother, Kameta Te Puke, used to come into Kirikiriroa she used to tell us to stop right where that Public Trust building is, and she used to wail.

"I can understand how my grandmother felt because of the memories, the beautiful memories of all the family living together."

Susan's grandmother Mary Graham, on the other hand, was the first woman teacher in Southland.

"It was really outrageous to become a woman teacher in those days. She passed an enormous legacy to my father in terms of education, that I feel has come to me."

A framed, black-and-white photo of Mary hangs proudly on the wall at the reception area of Freedom Institute of Higher Education, on the second floor of the Public Trust building. After a career in education and curriculum consultancy, purchasing the building was the catalyst for Susan to start her own educational institute. "The building looked like the institute that was sitting in my head."

See the next Hamilton News on January 24 for part two of the story of the Stevensons and the Public Trust Building.