When brother and sister Simon and Susan Dowd, along with their seven siblings, put their parents' grand old Grafton mansion on the market this month, they farewelled it with a bang: around 80 people at a weekend of partying, the final in a series that have been hosted since Jim and Margaret Dowd bought the property in 1981.

At the time that Jim and Margaret bought this property, only Susan and three of her brothers were still living at home. The other siblings were scattered across New Zealand, Australia and England, but they were all horrified at their parents' choice.

The country couple had moved their remaining brood from gentle Papatoetoe, where Jim had a real estate business, into a nearly derelict boarding house.

But the storied mansion — it was home to Charlotte, whose father CJ Stone was reputedly the first Pakeha baby born in New Zealand — was astonishingly sound, built of kauri and shuttered pit scoria and concrete, etched to look like stone.


Variously known as Huntly House or Hall, the property originally sat on two hectares, with an entrance at Carlton Gore Rd.

Now the double-fronted house has a sweeping driveway off the avenue named after it.

"There were still boarders in the house, some of them never came out of their rooms — it took years for the last ones to leave," says Susan.

"The boys, Ben, James and Philip [then aged 16 to 21] lived in the house: I had to live in the cottage with mum and dad.

"People would trot through the kitchen to use the pay phone, and there were showers and toilets outside in the back wing."

Simon says: "The story goes that they paid $125,000 for it."

But the 1876 house was made of strong stuff that 40 years of boarders and rooms carved into bedsits hadn't damaged. The deep veranda that wrapped nearly three sides of the house had been enclosed for more rooms, the front was entirely draped with creepers.

Over five years of intense work, the Dowds managed to piece together the story of the house and un-pick it back to its original splendour.

They were helped by historic photographs, and a timely visit from Minnie White, daughter of the first owners, all a delight to the detail-oriented Jim.

Simon has boxes of reference photos, letters from his father to various councils seeking historic classification (this was the 1980s, Auckland was demolishing Victoriana) and reminiscences from Minnie and her family.

Jim was a prolific artist with a circle of bohemian artist and crafts people who helped with the restoration. His children reckon he never sat still.

When the rumply weatherboard rooms were torn off the original veranda, Jim's sculptor friend Roderick Burgess figured out the turned shapes of the posts and railings and helped restore the proportions to the original. The concrete front steps were refinished.

Piles and earthworks under and around the house ensured the entire place was dry and secure (you can still go under the basement to see the extraordinary kauri beams that underpin the building) and at the back of the house, the Dowds dug out earth and laid patio pavers to create the best outdoor party room in the city, partially covered by the wide veranda above.

Jim and Margaret gardened frantically, adding a mix of exotic sub-tropical and traditional roses in the style Victorians loved.

The couple, fanatical collectors of antiques, had some luck: the original arched sash windows, french doors, and many of the internal doors, kauri cornices and architraves, and papier mache ceiling roses were still there, hidden under layers of dirt. Where cracked glass needed replacing, the Dowds recycled it from old windows from demolition yards and specialist plasterers restored the mouldings.

Air vents kept the house dry, helped by slate and lead roof and heart kauri everywhere. Luckily, there was electricity and most of the fireplaces worked, although as their parents got older, Susan says they shut down all but the coal range in the kitchen. The house was always full of Jim's artist mates telling tall tales and making art.

The house is arranged in a formal way, befitting a grand family home. Either side of the wide front door are the most formal rooms, a parlour and a bay-fronted room that became Jim's study.

An arched doorway leads to the family quarters — an enormous sitting room with another bay window and fireplace, and the formal dining room (a terrific party space, Susan and Simon say). Tucked under the winding staircase is a guest bathroom (the original cloakroom coat rack can still be seen).

At the back are the kitchen rooms arranged in much the same way as they would have been in Victorian times.

Susan says her father loved traditional kitchens — a picture above the kitchen sink is a reminder of the old style, so there is a big panelled room with working coal range and dining table, then the scullery behind with sink, cooker and cupboards built by Jim from salvaged panels.

A wing behind the kitchen would have been the washhouse, storage rooms and possibly servants' rooms, now a painting studio and storage. There are still the old shower rooms and bathrooms, and an odd door links to the two-bedroom cottage that dates from the 1920s.

Upstairs are the five gracious bedrooms, all with high ceilings and original doors. Jim and Margaret carved a dressing room off a smaller bedroom, finished with more recycled doors, but mostly furnished the rooms with Victorian cupboards and dressers.

The bathroom was the work of Jim and some of his painting mates and includes a water lily mural, recycled bathtub and basin.

French doors open the hall and some rooms to the airy veranda. There are views across the leafy gully with its unexpected enclave of untouched Victorian houses to the city.

The back veranda looks into Outhwaite Park, the remains of another beautiful family estate established in the 1840s. In winter, when the trees are bare, you can see the harbour.

The Dowds are immensely proud of their parents' contribution to keeping Auckland history alive, hoping the next owner takes care of the property for future generations.

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