An unassuming red barn near Pakaraka looks set to join Northland's heritage building heavyweights.
Investigations have revealed the old farm outbuilding in the Far North is likely to be the fifth oldest building in the country – only Kemp House, the Stone Store, Te Waimate Mission and the Treaty House are a few years older.
"This deceptively ordinary barn you wouldn't look twice at is actually a pre-Treaty house," Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland manager Bill Edwards said.
"This important heritage building has been hiding in plain sight."
Australian architect and heritage conservation student Daniel Cowley made the discovery last year while in New Zealand undertaking his Master of Architecture and Heritage Conservation degree at Auckland university.
He also had help from property owners Chris and Monica Church, who have spent five years refurbishing their homestead, which is near the barn.
The couple had reached a similar conclusion after studying diaries and sketches from Archives New Zealand.
They had suspected their barn was more than just an outbuilding.
Its history can be traced back to missionary Henry Williams who bought the property for his six sons as a sheep and cattle station in 1835.
Before that, the fertile volcanic land was settled and intensively cultivated by Ngāpuhi and there is evidence of pa, pits and terraces.
"We're very pleased Heritage NZ has retained Daniel to conduct this research," Church said.
"There has been so much ambiguity around the status and age of the building. It's really good we've got some clarity around the design and age of it now."
Edwards said the barn was initially used to house the Williams brothers. By 1850 they had moved out and the barn was then used to hold church services while the Holy Trinity Anglican Church at Pakaraka was being constructed.
"The building was later relocated within the property – probably between 1863-64 – and by 1870 it had reverted to a barn."
Cowley - who has written a detailed report on the building under the guidance of Heritage NZ – found construction methods and techniques used in other early buildings of the 1830s.
They include the use of pit-sawn timber and hand-planed joinery, along with Georgian-style windows and shutters, and detailed hinges made of cast iron and single stays.
The roof beams and walls told a similar story.
Marked with Roman numerals, they showed a typical method for placement used during construction also found in the Treaty House and the Stone Store.
Although nearly 200 years old, the building is in pretty good shape, Edwards said.
"The owner recently painted it, and the building has generally been looked after over the years. A combination of its hardwood frame and a good corrugated iron roof has helped keep it in good condition.
"What's quite striking about the building is that it's had minimal intervention. It's in quite a raw state, and shows the patina of age – which is what makes it so beautiful."
What is also significant about the heritage discovery is the interaction between Māori and Pākehā that the building represents.
"The barn is important as a European artefact, but its real story lies in its relationship to the land and why Māori and Pākehā were there, which is because the land was so fertile," Edwards said.
Edwards said the research will prove valuable to the Williams' descendants, who are holding a family reunion in 2023 celebrating 200 years since their arrival in New Zealand.