Retracing my artistic journey and being shocked at what was no longer there
Going home to New Zealand is always a sentimental journey for me. While I have returned to my Auckland hometown many times since marrying an American and living in the USA for the last three decades, this time was different. I decided I would retrace my footsteps of those early days when I abandoned a formal art education and opted for the adventure of going it alone and making my living from my art.
It was Auckland’s inner-city historic homes and architecture that sparked my passion for architectural art. Images of my paintings and photos from this time are sparse, but I dug around and collected up every remnant I could find. I was determined to go back and visit the historic cottage where I had my first studio in Herne Bay, Auckland, and to see again the beautiful Victorian building where I held my first exhibition displaying my paintings of Auckland architecture. I also wanted to see what had become of the historic homes that I had created paintings of back then – at least the few homes where I still had images of the paintings.
I started with this home in the Ponsonby inner-city neighborhood, which was the subject of an article that ran in the now-defunct Auckland Star. But alas, the home was no longer there! Demolished.
Thankfully I found these twin Victorians still standing proudly in Auckland’s Parnell neighborhood. They were built at the turn of the century.
Then I moved onto the St Mary’s Bay area, where there are stunning views of the Auckland Harbor. It is one of the oldest areas of Auckland and was a focal point for many of my house portraits. I was excited to see the beautiful Victorian at 12 Shelly Beach Rd where I held my first ever art show. The building had been divided up into airy tall ceiled apartments with harbor views. My friend who rented one offered up her large living room for my exhibition. This is the pen sketch I drew of the building which I featured on the cover of the exhibition invitation card.
To my horror, this is what I found. An empty lot!
It is hard to describe the emotion I felt as I surveyed that scene. It was as if I had just lost an old friend. This stretch of Shelly Beach Rd was renowned for its large Victorian mansions. Sadly, the historic home next door, at 10 Shelly Beach Rd, was also exterminated. In its place, this giant monstrosity was erected, still looking completely out of place in this historic environment.
The elegant home on the left in this photo, now dwarfed by “the monstrosity”, still remains to tell the story.
Following this, I went in search of these three homes in Herne Bay and Ponsonby that I painted in the early ’80s. The Victorian villa below used to stand on Jervois Rd, Herne Bay, the main thoroughfare. I noted that in this area, historic homes on main roads were more likely to become targets for demolition and development than their neighbors in quieter residential streets. This home was no longer there. Sadly, it was the same with the following two homes.
There is some good news, however, to end my story. By this time I was dreading what I might find taking the place of my beloved former Herne Bay home and studio at 34 Dedwood Terrace. At the time the home was not in great shape, with broken steps and tall weeds in the front yard, but it was all I could afford and I especially loved the fact that my studio occupied the large windowed balcony on the harbor side of the home.
And this is what I found!!! The home is now fully restored and beautifully renovated! Thumbs up all round!!!!
I started researching to find out more about the state of historic preservation in Auckland and New Zealand. Great strides have been made over the years to increase public awareness regarding the need to save historic architectural cultural gems, both in Auckland and throughout the country.
I found a report written in 1993 by a local historian entitled Historic Preservation in Urban New Zealand. This shed some light for me, on what happened.
“An event of major traumatic significance for historic preservation in New Zealand was the property boom of the 1980s. It is often referred to as the major catalyst for the new wave of action on historic preservation because of the devastating effect on older structures in the central business districts of several cities, especially Auckland and Wellington, of the boom in construction of new office buildings.
“The pace of change in the late 1970s and early and mid-1980s was unprecedented and led to the wholesale destruction of large parts of what had become the classic streetscapes of commercial downtown New Zealand. The demolitions that took place in the main cities during the early and mid-eighties changed the inherited cityscape greatly.”
Despite these architectural losses along the way, this area of Auckland that served as my stomping ground and provided constant inspiration, is even more delightful and walkable today. I noted that hundreds of historic homes in the area have been given a new lease on life through tender loving care given by their owners. Interesting artsy stores and boutiques abound and the cafes and restaurants are to die for. The area is now defined as one of the hippest districts of Auckland and I can totally see why.
As I work to get my USA coffee table book ready for release later this year,(which will include my paintings of homes and historic buildings in every state in the country), I have resolved that I need to create a similar project within New Zealand. I have also decided that my next trip to Auckland and NZ will include the presentation of my Leisa Collins Historic Preservation Award to a deserving Auckland awardee. But that is another project and another day.
Ciao for now, Leisa