Low, James Jamieson David (David) Interview
Good morning. Today is Wednesday 2nd December 2020. I am Lyn Sturm, and on behalf of the Knowledge Bank I’m about to interview David Low. David was Deputy Superintendent of Parks & Reserves for the Napier City Council before he retired. Over to you, David.
Thank you, Lyn. Just to put a background to the reason for my being in New Zealand, from my accent it will be obvious to listeners that I’m not New Zealand born. I was born in Derby in England in 1936, and my choice on leaving school was to enter the profession of horticulture. So I became an apprentice with Derby City Council in the Parks Department, and started my training in horticulture. At one point I had to go into National Service with the Air Force, and I was transferred to Gibraltar, which opened my eyes and my whole sort-of experience of life to the fact that there were parts of the world which had climate rather than weather. And so on completion of my two years in the Air Force I was fairly convinced it was a good idea to move to a part of the world which had a warmer climate. However, I continued in my training, and in 1959 I became a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew for two years. During that time I met a lot of other students from other parts of the world including the Commonwealth … Australians, quite a few Kiwis … and Americans and you know, quite a wide range of people from different places.
The other factor of being at Kew was very important in life in that I met my wife. She was a scientific assistant in the herbarium at Kew, and she formed an important part of the further development of David Low’s works. The time we were at Kew and meeting all these other people, we adopted a more outgoing attitude to settlement, and although she was from a relatively large family … I was an only child, and she was one of four children … the idea of leaving family was quite strange to Sylvia. But when it came to the choice of moving she said, “You can choose to go anywhere you like, but don’t leave me behind.” [Chuckle]
So anyway, I carried on with my training and I went to the Institute of Park Administration Training College, which was a one year live-in course where those students who’d studied horticulture and were probably well trained in growing, and knowing botany and all that kind of thing, and knowing about plants and trees and landscapes, learned more about the history of landscape design; garden design; how to prepare plans; and also administration for Parks administration; so I rounded out quite a lot of my previous experience and expanded it into design and draftsmanship.
So having finished there, we experienced one of the worst winters in British history since 1740 when they first started taking records. On finishing my time at the Parks College, I went to work temporarily with the London Borough of Ealing Parks Department. I remember visiting the Superintendent or the Director of Parks there on the first morning, and there’d been snow over the weekend. And there was about twelve to fifteen inches of snow lying over most of Greater London; and he said to me, “Doesn’t last long in London – it’ll be gone before the weekend.” Well that was 2nd January, and the snow finally disappeared on the third week in March because one of the worst cold snaps moved over – a whole cell of cold air moved from Central Russia over Europe and as far as the British Isles, so the snow froze in place and then it carried on freezing and it froze the ground as well. And so I was put in charge of a group of apprentices, originally to design and create a water garden in Walpole Park, but it turned out that the ground was so hard that a small trench that we’d dug was in ground that was so hard you had to use a pick to move it. We abandoned that, and I moved this group around [chuckle] the Ealing area trimming trees instead. [Chuckle] During this time we’d made application to emigrate to New Zealand, and Sylvia and I came out as assisted immigrants.
We sailed in February 1964 and arrived in Napier on 5th April 1964. My new boss was Laurie Lannie who was a Scotsman, but had lived in New Zealand since he was eleven years old. His mother brought him and his sister and his brother to New Zealand a long time before, so he was like me – I regard myself these days as having a Pommie accent but Kiwi attitude [chuckle] – so we became, you know, a pair. He was a very experienced gardener and plants man, and botanist, but he didn’t have any experience of design; and that was what attracted his attention when I’d written to nine different cities and places in New Zealand enquiring if they would take me on as an employee. And so I was fortunate to arrive in Napier at a time when the city had a very progressive mayor, Peter Tait, who later became Sir Peter Tait. Peter Tait was very keen on developing Napier’s infrastructure including not only the essentials, but things that he regarded as also essential, like a good landscape, good public spaces, and especially the planting of trees. So for the next twenty-six years I was involved with the Parks Department in designing, and also administration.
The design part of my experience in Napier started with something which has since disappeared; it was to create a small, planted area with shrubs and trees at the back of where the Te Pania Hotel now is. The site had had one of Napier’s earliest Police Stations there; it’d been cleared and had been created as a car park. However, Peter looked at it and said, “We don’t just want cars in a car park; we want something to buffer it slightly; we want a planted area at the front.” And so Laurie said to me, “Can you sketch something up?” And I said, “Yes – well I’ll need some paper.” So he brought he a torn off piece of [chuckle] paper on which I did a pencil sketch of what I thought the area would look like if we put a planted area in it. At that time I wasn’t the Deputy Superintendent, I was actually in charge of the Botanical Gardens. We’d been here about eight or nine months; and I was working at the Botanical Gardens. The curator there fell ill with no sort of prospect of coming back to work, and so I was put in charge.
And then – just as a curious aside – one day Laurie came up to the Botanical Gardens and he said, “Tomorrow I’m going down to Dannevirke”, or near Dannevirke, “to pick up a load of trees from the nursery there. Would you like to come with me?” So I said, “Oh, yeah, certainly … certainly.” So he said, “I’ll pick you up in the morning.” So the next day we drove off down, and on the way he was asking me questions about my training and experience and all kinds of things, and design; and so I told him all about it. And then on the way back he said, “Would you have any examples of the work you’ve done in garden design in your training?” I said, “Yes, I brought everything with me; I’ve got rolls of drawings and things.” So he said, “Could I have a look at some?” So, “Yes”; so we arranged that the next day I would go down to the office in Nelson Park with a selection of drawings. And I brought the drawings out and discussed them with him, and explained the process from inspecting the site to preparing drawings and costings and estimates, though I didn’t have very much experience of costings and estimates as I found out later. Then he said, “Could I keep them for a while?” So I said, “Yes, but don’t lose them because they are part of my résumé for work applications and those kind[s] of things.” So he said yes, and then I went back to the Botanical Gardens.
Ten days passed by, and then one morning he drove up in his car. I was just putting the men out to work in the gardens and he sort-of beckoned to me and said, “Just come over here a minute.” And I walked over and he said, “At last night’s Council meeting you were appointed as the Assistant Superintendent of Reserves”; [chuckle] which was a total [chuckle] surprise because there’d been no mention whatsoever prior to that of there being a post – which apparently there wasn’t – they created the job, because Laurie realised that Peter Tait was keen to see new parks, new gardens, new horticultural features and things like that. But Laurie realised that he didn’t have the training or background to carry that through for the Parks Department, so I was the man sort-of in the sights. So that was it; he said, “Well first of all I want you to carry on working at the Botanical Gardens, [chuckle] because I need to pick somebody out to take your place.” So for the next couple of weeks I carried on, occasionally being hoicked out and taken to look at various jobs around the city.
And then I moved into the Parks Office. Now the Parks Office was in Nelson Park, and it was a small two-roomed wooden structure which had originally been built as the Marewa Town Board office when they were developing Marewa as a new suburb of Napier. This would be in the 1940s I believe, and its use in Marewa was redundant. The Council had moved it at the urging of the previous Park Superintendent, Charlie Corner, and it was moved into the yard of his cottage in Nelson Park so that he only had to get up from his breakfast table, walk through the door and across the yard, and straight into work [quiet chuckle] … probably the shortest commute in the whole of New Zealand. [Chuckle] And the building still exists down at Nelson Park; but anyway, that’s an aside.
I had the inner sanctum. Laurie had nothing of course, and so he said, “What do you need?” I said, “Well, I need a drawing table and a drawing board, and a T-square and some drafting pieces.” I had my drafting pens and things like that which I brought with me from England, but I didn’t have any large protractors and things like that. So anyway, we went off to the works yard in Carlyle Street and we met the carpenter there; and he was a very experienced and very skilled man, and he made me a lovely drawing board with an ebony edge down the left hand side for guiding the T-square; and he made me a new T-square. And then I went into the Engineers Department, and one of the draftsmen there took me into town to a man in Market Street who sold drafting equipment and things like that; so I stocked up on the things which I didn’t have in my collection. And that was it; it was all systems go.
The first major thing I got to do was go out with the Mayor, Mr Tait; and he said “Right, we’re going up to the Marine Parade.” So we went up to the Marine Parade and looked at the area just south of where the iSite is, and there was an area covered with hard tennis courts with rusty netting all the way around it. It’d been built when the Marine Parade was extended outwards onto the raised beach after the earthquake. The area had been built as a tennis area, which was unfortunate in some ways because by the time people finished work on a weekday and then went to play tennis – if it was summertime the land was warm and the air rose, and it brought in cold air from the sea. [Chuckle] So it wasn’t a particularly popular area, so in early 1964 new tennis courts had been built – or were being built in Onekawa Park, and so the ones on the Marine Parade were redundant and quite easily shunned by the tennis aficionados. So Peter said to me, “Now the business community want this to be a car park because it’s handy to town.” He said, “But I don’t want a prime location on the seafront just to be filled with cars for the main part of the day and then be empty at night”, he said, “I want a garden down here. What do you think?” So I said, “Yep, no trouble, but it will need protection from the sea air to some degree. We’ll have to dig down a bit and lower it.” He said, “Not a problem, not a problem.” So that was how the idea for the Sunken Garden came about. He said, “Right, draw something up.”
So I thought about a sunken garden, and it was publicised in the newspaper that it was going to be a sunken garden, or there was going to be a garden there. And I got people writing in and ringing up and suggesting formal gardens, and sending me photographs or postcards of gardens at Hampton Court and things like that, [chuckle] which were … I wouldn’t say distracting, but being a young man and having you know, done some reasonable training, I was aware of what was going on in the world at the time. And I was very impressed by the works of a Brazilian architect by the name of … oh, now that at the moment has just gone. But however, he liked to create gardens from … he was also an abstract painter, and he would create an abstract painting and then convert it or reapply it as a garden or a landscape. So I thought about that, and I was walking along the foreshore one day, just looking down at the beach and watching the waves sweep up on the greywacke pebbles and then sweep back again; and the stream of water running back with the bubbles bursting and things like that. And it sort-of lodged in my mind. And I went back, and when I was at my drawing table I drew up … just on a piece of paper … just did a whole series of circles and then swirls around them, to look a bit like a flow of water down a slope. Then I went over it with coloured pencil and picked out areas that would be – the circles would be raised beds or sunken ponds or whatever; the swirling figures going round I interpreted into walkways or waterway. I then did a couple of goes at that, and then formalised it into a drawing; and from that I thought, ‘Well it’s one thing to have a drawing like that, present it to Council; it’s another thing for them to interpret it.’ One of my lifelong hobbies has been as a modeller; so I’ve made models of dinosaurs in plasticine when I was very young, and then wooden and metal ships, and then aeroplanes and then railways; and I still make models of railways and scenery. So anyway, I was a modeller; so I got some material and I made a small model of the plan. It became a 3D representation of what I had in mind; and that we presented to Council at a meeting, and it got the nod and away we went; so that was the Sunken Garden.
So the first thing to do was to take down some of the old fencing, and then McKinnies got the contract to come and do the excavation. And we removed thirty thousand cubic yards … which is about twenty-three thousand cubic metres … of material, and in doing so exposed some history. Because of course that part of the beach had been raised by the earthquake, and in the improvements there the Council had built out a retaining or sea wall, parallel to the Marine Parade. And the area behind the sea wall was quite high, and was filled with rubble from the earthquake. So in the digging we came across all kinds of memorabilia, like bits of monogrammed plate, and cups and things with the names of cafes and restaurants which had existed prior to the big cataclysm. And I came across a Plowman’s ginger beer bottle, which I’ve still got in my collection, which was quite a rarity; because bottle collectors’ve been after me for quite a while since then to give it up because it has a different glaze on the shoulder of the bottle; it has a purple glaze and not the usual brown salt glaze. However that’s another [chuckle] little aside.
So the Sunken Garden progressed. I was very fortunate that in the Council’s employ at that time they had a very experienced English mason … a brick and blocklayer, but he’d also trained in stone masonry and things like that. And so although the carcass of the structures in the Sunken Garden were built of reinforced concrete and blockwork, the facades of the finish we used natural stone. Sir Peter was very keen on how a job was finished, and so Laurie Lannie and I went out looking for a variety of stone sources. One day we went up to Taupo; and we were looking around in Taupo at volcanic stone, and we noticed a house with quite a lot of colourful stone finishing on the retaining walls leading up to the house, and also on some of the house walls. We were looking at them and the owner happened to drive up, so he stopped and said what were we looking at? And we said, “Well we’re interested in where this stone might come from?” He said, “Well I’m the owner of the quarry” [chuckle] which was on the northern flanks of Mount Tauhara. So we went off to the quarry and saw the stone, and of course its dacite; and the dacite is quite fractured and it has quite a lot of different salts [which] have sort-of seeped into the cracks over the millions of years; and although it’s basically a grey rock with scintillating highlights – the acids and alkalis and things like that which had percolated through had given it shades of red and purple and blue, and so it was quite colourful. So we said, “We’d like to get hold of some of that”, and he said, “Okay – well it’s quite a way to Napier, and it’s heavy stuff.” so he said, “We’ll have to make suitable transportation arrangements.” So we told the mayor what the situation was; he said, “Leave it with me, I’ll find something.” [Chuckle] So he went round and next thing we knew Russell Pettigrew … became Sir Russell … offered to bring it back from Taupo as backloads on his trucks coming down from trips north from the port, up to other parts of the central North Island.
I’ve forgotten now how many tons of material, but it came back in sort-of four- and six-ton loads from the quarry at intervals, and was tipped into the big hole on the Marine Parade. And from there, the mason who did the job, Len Crompton was his name, and he and another Englishman, Tom Coates … Tom Coates was his labourer; he did a lot of the splitting and preparation, and the material was put in place as a veneer over the reinforced block walls.
We also went to places like Kairakau Beach and found stones there. And at one point the Junior Lions volunteered to come with [us] on a Saturday morning; we took two trucks up to the Mohaka River and down the old road down into the bed of the river from the site of the old low level bridge. We went down there and they enthusiastically started filling up the first truck which was a small one; and then the second one which was McKinnie’s newest large articulated truck. The filling seemed to go boing, boing, boing in the bottom for quite a long time; it was quite dispiriting, [chuckle] but we brought back a big pile of water-worn greywacke so that we’d got variety in the forms of stone used; and we also used limestone as well.
So that was the cladding of the garden; and then the next thing to do was to look at something as a water feature. Well we’ve got two water features – there was the circular pool, and of course there was the circulating stream that ran around through the garden. Well the stream came first, and we enquired through the various … what do you call them? Like Rotary and … service clubs is the term I’m looking for. Through the service clubs we looked for a waterwheel, and once again the Juniors found a man down in Dannevirke, or near Dannevirke, who collected waterwheels, ‘cause there were quite a lot of old waterwheels in the Dannevirke area because of course there’s quite a lot of streams coming off the nearby ranges down that way, and a lot of the farms had had waterwheels to power especially their early electric milking machines and things like that. So we looked at his collection but they were all relatively small ones. He said “Well, there is a bigger one.” He said, “I haven’t picked it up yet – it’s at Mrs Phillips’ place at Mangatera.” So we were in a fleet of vehicles; we hopped in and went down there and saw it, and I said, “Yes – that’s just what we want.” So he said, “Okay.” The Club bought it and presented it to the city. We built the structure for it, and it’s you know, been working away there – the same wheel, new bearings – it had the original wooden bearings when it first went in. And it was interesting in that Mrs Phillips was still alive; her father had built it. She said it was operated from a big lever in the hall of the house; if anybody had an emergency in the middle of the night or something like that, they went out and just unlatched the lever and a flap behind the waterwheel dropped down, and the water, instead of falling behind the wheel, went over the wheel; and the wheel started turning, drove the dynamo, and all the lights in the cowsheds and in the [chuckle] house and everything all came on. [Chuckle] So that was the story of the waterwheel.
And then the Council held a competition for a sculpture to go in the round pool, and the competition was won by Laurie Karasek who was a tutor or a lecturer in Fine Arts down at Ilam in Christchurch. He designed the floating fibreglass construction which went into the pool. It had an underwater lighting system on it when it was first installed which was worked from a variable lighting programme gadget in the control panel at one end of the gardens. It had troubles and we had vandalism, and eventually it was replaced with just straight floodlights – or the lighting system was. So that’s more or less the story of the construction of the Sunken Garden.
Following on and concurrent with that was Anderson Park, and also Onekawa Park, because Onekawa Park had been landscaped. The design for the surrounds was done by Otto Stroud, a German immigrant who came to New Zealand before the war. He had a landscaping business, or rather a landscape design business, in I think, Auckland. He designed it, and it turned out to be rather difficult to maintain. His raised features were too steep on the sides and things like that, for anything other than hand mowing, and as the Parks Department was responsible for the maintenance of the park, Laurie said to me, “Can we modify it somewhat?” So with the introduction of several thousand cubic metres of – oh, I call it cubic metres these days ‘cause I’m used to using the term [chuckle] – of fresh soil, we altered the landscape a little bit more, and made it more amenable to maintaining it in a tidy condition. We did more planting there as well … planted trees in the car park area in the frontage. And there was a long walkway or double walkway leading up to the front entrance of the Olympic Pool; Sir Peter again said, “I want a water feature.” He was very keen on water features; and so I designed with the help of Len Crompton, the mason – we built a long pool … a reflecting pool with a couple of small jets in it down between the two walkways at the entrance.
Following on from that, Anderson Park. Now Anderson Park, which was the old racecourse, had been bought by the City Council under the Public Works Act in 1962 to prevent it being built on. So they took it under the Public Works Act for a public reserve, and it had been sitting more or less … well, not quite in limbo; it was grazed. It was thirty-four hectares in today’s terms, and it had a water feature in it which was natural; there was a natural spring, and that went on a course which ran round half of the inside of the old racecourse, and ran away down to where it fed out into the saltwater creek on the other side of what is now York Avenue. And over the years the Racing Club had sunk wells for keeping the course watered. Now they didn’t have any expensive things like pumps to pump water through sprayers and sprinklers and things like that, so all the way round the outside of the course was a continuous ditch … a grass lined ditch … and the wells were on the line of the ditch. And then to water the course they just turned the wells on and filled the ditch up, and the water either just soaked … because the course had a slight slope down towards the inner drains … the water either ran across the surface or it watered the surface from the perimeter. And then it was picked up by the interior drain which ran round into the natural pond, and then away and down to the saltwater creek.
Well one of the things we did was close off all but two of the wells, which very much pleased the authority at that time in charge of natural waters and the underground aquifer and that kind of thing; now under the auspices of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council.
So one day Laurie said, “Right – we’ve got to go and have a look at another job.” This turned out to be the old racecourse; and he said, “Put your gumboots on.” And it was a wet day in the winter, so in oilskins and gumboots we trudged across the waterlogged plain of what became Anderson Park. It was very flat and low-lying, and the only water which actually drained anywhere was that which went across the course and into the drainage system and away to the creek. There was a large area over by what is now Islington Place which was a swamp; it had some raupo growing in it and quite a lot of other aquatic weed. It was the borrow pit – the Racing Club used to dig silt out from there to use to topdress the course; it had no drainage to it so it was a boggy area. So I walked over it and got my first impressions of the landscape, and Laurie said, “Right”, [chuckle] … can you draw something up?”
Now this was the kind of thing I’d come to New Zealand to do. Instead of living in England and being shown an area of derelict warehousing – what is known in England as a brown site – I was offered a green site [chuckle] … a piece of semi-natural ground without having to clear away history, whether it was recent or ancient, and just get on with it. So I said, “Have we got any plans?” There was a plan of the racecourse which was very useful, so I then drew up the boundaries and put in the existing water feature and any existing trees; and there were a few trees – there was about fifteen, I think. There were some gum trees on the Taradale Road side, and then there were a few cedars over on the western side. So I walked over the ground again on a finer day, and then decided, ‘Right – well, we wouldn’t fill in the borrow pit’; that was obviously a site for another water feature, knowing that the mayor was very keen on water features. So the idea of Anderson Park grew around creating water features and a circulatory path; and areas of planting to create a feeling that when you went into the park it was a passive recreation park, and whatever was built around it would be ameliorated by trees. And there would be views … for instance, standing with your back to Taradale Road and looking west, there would be a view up the lake where the borrow pit was, to see the likes of the Sugar Loaf [Hill] and things like that.
So I you know, applied my ideas to that; and then of course you needed to sell it. So besides the plan I sketched some ideas of what it might look like … what the trees would look like in forty years’ time and that kind of thing. And of course this being New Zealand, and the fact that I was a newcomer, the trees took only twenty years to grow to that size [chuckle] instead of forty. One of the pleasures that I find in still living in Napier, sort-of over fifty years on, is that I can walk around places like the park there, and trees that I planted where the biggest thing in the view was the stake that held the tree, I can now go to trees that I can’t even get my arms round; in fact, two people wouldn’t get their arms round, and it’s a very, very satisfying thing. I feel sorry for people who after a lifetime of work leave only a pile of paper behind. The parks that I’ve created or helped to create are a great pleasure in life.
The other major feature in Napier that I was involved in designing was … and this was concurrent with developing … I mean, Anderson Park took many years to plant and complete, and grass, and all that kind of thing. But the old prison quarry [at the] foot of Coote Road. Once again, His Worship Sir Peter took Laurie and I over there, and he said, “Right, we’re acquiring this from the Justice Department.” There were actually three sections at the foot of Coote Road belonging to Government Departments. The one nearest to the Marine Parade belonged to the Ministry of Works and had been a small depot; there was a paved area and a workshop. Then next to that was the Drill Hall which belonged to what is now called the Defence Department, and then the next one up belonged to the Justice Department; and they had used it for quarry as, you know, a working opportunity for employing prisoners across the road, to give them something meaningful to do. And they quarried a lot of the limestone that was used for retaining walls around the hill. It was locally known as shell rock because it’s a relatively coarse limestone with a lot of obvious shells and inclusions in it.
But they had reached the limits in cutting back the steps at the back of the floor of the quarry; they were regulated by the Inspectors of the Mines Act. And so there was a shelf … it could be twenty metres wide at the back, and then it could rise no more than – oh, twenty feet – I have to get back into medieval measurements. But there was a limit on how far back they could cut, and of course they’d reached the boundary of the Justice Department owned land; it was private land beyond that. So the quarry was now obsolete, and of course the Justice Department didn’t want to know anything about it. [Chuckle]
But the mayor had his eye on it, and he said, “Oh, I’ve just been on holiday; came back through Canada, and I was on Vancouver Island and went to see Butchart Gardens”, which was an ex-quarry which had been turned into a garden area.
So I created a model of course of that part of Bluff Hill, and the mayor of course wanted a water feature. So there obviously had to be at least one lake or pond in it, and with the hillside and the terraces, we could plant the terraces and we could have a waterfall; ‘cause I’d created a waterfall in the Botanical Gardens when I’d done some alterations there when I was first up in the Botanical Gardens. So I produced a plan or a model, and the first thing that Sir Peter said was, “No, no, we don’t want a waterfall coming down from the first terrace – let’s go the whole thing.” So the whole waterfall became a hundred and twenty feet high, from the pump at the bottom to the [chuckle] outlet at the top. You can’t see so much of the water these days because the splashing has encouraged growth around it and the planting we did on the terraces has grown; but you can hear the sound of the water coming down and into the lake at the bottom.
And I decided if we were going to put a lake in, we’d make use of the biggest flat area at the foot there, so we excavated that a bit further; and then it had to be lined. And the waterfall when it was first in was something to see, so we put a bridge across the water to introduce another aspect of being able to get closer to the waterfall, and also something over the water besides just where the walkway crosses the stream as it comes out and goes down the ‘mountain stream’ as it was called, into the lower pond. And yeah, [of] course we needed a rock for it; but the rock that was used for lining the ponds and also creating the stream running down between the two ponds, that actually came from where it was dumped over by the Westshore Hotel. It had come from McWilliam’s Winery down here in Faraday Street; the rock had been cut out ‘cause they were doing alterations there, and had been dumped in the lagoon alongside Meeanee Quay going north. So I went through the piles there and picked out the rock I wanted, and it was carted back into town. And we used it; in fact we used rock like that – because there was some good rock there – we used it all over town in various improvement jobs for parks, and also for public areas. So that was the Centennial Gardens. It was named the Centennial Gardens because we opened them in the year of the centennial of the city, and it worked out quite well.
The original pump I was going to put in had to become two pumps to pump up the extra height. There were three pumps ‘cause there was another one in the lower pond to pump water up to the second one so we had the flow between the two. There was a little bit of a drawback there, but it had a silver lining; when the pumps turned off at night the water in circulation sort-of went back to a lower flow level, which meant that the water in the top lake flowed down into the bottom lake, and that overflowed and the water went down Coote Road and into the drain, which went straight out to the beach of course; it was a very short run. But it also meant that it did a bit of a refresh of the water in the system on a daily basis, which was very useful, so I didn’t have to resort to the chemical control of pond life in the lake … algae and things like that that was the problem.
We got an opportunity with the release of the front area, the Ministry of Works area at Coote Road; that came free and Council obtained it when the Ministry of Works relinquished it. And we also got access to the piece of ground at the back of the Drill Hall, and so I was able to extend the garden down the bank and behind the Drill Hall, and put an access into the car park … we made the Ministry of Works area into a car park; and also an extra way down onto the steps at the back, down onto the Marine Parade. So that was the story more or less, of the Centennial Gardens.
Probably the next job I was involved with was improvement of the view of the port. [Chuckle] When coming into the port in the seventies and eighties, the face of Bluff Hill behind the port was another quarry, because for many, many years the Napier Harbour Board had been quarrying material from the hill. The face of that side of Bluff Hill was Crown land and part of it was under the control of the Harbour Board, so they quarried away quite a lot of it for fill for harbour reclamation work. But of course like everything else, they got back to the limits that they were allowed to legally cut back and create hazard under, so they decided it was no longer of any use to them so they wanted to relinquish any responsibility for it. The Council owned or had control of the top part, which was the Bluff Hill Lookout.
So we took in the remaining land which had been under the control of the Harbour Board, and extended the grass area down. And then there were the terraces, and Sir Peter said “Can we have hanging gardens?” [Chuckle] So we got to work on it, and I did some planting. It was actually covered in albizia. There was one tree of albizia which produces lots and lots of seed pods, and it spreads wildly and it had spread all over these terraces. So the first thing I had to do was clear all the albizia weed from it and keep an ongoing removal of any seedlings that came up, which they did for two or three years. And I dug out into the hard rock and put soil on, and put beds in and put plants and things; and put irrigation in because it needed irrigation. But however, the plastic pipe irrigation which I put in proved to be an irresistible lure for small boys – and older small boys – who pulled the irrigation lines out and used them for abseiling down the cliffs. [Chuckle] And after replacing twice, I decided it was a no-go and gave it up, and we more or less abandoned the things to … anything that was up there which would survive, survived, and anything that didn’t was overtaken by other survivors. So that was the story of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon overlooking the port. But we did incorporate the walkway down there with a walkway down Sturm’s Gully; and Sturm’s Gully was part of the improvements to public reserves on that side of the hill.
[Chuckle] It seems as though I am rambling a bit but I am sort-of working through the structures of things that occurred, and Sturm’s Gully had the original Bluff Hill Tennis Club down there and it had the remains of a tennis court down on one of the open areas in the centre of the gully. So I grassed as much as possible; took the tennis courts out and grassed that area; and started on a gradual proposal of increasing the number of native trees in the area and taking out some of the exotics. For instance, there was a big planting of gum trees on the right when you got part way down that had grown very tall, and the house or a couple of houses down there were totally hidden by these trees. The Coroner of the time, Mr Weston Wacher, lived in the old house down in the middle of the gully. He was quite happy for quite a few of the trees to come out, but they wanted some left there because I mean, they’d grown very used to the trees being there. Eventually we took more or less all of them out, but the gully had a lot of quite large and mature elm trees in it which I left; but I took out a lot of seedlings and opened it up, and started planting new plantings in there.
It was interesting, the history of the gully, in that Frederick Sturm had a house on the left hand side of the gully going down, and lived there for quite a while in the 1860s, so he’d terraced part of his property and had a nursery down there. And you can still see the outlines of some of the terracing that’s there. Sturm’s Gully led down into the old quarry created by the Harbour Board, so I created a walkway all the way down there to link up the two reserve developments, and it became quite a popular walkway.
That led us round to the old lagoon; where the lagoon used to be of course, the water came out to what was known as Scapa Flow. And that involved two developments; one was the little reserve alongside Severn Street where the play equipment is and which is now a very popular boating … the wakas are kept there. And we developed that, and that was to be a place where mainly picnics could be held and people could use the water, and it’s quite a popular swimming spot. And then up from there of course, DOC [Department of Conservation] created their walkway which goes around the lagoon, and that led very naturally straight on from the end of the reserve.
Going further out, back towards the sea, reminds me now that I was also involved with Westshore Beach. Now Westshore Beach when Sylvia and I arrived in Napier in 1964, was the back of the ocean you might say. There was an area around the surf club where people went to swim; the rest of it was … unmaintained, let’s say. Any lower areas had scirpus which is a rush which grows about waist high, and there were clumps of that all over the place fronting on to Charles Street; and the locals felt that that was a very convenient area to dispose of household waste. I wouldn’t say hard waste, I’m just talking about food scraps and things like that. So it was quite a practice for housewives to walk across the road and throw all their kitchen scraps out onto the beach.
But we decided that we would do some improvements, so the first thing we did was put a scraper in and re-profile the back of the beach. I needed to bring in soil to be able to grass it and create some more you know, sort-of picnic-friendly areas and things like that. I was very fortunate that it was the time when the bottom fell out of the international wool market, and the government of the day decided that wool would be stockpiled; it would be bought at a base price at auction and kept until the wool price improved. Well that of course meant that very quickly all the woolstores were full of unsaleable wool, and the government was buying wool at auction; [chuckle] and they needed extra space. So large areas of new warehousing went up; and of course new warehouses had to go up in Napier. Fortunately, McKinnie’s – I was very friendly with Dave and Reg McKinnie – and Dave came over to my office one day – we’d made a start over at Westshore – he said, “You want soil for the beach at Westshore?” And I said, “Yes”, thinking he was going to say he’d got a job somewhere and he could sell me some. And he said, “Would you like some free?” And I said, “Yes!” [Chuckles] “Well”, he said, “I can put a price in for stripping the grass and the soil and everything for this job for the new warehouses. It’ll be” [have] “a lot of grass in it.” I said, “Doesn’t matter.” He said, “The shortest run is to the beach at Westshore, which I know about.” He said, “You can have it for free.” So I said, “I’ll take it.” “Okay”; so he put his bid in, and I suppose he picked out the shortest run; and he got the contract. So that was where the soil for Westshore Beach improvement came from; it miraculously appeared from the warehouse sites over in the Onekawa Industrial Area.
And so we carried on and sort-of opened up the beachfront all the way along there. Unfortunately the erosion that’s become manifest after the deepening of the fairway into the port … I mean for everything you do there’s going to be perhaps an unforeseen consequence; and the unforeseen consequence was that Westshore erosion would be greatly accelerated. So if you go down into what remains of the grass picnic areas you’re then faced with a thing like a tank trap on the other side of a big mound, separating you from the beach. But that’s how things pan out. We didn’t anticipate that at the time. It’s possibly good, that if it hadn’t been for the improvements and things, the beach would’ve probably just eroded away back to the road by now – which it’s tending to do along Hardinge Road.
Hardinge Road was another area which I was involved in improving. When I first arrived in Napier, when you went along Hardinge Road there was a small area of grass with the Norfolk Pines growing in it; and then there was a quadruple row of steel pipes carrying oil from the wharf at the port, along the whole front of Hardinge Road to the oil tanks further along by Scapa Flow. And they formed both a visual barrier and a physical barrier to accessing the water along Hardinge Road. For instance, I can remember that if you went to get down to the beach, there was a mound, and you could drive over – you drove over the pipes and down to the beach towards the southern end. Anyway, improvement took place and eventually the pipes went; and I carried on putting soil down there and sort-of expanding the area that was usable by the public, you know, grass areas. That then became part of the start of the walkway, because when the local government reorganisation did away with the county council, there was reallocation of responsibility for lands. And in Napier, Napier Council took charge of the use of land adjacent to the sea … the coastal areas and where tidal waters were.
So I wasn’t involved with that, but I was involved with the idea of the walkway, because there were lands along Hardinge Road there which had back areas onto the back of the beach. They were leases owned by commercial properties along the roadside, and those areas became part of Council’s portfolio, you might say, and the front areas became redeveloped and the back areas became reserve. I’d been quite used to going along the back by climbing over the pipes with the family and going along; and it was very private sunbathing along there ‘cause most people didn’t go along there. [Chuckles]
But anyway, [to] cut the story short, after I left Council – my job was eradicated; all the deputies’ jobs were eradicated under a new reorganisation of the city – and for a while I went from Parks and into strategic planning. And I did strategic planning for about eighteen months, and then there was a further reorganisation and I was made an offer which I could refuse. And so I took redundancy and left the Council, and I took a job in town for a while; and then I got made another offer at that job, which I decided I didn’t like. In the meantime I’d been getting telephone calls from developers who were looking for landscape designs for property development. That led me on to becoming … I termed myself a landscape consultant … I didn’t say I was a landscape designer, because landscape design is a formal qualification, which I didn’t have. I had a lot of experience, but I wasn’t going to put a tile out which claimed something which I didn’t claim to be.
So I carried on doing design for Council, and it was educational in that the Council had employed me in the Parks Department and of course I did all the Council’s landscaping work more or less. So as a landscape consultant I then found that instead of working for the Parks Department, I worked for the Engineers Department, the Roading Department, the Town Planning Department, the Social Development Department, the Recreation section – I worked for every department except for Revenue, or the Rates Department; and they paid my bills. [Chuckles] It was an education; yeah.
Anyway, as part of one of the development of Ahuriri I had worked for the Roading Department; I had landscaped the car park next to Hot Chick, then as a private designer I designed the landscaping for the motel on the seafront there. And I also did the landscaping for the East Pier bar and restaurant, which is now a bar/restaurant and hotel; and that naturally carried on to what’d been the old oil tank farm which was Council, and I did the design for the park there on the side of Scapa Flow. It was interesting that on the day that the Planning department held a public meeting in the Council Chamber about proposals for a reserve, the Planning department had asked me to prepare four proposals with varying degrees of outside commercial development on the site, so I had prepared four large A2 plans. And the proposals were for housing on a small reserve; for commercial development with a slightly larger reserve; and various things like that; and one for the whole area to be public reserve. And of course what I’d done was I’d only put bright colour on the reserve section of the plan, so the rest of it looked fairly uninspiring. [Chuckles] So Plan No 4 which had the whole area in shades of green and [chuckle] different colours was the most eye-catching, but I don’t think that was [chuckle] really what sold it. But it was a great relief to the developers of the Quayside housing on the other side, ‘cause they were then going to be faced with a whole area of reserve to look at, which enhanced the value of their [chuckle] property. They were very, very, very relieved. [Chuckles] So that was that one.
By then of course I wasn’t working specifically for the Council, but I did a lot of jobs along those lines; I did the layout for Tareha Park at Taradale, and did a drawing and proposal for Dolbel Park; and that was how that came to have quite a large variety of trees planted on it.
Looking around the streets … part of the influence of Sir Peter Tait and following mayors, we planted extensively around streets. I didn’t necessarily physically plant all the trees, but I had to go along and decide where trees would go because I was very conscious that it was one thing to have street trees and it was another thing to have streets full of trees. The practice prior to the 1950s was to go into a new street and plant it. It was even-stevens – everyone got a tree, so there was a tree on every frontage. Now there was an incipient problem looming there, for instance Storkey Street and one or two others … I’m forgetting the names of streets these days, ones I used to drive through practically every day … but in Marewa streets had a tree on every front, and if they’d been allowed to carry on growing without thinning out, these days you would’ve had to force your way between the trunks more or less [chuckle]. That’s an exaggeration of course; but I went along and planted trees on every second frontage, and staggered them on opposite sides kind of thing, and looked out for things like – don’t plant on the inside of the bend as it formed a visual obstruction for vehicles and things like that; don’t choose to plant them straight over where the drain comes out from the roof run-off going out to the gutter, and things like that; and don’t block driveways … all those kinds of things. Anyhow, I chose where a lot of the trees in Napier went. Then I was also involved in helping to thin out the wall-to-wall totara trees down by the Star Flats in … as I say, I’m forgetting the names of streets at the moment … but they were a bit of a problem.
Anyway, street planting and tree planting in parks and things like that; and it came later … I got involved in helping Town Planning & Reserves to do a survey of all the trees in Napier. The job went to a contractor who then got me to go around with them and help identify the trees. So in doing that they ascertained how many trees there were in streets. And the Parks Department said, “Would you go round and find out how many trees there are in public reserves, and we’ll add the whole total up as to what are the Council’s responsibility.” And it was eleven thousand for streets and fourteen thousand for reserves; and I sort-of had a guilty feeling that I’d probably been involved in at least a third, if not three-fifths of planting those. [Chuckles] Because trees were not … I can remember when we first bought this house up in May Avenue, walking up the steps from Faraday Street and getting halfway up at the end of a working day, and stopping off and looking out over Napier South; and the most dominant feature of looking out over the city were [was] rooves, with occasional rows of green where trees showed along streets. And now if you go up and have a look out from the same viewpoint the dominance is trees, and the rooves are … not quite completely covered, but you know, sort-of … it’s a different landscape.
And at the same time I have to say that there’s been a change of emphasis in the way New Zealanders, and I now class myself as a New Zealander, look at trees. When we first came here trees were things you got out of the way for development; I mean if you lived in the country, well you cleared the bush to create farmland. And a lot of that percolated into the thinking of people who’d moved into town from being out on farms or were progeny of country folk; trees were things which you trimmed. For instance I’ve got a big walnut tree growing in my garden, and it was quite a feature; people coming in the sixties and up until, say, the mid to late seventies … “When are you going to trim it?” And if you put trees in streets in the fifties and sixties, they were trimmed. So for instance, all the way along Georges Drive there were plane trees. Now plane trees are magnificent creatures which will grow to eighty or a hundred or more feet high, and quite wide, but they are very capable of careful maintenance so they don’t cause a problem apart from leaf fall. But they were all pruned. Engineers didn’t mind plane trees being planted alongside streets, so quite a few Napier streets had plane trees; but they looked more like hat stands than plane trees, because there was a solid trunk with a few knobs sticking out after they’d been pruned; and then they very rapidly grew massive new shoots with leaves the size of dinner plates or larger … serving plates in some sizes. And of course they blocked gutters and things like that, and if they blew onto rooves one leaf could close off the entrance into a downpipe with no trouble whatsoever. So they were very unpopular, and … “When’re you going to prune those?” [Chuckles]
So then we started a programme of selective pruning, and letting the trees along Georges Drive for instance grow out and grow to a more natural shape, which was possible; and of course the leaves – because they weren’t under the pressure of chopping away the top, leaving them with a huge underground root structure which promptly pushed sap up into them and produced enormous leaves – they gradually got back into balance again and leaf size dropped quite dramatically. It was quite a change; but anyway, the trees carried on growing. But then the sins of our forefathers came back to haunt us, and the rot induced in the tops of those trees by continuous pruning meant that the new growth, which was growth from the outside of the trunks, wasn’t properly anchored to the core structure of the trunk. The leverage was such that they started to break apart. So I wasn’t prepared to go back to pollarding, and we went to new plantings along there, and in other streets like Nelson Crescent we took them out.
But I think that’s part of the history of David Low in Napier; arriving in ’64, still here in 2020 much to my surprise. I was totally of the impression that I was going to terminate with the twentieth century, but here I am, sort-of still going.
I’ve been involved with Art Deco for thirty years. A neighbour of mine, Mary Johnson, was an early supporter of Art Deco. I knew her professionally because she was on the Council at one point, and was the Chairman of Reserves so I worked hand in glove with her for the period that she was a councillor. But she came along one day, and she knew that I’d left Council and was self-employed, and she said, “How would you like to join Art Deco and be a guide?” ‘Cause she knew I was interested in history. So I said, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” So I joined the Art Deco … it wasn’t a Trust in those days, it was the Art Deco Society … and I was about the ninth or tenth guide. And in those days you trained by just – in the old days we used to call apprentice training by just absorbing the knowledge as you worked … ‘sitting with Nellie’. So it was a bit like that in Art Deco because we hadn’t amassed a lot of information and things like that, and sort-of written stuff. So I learned it by osmosis and became an Art Deco Guide, and I guided for twenty-three years.
When we first started we operated on a one-Sunday-a-month basis from the basement of the museum. It became more popular, and we went to opening the basement every Sunday; and then it became weekends, every Saturday and Sunday. I wasn’t doing every day, but of course we had more guides; and then we added Wednesday into it. Well of course it’s old history now that it’s a daily thing, with up to three to five walks in the height of the season. And of course there’s lots of privately engendered walks, and school parties, and people from other parts of the world; and of course tourism. When cruise ships used to come we’d have anything between one and four coaches; and if you had four coaches, that was three to four guides per coach, so very rapidly we went from having a core of ten guides to these days needing seventy trained guides. So it’s one of the biggest volunteer organisations going on a daily basis in Napier … probably in Hawke’s Bay … so the involvement was quite a lot.
Anyway, we moved from the basement of the museum to taking up a position in the front of the old Fire Station. The recently deceased Guy Natusch, the architect, offered us the use of the main hall where the fire engines used to stand, and the two offices on either side of the frontage. And his work, the Desco Centre, which was [a] combined architects’ and engineers’ practice, moved to the back and upstairs. Eventually, as Art Deco grew and grew and grew, the architectural practice had to move out of the building altogether, and go round the corner to where the architects are now … just by the traffic lights at the end of Carlyle Street. Eventually they moved up to their new location on the corner of Herschell Street.
Because I was the nearest guide resident to the site off Clive Square at the Fire Station, and was on call, I would frequently do a five minute change of garment; wash hands; run like hell down the hill with my information booklet in my hand and sort-of gather a deep breath, and walk in to be the Number 2 guide, or the replacement guide for the one who hadn’t turned up, [I] decided that running through town as well was a run too far.
So I retired from guiding and instead became … on cruise ship days and at Art Deco Weekends and things like that … a greeter outside the Art Deco Centre, so able to make use of my extensive collection of appropriate clothing: fifteen hats, sort-of five suits – I can do fifteen to twenty changes of gear so it didn’t [chuckles] appear too monotonous outside the Art Deco Centre – and also answer questions about Art Deco and about Napier as well, because having worked for the City, and been involved in Council work and the whole expanse of the City in general, I’m able to answer a lot of common questions, and even uncommon ones, like … there was [were] a couple of ladies arrived from Canberra one day on a cruise ship, and they had a mission. One of them had an ancestor – name was [Hector] Pope Smith who was an early settler in Napier in Hawke’s Bay, and she wanted to see his gravesite, and she said, “I’ve got a plan of where it is in the old Napier Cemetery.” They’d hired one of the Art Deco vintage Packards to take them up there; David Brock, who was the driver, was telling me about this. And I said, “Can I look at your plan of where it is?” She showed me this aerial photograph, and I said, “I don’t think it’ll be down there … unlikely to be there.” She also had a photograph of a large Celtic cross, and I said, “[I’m] sure it’s not, because I used to be in charge of that when I first came to Napier; I was in charge of the Botanical Gardens and the old Napier Cemetery.” And there was another chap there, we were both greeters, and I said to Dean, “You’re all right – you can hold the fort, can’t you?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah”, so I hopped in the car with Brocky and the two ladies and off we went to the cemetery. I said, “I think it will be in the dress circle”, which is down at the far end of the walkway in the cemetery. We went down there, and we went over originally to where she had this information, and we were down there and then Brocky called out and said, “I’ve found it, I’ve found it.” And it was on the dress circle; it was just on the turn-around at the end. And there was the Celtic cross, and there were also tombstones of other members of the family, some of which she didn’t know of. So she was absolutely out of her tree with delight, and you know, sort-of scampering around and things. And then she said, “Oh, I’ve heard that there’s a book about his life, written by a Napier man in the last few years.” She said, “But I don’t know where I can get one; it’s out of print.” So I told her where at least two of the second hand bookshops in town were. I said, “There’s another one down Latham Street, but you’d need to get a vehicle to go down there, it’s quite a walk.” Anyway, they got back on the ship and they went away.
The following day or so a neighbour of mine [who] lives up the road, Michael Gordon – he knows anybody who’s to be known in Hawke’s Bay in the agricultural sector – and I mentioned it to him. He says, “Oh, I’ve got a copy of that book”, [chuckle] “I’ll loan [lend] it to you.” So he loaned me a copy of the book, and I read it, and read all about Mr Pope Smith and everything. And then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll look round the local book shops.’ The first one I walked into, there were two ladies just in front of me, got to the counter first; so I sort-of eyed the nearest lot of shelves. And down there was a spine of a particular colour which stuck out, and I picked this out and there was a copy of the book; so I took it up to the counter when the ladies had gone and said, “I’ll buy this.” And when I told her the story about it she said, “It’s only the second one I’ve ever seen, ‘cause it was a private printing and there was [were] only about two hundred copies printed.” And of course they’re mostly held in private collections these days. So I promptly sent it to Canberra. I’m sorry if I’m sort-of doing too many asides in this outpour, but …
Another feature in Napier which you may see occasionally if you’re driving past it is the clock at Westshore on the end of Meeanee Quay, just when you turn to go across the bridge there’s a public clock with two faces and it resembles the prow of a ship with a figurehead on the front; instead of a figurehead there’s a double-faced electric clock there which I designed. It was amazing what I got involved with, especially in Peter Tait’s day. He’d just call up and say, “David, can you design a clock for me?” [Chuckle] One day we were in his office and he said, “Now I’ve got a man here, Frank Szirmay; he’s brought a sculpture with him. He wondered if we might be interested” – it was a slender figure of a woman with her arms raised on a little plinth – he said, “I’m quite interested in this, so”, he said, “Whereabouts will we put it?” I said, “Well, how big do you think it would be, Frank?” And he said, “Well”, he said, “we’d cast a life-size figure, so I think you’d put it you know, up on a pedestal sort-of raised above eye level; ‘bout six to eight feet, kind of thing.” Anyway, Peter said, “Yes, we’ll have one.” And he said, “David’ll design somewhere to put it.”
So Frank went away to organise the casting of a full-size figure in bronze, and I designed the Spirit of Napier fountain down the Marine Parade, and put it up on a tall pillar so it could be seen from the Hill, [chuckle] ‘cause if you’re on the right spot on the Hill you can look down at … I remember being up near Delhi Road one day with the Chairman of Reserves, Stewart McKenzie, who said, “You chose this place ‘cause it can be seen from Sir Peter’s house, didn’t you?” I said, “No”, [chuckle] “it just happens there’s a gap in the trees there where Munroe Street meets the Marine Parade.” I said, “they took a tree out, that’s why there’s a gap.”
Anyway, that was bye the bye. Funnily enough, the illustration appeared on a postage stamp the New Zealand Post Office put out in 1974 … they put a postage stamp out with the Spirit of Napier fountain and sculpture on the stamp. So when I was talking to family in England I said, “Oh, they’ve just issued a stamp of one of my designs to commemorate our first ten years in New Zealand.” [Chuckle]
Did you get away with it?
Well nobody came from England to check it out. How’s that?
That’s wonderful actually, David. What you’ve given me is a history of Napier …
… that a lot of people would never have known if we hadn’t done this interview today, and I really appreciate you doing this for us on behalf of the Knowledge Bank.
Well, it’s “I, I, I, I, I, I”; and I followed instruction, and I followed Sir Peter, and I followed this and I followed that. But I have to say that both Sylvia and I never looked back on coming to New Zealand, and Napier especially.
We were very lucky to have you.
I’ll say we’ve travelled widely – we’ve been to forty different countries – and I haven’t found a better place to go to.
Thank you very much.
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Interviewer: Lyn Sturm