Napier’s ‘Mr Art Deco’, Robert McGregor, can look no further than his own garden for a story of the 1931 earthquake – and it’s one that fascinates visitors to his [Napier] Hill home.
Garden holds quake secrets
Most of Robert McGregor’s garden is at the front of his Milton Terrace house. On two levels, it steps down from a lawn and herbaceous border to a smaller lower garden with the carport off to one side.
Bordering the upper garden is a brick wall designed by one-time next-door neighbour Louis Hay, probably the most acclaimed Napier-based architect of his generation.
On February 3, 1931, the earthquake wrenched the concrete capping all but clean off the brick wall. Miraculously it landed intact – apart from a single crack – about half a metre away.
After the quake, the wall was topped with bricks. The original capping was left where it was and now forms a neat verge for a garden bed.
Robert, executive director of Napier’s Art Deco Trust, says as far as he knows it’s the only evidence of the earthquake that was not cleared away.
His bed and breakfast guests are astonished by the yarn:” When I tell people, they think I am pulling their leg.”
But a few years ago he came across a photo of his mother and friend Dolly Ward. They were sitting on the wall in 1930, complete with concrete cap.
The fourth generation of his family to live in Milton Terrace, Robert has inherited a green thumb”. Many of the garden’s features tell of the family’s long connection with the site.
Robert’s great-grandfather William Ward Yates came from England in 1851. An educated man, he learned building from the ship’s carpenter.
William bought land in Milton Terrace around 1870 and constructed a villa, one of seven houses that were the blind street’s original homes. He was soon writing “home” for plant materials to be sent out from England.
The gardening gene was handed down to Robert’s grandfather who was an exhibitor at flower shows.
A 100-year-old magnolia is among the garden’s original specimens.
“I have got another picture of my mother taken in 1926 when there was a fall of snow on Napier Hill,” says Robert. “The magnolia is in the photo and it was about eight feet high and about 35 years old then. ”
Some of these older trees and plants, which include pink luculia, tree peony, jacaranda and the bird-of-paradise shrub, were unusual for the time.
Robert designed the upper floor and extensions to his home, originally a cottage on the site which was subdivided off by his family. As with his home, he has been happy to work with the original structure of the garden, tweaking it to suit.
‘The border was wider when I was a kid,” he recalls, “and it wasn’t graduated front to back.”
A summerhouse, at least 105 years old, which catered for croquet afternoons held by
Robert’s grandmother has found a new career as a shade house for hostas.
It straddles the subdivided site, so that one-third is on a neighbour’s land but the door is on Robert’s side of the fence.
For Robert, the property is his “turangawaewae” – the place where he stands.
He was astonished when he was asked just a week after his wife Helen died if he was interested in selling the house.
“I told the real estate agent that I planned to die here.”
Photo caption – LEADING THE WAY: Marigolds add cheerful colour to a path leading up to the house.
Photo caption – PAST TIMES: Robert McGregor’s mother, Isobel, (left) is seated with friend Dolly Ward on the wall – which was capped with concrete when this photo was taken in 1930.
Photo caption – CAPPED OFF: The wall and its capping, now a garden edging, tell their own story about the 1931 earthquake.
Photo caption – STEP BY STEP: A stepped border is a neat solution on the sloping site.
Plant of the week
Wonderfully textured foliage as on these hosta in Robert’s summer house make this plant a great favourite for pots, ground-cover and floral arrangements.
Various leaf effects include different shapes and colours that range from glossy green through to pale blue-grey and even yellow.
Hostas are also prized for their tall stems of nodding white, pink or mauve bell flowers which emerge in warmer weather.
In the garden they are often used in clumps to edge flower beds, ponds and bog gardens. They do in and in rich…
Meet the gardener
When is the best time of year for the garden?
Christmas and New Year.
How much time do you put into the garden?
Some weekends it is virtually all weekend. In spring I often spend the evening gardening. It's rare when I don't spend some time in it.
What areas of the garden do you feel are most successful?
It will never win a competition, but there are always parts that are looking good. There's an extra incentive with running a bed and breakfast - it gets a good reaction from guests.
What's your advice for novice gardeners?
Don't get convolvulus or oxalis! Seriously though, if a quick tidy-up is needed, mowing and weeding the first 300mm of the flower border makes a huge difference.
Create the look
Evolved over 135 years, this garden succeeds by drawing on a mix of plants and palette of colours.
"l can't see the point of having a garden without colour," Robert says. "Why not enjoy flowers from all over the world?"
The house was built toward the back of the section so it wouldn't block the view from the original family home. That's neighbourly, and it also maximises the area of garden on display - "not always a good thing".
A large flat lawn is not all that common on the hill, and, as Robert says, it makes a great play area for children. A deep herbaceous border works as a counterpoint to an expanse of lawn and it will also draw the eye – in this case, toward a vista of the Bay.
Try Robert’s mix for plump border planting – dahlia, chrysanthmums [chrysanthemums], delphiniums, larkspur, phlox, irises, roses, alstromeria, marigolds among the annuals in front and “other odds and ends”.
Add in other points of interest. In a corner opposite the border, Robert has developed a flower bed comprising red-flowering varieties such as dahlias, canna lilies, petunias and irisene.
Photo caption – CELESTE is named after the queen of the elephants in the children’s stories about Babar.