Thursday, 29 January 2015

Frank Sargeson's House

Take a walk through Aotearoa New Zealand’s literary history in Takapuna this summer.

Did you know that it is possible to take a free guided tour through Frank Sargeson’s house? If you are interested please contact the North Auckland Research Centre at Takapuna Library and from there you can make an appointment to view the house. This is a wonderful opportunity to transport yourself back in time and imagine the gatherings, the discussions, literary and otherwise, that have taken place within the walls of 14 Esmonde Street, Takapuna, down the years.

Ref: Andrew Henry, Sign at Frank Sargeson's house, 20 January 2015.
Reasons for a visit to Sargeson’s house can range from historical to personal as the following quotes explain:

On the back cover of Speaking Frankly, CK Stead writes of, “the Takapuna bach which, for several crucial decades of the 20th century, was the still point around which the literary consciousness of New Zealand seemed to revolve.”

Elizabeth Aitken Rose in her Frank Sargeson Memorial Lecture of 2009 tells of the significance of writer’s houses as literary museums:  “Writers’ houses appeal to readers seeking more than cerebral acquaintance with a revered text – to those who wish to pay homage to an author and absorb something from the atmosphere where creativity flourished.”

As Stead says the building is more of a bach than a house so for readers unfamiliar with the term have a look at our previous posts on New Zealand baches.


The original bach was described by Sargeson as “nothing more than a small one-roomed hut in a quiet street ending in a no-man’s land of mangrove mud-flats that belonged to the inner harbour. It was very decayed, with weather-boards falling off.”

Michael King, who wrote Sargeson’s entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, as well as a major biography of Sargeson says that “even Don Doran, who disparaged bourgeois standards and conventions, declined to spend a night there when he visited Frank from Wellington soon after his protégé had moved in; he told his daughter the conditions were ‘too rough’. Whilst the original bach must have been pretty basic, the jewel of the property was the vegetable garden.

The vegetable garden, which is no longer there, was an important part of the property to Sargeson. Michael King, again, on the importance of growing vegetables to Frank:  The success of that first season of fruit and vegetable production, and the excitement and profound satisfaction it bought, had an enduring effect. “[It] ensured that for more than thirty years I would grow on a scale sufficient to provide for myself, with often besides a good deal to sell or give away.”



After the original bach was condemned by local government the second bach was built in 1948 by Frank’s friend George Haydn. Haydn writes of the events that led to him building the bach in his essay The house that George built:

“Sadly, Brown’s plans cost too much and I volunteered to draw up something more affordable. But at least my plan still had the Vernon Brown sloping roof and ceiling. I used standard joinery and the least expensive materials that complied with the building code: asbestos fibrolite cladding and roof, and Pinex for the inside lining…Everything went smoothly and Frank did what he could to help. However he was highly excitable, fretful, and reminded me of an anxious helicopter hovering over the job.”


In the same essay Haydn describes a typical scene in the house, which is easy to imagine when you are in the room, “When Frank was cooking and entertaining he would stay on the kitchen side of the counter and friends would be on the other side, drinking from the ever-present Lemora flagon. “ Indeed, the house still contains multiple flagons of Lemora, which are now themselves valuable museum pieces.

Ref: Andrew Henry, Lemora flagons, 20 January 2015.

Walking through the house, it almost feels as if you are walking through a place in time that existed decades previously to now.

In the bedroom of the house you can still see Sargeson’s Olivetti typewriter, on which he typed on green paper as it was “easier on my “eyes” (taken from a 2002 booklet by Louise Anderson entitled: Welcome to the Frank Sargeson House: 14a Esmonde Road, Takapuna).

Ref: Andrew Henry, Sargeson's typewriter, 20 January 2015.

Throughout the house you can find many paintings by Frank’s friend, Keith Patterson, dating from the 1940s and 1950s. Have a look at the Auckland Art Gallery’s collection of Keith Patterson’s paintings online.


Although some of Frank’s library was sold to the Alexander Turnbull Library after his death the bookshelves in the house are still full to overflowing with novels, collections of poetry and literary serials including a huge run of Landfall.


The following timeline of major events involving the Esmonde Road property is an abridged version of the one that was prepared for the Friends of Sargeson House by Judy Wilson & Jenny Chamberlain, which is part of the documentation about the house held at Takapuna Library.

1924 - The bach at Esmonde Road came into the Sargeson family’s ownership.
1931 - Sargeson took up residence in the house at 14 Esmonde Road.
1946 - The original Esmonde Road bach was condemned by local government, according to Louise Anderson it was in a near derelict state and was considered unsightly by the neighbours who lodged many complaints about the smelly drains and the lack of sanitary facilities. For years Frank had put them off by having a friend, the architect Vernon Brown, draw up plans for a new house and pretend to measure out for foundations to placate the complainants.
1948 - The present day fibrolite dwelling was designed and built by George Haydn and finished in June. It was paid for by a combination of pension funds and family loans.  Sargeson’s brief to Haydn was that he wanted “lots of bookshelves, a kauri top bench and a sunken toilet.”
As more and more visitors came to Esmonde Road, Frank decided to buy an army hut and put this on the section. Frank bought the army hut originally for Jack Whewell (who didn’t use it).
1950 - The first inhabitant of the army hut was Maurice Duggan (April to May), then Peter Dawson (December to January).
April 1955 to July 1956 - Janet Frame lived in the army hut for 16 months and wrote Owls do cry.
1956/7 - Kevin Ireland in army hut.
1958 - Esmonde Road was sealed as a feeder road for the new Harbour Bridge, Maurice Duggan returned to the army hut for a while.
1968 - Harry Doyle’s room was built (designed by Nigel Cook).
1982 - The back lot was sold to set up Frank Sargeson Trust & fund fellowships, and thus the house  we visit today became 14a Esmonde Road. 

In 2006 the Frank Sargeson Trust engaged Salmon Reed Architects to prepare a conservation plan for the property and then in 2011 the Trust embarked on a major project to safeguard Sargeson’s house in Esmonde Road, Takapuna. Heritage New Zealand have designated the bach as a Historic Place Category 1.

For a more detailed examination of Sargeson’s life as well as more anecdotes from writers who visited and stayed at the bach, the 1998 documentary Perfectly Frank is available to watch in full online at the NZ on Screen website.

A search on Auckland Libraries’ OPAC for ‘Sargeson’ will bring up over 200 items, but below are some of the collection items that are relevant to the house itself:

Takapuna Library have a vertical information file on Frank Sargeson with many clippings, photographs, audio visual material and other resources relating to 14 Esmonde Road. These also include the timeline and booklet by Louise Anderson mentioned above.

Local History Online has a collection of photographs of the interior and exterior of the house as its looks now. Perform a keyword search for ‘Sargeson’ in the Image section and you can browse the images from there. 

A particularly relevant collection item relating to Sargeson’s house is an oral history recording of the poet Kevin Ireland, describing amongst other things the relationship between Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson during the time Frame boarded with Sargeson in Takapuna. To listen to this oral history come into the North Auckland Research Centre and ask one of the librarians for help accessing it.

Whether you are intrigued by the historical context and importance of the bach or you feel an affinity towards Sargeson and his guests’ literature a visit is well worthwhile. Again, if you would like to have a look through the house yourself please contact the North Auckland Research Centre at Takapuna Library. For information on other literary sites around Auckland have a look at the Auckland Literary Heritage Trail

Further reading:
Author: Andrew Henry

1 comment:

  1. Great post Andrew! Excellent images and insights. I like the Don Doran quote and the Lemora flagons. A tour of the house sounds well worthwhile.

    ReplyDelete

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