McLean’s Mansion

History

‘Legend has it that McLean, then aged nearly eighty, walked in to the offices of England Brothers Architects and told the clerk he wanted the plan of a house. He was offered the blueprint of a conventional four-roomed cottage popular at the time. McLean retorted abruptly – “Not four rooms, but FORTY!” He was then ushered into the office of R. W. England.’ (Christchurch City Council). 

McLean’s Mansion, formerly known as Holly Lea, is a Category 1 heritage building that was designed by Robert England. It was built for the seventy-eight-year-old Scottish philanthropist, Allan McLean, between April 1899 and September 1900 by Rennie and Pearce Builders. Once it was completed it became, at the time, the largest wooden residential structure in New Zealand, built almost entirely out of kauri (a type of evergreen tree). The mansion, which is said to have been inspired by Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire, is based on a fusion of styles of Jacobean architecture and additional Victorian features.

Once completed, the building had fifty-three rooms in total. There were nineteen bedrooms, nine bathrooms, six servant rooms, a library, a kitchen, a large basement, a large dining area and additional function rooms. Analogous to other Jacobean buildings, many of the interior features were elaborate and ornamental; most the handiwork of Christian artisans. A number of the ceilings on the ground floor were extravagant coffered ceilings. Finally, the balustrades and newel posts on the grand staircase featured thistles and flowers, all emblems of Scotland, to remind visitors of the owner’s homeland. As for the furnishings, most were of an exclusive design specifically selected by the housekeeper and an expert from Paris. Both were sent to Britain with instructions to buy there, or from Europe, regardless of the cost. The following descriptions of different rooms in the house provide a good impression of what McLean Mansion’s interior looked like:

… an enchanting wood carving of the traditional bear and her playful cub up a seven-foot tree. Along one wall a mirrored mahogany stand displays a fine group of bronze and marble statuary. Nearby is the handsome grandfather clock… and along the opposite wall stretches an outsize in high-backed winged settees upholstered in glowing burgundy. There is a dramatic contrast here between the mirrored reflections of dark polished woods, the gleaming white ornamental ceiling and portico, and the time- defying Persian carpet… The antique chairs, covered in regency brocade are feather-light… Several twin-light wall brackets supplement the ceiling lights. Paintings of Flemish and Scottish scenes hang in groups from brass rods. The green and chartreuse fitted carpet makes a perfect complement to its white and gold background. Round the white marble fireplace the ornate brass fender makes a glittering splash…

Nevertheless, despite the extravagance, the residence was only used privately for thirteen years. After McLean died in 1907 he ensured that his wealth and mansion would be left to help others who were less fortunate than himself. Under the provisions of his will, McLean stated that his mansion was to be used as an institute, providing ‘a home for women of refinement and education in reduction or straitened circumstances’. The mansion remained an institute for thirty-eight years, before it was sold to the Health Department and used as a dental nurses’ hostel in 1955. During the 1950s a lack of staff was a major problem for the New Zealand School Dental Service; however, McLean’s Mansion made it possible to launch a recruitment drive as many new trainees could be offered board and lodge in the large building. The only consequence of this alteration was that after the sale of the premise most of the extravagant furniture was taken away as it was not suitable for the building’s new purpose. The building remained a hostel up until 1977; after this time, though, the house stood empty for ten years while the government sought to find a new use for the building. Eventually, by 1987, the old mansion was purchased by Christchurch Academy, a vocational training organisation.

Today, McLean’s Mansion is something of an oddity that stands out as belonging to a different era because it is surrounded by modest residential houses and modern commercial buildings. What is more, McLean’s Mansion was badly damaged in the 2011 Canterbury earthquake and, despite its Category I heritage status, the Canterbury Earthquake Authority (CERA) immediately issued a demolition notice. However, this caused a public outcry by the local community. As things stand, all demolition plans were halted, but the owners of the premises have not been able to find a buyer who is willing to restore the property. The cost to restore the building is estimated to be $12 million.

Our Version of Events

It’s always good popping back through Christchurch and seeing how the city is slowly being brought back to life. Compared to what we saw when we first arrived in 2014, things are certainly looking very different! Having said that, there are still plenty of abandoned things to see, especially in the suburbs. So, after a quick drive around the city to see how the reconstruction projects are going, that’s precisely where we headed. Our aim this time round, though, or at least part of our overarching aim, was to visit McLean’s Mansion because it’s still standing but may not be there for much longer. After all, it has been left to rot and crumble for six years now.

All things considered, it didn’t take us too long to find the building. We would like to suggest that it was our awesome detective skills that helped us locate the mansion, but the fact it stands out like a sore thumb compared to everything else surrounding it is probably the real reason we found it so easily. Maybe a sore thumb isn’t a good comparison, though, because the mansion’s architecture is stunning compared to everything else nearby. Anyway, we’re digressing, this time round we were much more cautious as we sought to find a way inside. Unlike the good old days when the city was a veritable free-for-all, there have been massive improvements in security in recent years as there are certain people who have grown intolerant of people sneaking around Christchurch’s abandoned buildings. For instance, the recent rumour is that the mansion has been fitted with alarms and sensors. Whether this is true of course is another matter.

Fortunately, it seemed the alarms were taking a quick break when we entered the property, and no one turned up to turf us off the premises. This left us with enough time to have a good look around and grab some snaps. Our overall opinion of the place is that it is looking very fucked these days, owing to the deadly combination of vandalism and earthquakes that have plagued it for the past six years or so. Now, rubble is scattered absolutely everywhere throughout the mansion, and several sections of wall have collapsed altogether. The place reeks of mould, mixed with a dusty woody scent, too, probably on account of the fact that the building is still largely a wooden construction. This is not to suggest the building is uninteresting, though. In fact, the architecture is pretty unique and much different to anything we’d find in the UK. There were a few oddities to be found in the mansion as well, such as a dentist’s chair and the legendary staircase decorated with well-known Scottish flowers. All in all, then, we’d suggest that McLean’s Mansion is a place worth visiting. Hopefully, if some funding is found to repair and strengthen the structure, it will continue to be an important part of the city’s heritage for many years to come.

Explored with Nillskill and Bane.