Historic homestead a big beauty but costly to keep

url: http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/property/3929278/Historic-homestead-a-big-beauty-but-costly-to-keep

Many would look at the Akers family's huge, old homestead in the Manawatu and think how lucky they are to have such a magnificent home, but the practicalities of caring for a historic homestead are rarely considered by the admirers.

For 56-year-old Clive Akers, the fourth generation on the farm, the reality of maintaining the house is a constant concern and one that is gradually taking its toll. He loves the old home he grew up in, but, as time goes on, the three-storey, seven-bedroom building, covering 350 square metres, is getting ever more expensive to keep up.

"Right now the barge boards need replacing, they are probably 40-feet [12 metres] up, so I need a cherry picker and an absolutely still day so the builder can replace them. Nothing is easy, and certainly nothing is straight forward when it comes to looking after the house," he says.

Made from a mix of rimu, matai and totara, the house was built in 1926 by Clive's grandfather when the original Akers farm holding of 2800 hectares was divided between the sons. The ground floor has a billiard room, dining room, drawing room, kitchen, bathroom, office and laundry.

"When my parents first got married they had a live-in housekeeper, but in the 1950s Mum and Dad shifted the kitchen from the back to the sunny side at the front. In the old days, when the maids were in the kitchen, they were always at the back of the house, but Mum wanted the sun in her kitchen. They built a big farmhouse kitchen and these days that's where we do a lot of our living."

Clive and his wife, Jane, have three of their five daughters still living at home.

It's a busy household. As well as looking after the house, Clive runs a Cheviot stud, co-writes the annual rugby almanac and helps Jane and his daughters with the 30 horses grazing the land or stabled in boxes.

"The original kitchen had a woodburner that pumps hot water around radiators on the ground floor but that's the only heating there is other than the open fires. There's a big open fire in the billiard room and another in the drawing room, but we really only use those rooms when we have guests or a party."

Clive says the radiator system is sufficient to heat the ground floor but the second storey with all the bedrooms is bitterly cold in the winter.

"The whole house is a bit of a curse, it's difficult to heat and once all the kids move out there'll be just Jane and I rattling round in this big house. Then we will think about the whole situation.

"I don't know what the future is. I don't know whether I would sell, but it might come to that."

It would be a huge decision for Clive and his family. There are years of history and emotion attached to the old home and the entire area.

Clive's mother, Molly, has written a book on the history of Opiki so precise details are now a matter of record.

"It was only after World War I when the stopbanks had been built that it was safe enough for my grandfather to live on the farm. The area was originally all swamp and there were safe areas where they moved the sheep and cattle when the Manawatu River flooded. In the 1880s my grandfather got involved with the flax mills along the river. Flax was a big business in the area. It was taken out to Wellington for export."

Clive still has a wool pack made from fibre produced from the flax mills. In her book, Molly writes that the "Makurerua swamp became New Zealand's largest commercial flax swamp, at it's peak producing nearly two-thirds of New Zealand's total output of flax fibre".

And though the flax mills have long gone, the swing bridge built by Clive's grandfather, Hugh Akers, remains, a monument to foresight and community spirit. The bridge opened in 1918, replacing a flying fox across the river or a long journey to Linton as the alternative route. With an increasing demand on the bridge, Hugh introduced a toll and tollkeeper to control traffic, weight and maintenance. As bridge traffic increased, Hugh reduced the toll, only interested to cover the maintenance costs.

In her book, From Fibre to Food, Molly records one incident.

"During a visit in 1938 by Hon Bob Semple, the government Minister of Works, an argument started about paying the toll. But the keeper stood his ground until the fee was paid. The very annoyed minister departed with his parting shot: 'This antique structure from a comic opera must go. We will build a new one immediately, we will not have toll bridges in this country.' A few weeks later, surveyors arrived and rammed in survey pegs, but nothing else happened. It was 30 years before the new bridge was built."

Passion among Clive's children for their family home has yet to be tested. He says that while his three youngest daughters are at home, future prospects will not be considered.

If they did have to move, there would be a lot to be rehoused.

"We converted the old laundry outside to my library and that's where all my rugby books are stored and there are masses of them."

Upstairs, along with the seven bedrooms, are two bathrooms, and Clive says that after 80-odd years the windows are a bit draughty and some of the leadlight fanlights don't close.

"We don't have high ceilings, the stud is only about nine feet [2.7 metres], but most of the rooms are still scrim and wallpaper and there's always something that needs to be done.

"The last time I painted the house, about eight years ago, it cost $40,000.

"Like any house, it needs to be painted every 10 years and I reckon it'll be at least $50,000 the next time we have to paint."

The attic has a 4.5-metre (15-foot) stud and is an extensive area largely filled with bracing timber that supports the very steep pitch of the roof.

"We have a three-car garage, carport, the old stables, which are now used as a hayshed, new stables and feed room and then there is the original five-stand woolshed, which I use for our little flock."

The original 1.6-hectare garden has been whittled down and is now mainly original old trees and grass that the Akers graze with sheep.

The asphalt on the tennis court was dug up a couple of years ago and the court grassed. The swimming pool has been left to nature.

"I do think of living in a modern house without the draughts, that's easy to heat, but who knows what decisions will be made in the future," says Clive.

For now, Opiki is home to the Akers, as it has been for the past 84 years.

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