Friday, May 22, 2009

Remuera: Ghostly goings on at No 4

By Donna Fleming [NZ Herald]
It took three exorcisms and a Maori blessing to expel the spirits from historic Cotter House, one of the homes featuring on this year’s Look Good Feel Better Fine Homes Tour.

If only these walls could talk.

There must be hundreds of fascinating tales to tell about the goings-on at Remuera’s Cotter House over the past 158 years.

The fifth oldest home in Auckland has a past just about as colourful as its exquisitely decorated blue and green sitting rooms and, according to current owner Gloria Poupard-Walbridge, it was haunted until she called in the exorcists.

In recent years, the only people who’ve been able to get a close-up look at this gracious mansion have been visitors who can afford to stay there - it is now a five-star guest house. But now its doors are being opened to the public as part of the Look Good Feel Better Fine Homes Tour. The tour of some of the most exclusive homes in Auckland’s eastern suburbs raises money for Look Good Feel Better, a free service which helps restore the confidence and self esteem of women undergoing cancer treatment. Cotter House was built in 1847 for English migrant Joseph Newman.

Keen to do his bit for the community, Joseph converted the cellar into cells to temporarily house prisoners being sent to the Fencibles Prison in Howick. In 1882 he sold the house to the Cotter family who subdivided and developed much of the 24ha around the property into what is now Remuera.

One of the major changes they made to the house was to add a ballroom. "Their three daughters were in their early 20s and considered spinsters," says Gloria. "Mrs Cotter wanted to be able to hold soirees so she could get the daughters married off before it was too late." In 1926 the house was sold to a trust and turned into a school for four years. Mrs Cotter’s beautiful ballroom was used as a gymnasium. From 1930 to 1978 it was owned by a succession of people, some of whom fell on hard times and couldn’t afford to keep it well-maintained. "

By the time it was bought by a developer in the late 70s it was quite run down and he was ready to knock it down," Gloria says. However, he soon realised it was going to be too expensive to reduce Cotter House to rubble. "It was built with huge stone foundations and triple brick walls," explains Gloria. "It would have been a huge job and he wouldn’t have been able to recover anything for resale so he decided to renovate instead."

Those renovations included adding an award-winning designer kitchen. The house regained some of its former beauty, but when Gloria and her second husband bought it nine years ago they felt there was still more they could do to make it truly splendid. Gloria, who was born in Colombia, raised in France and came to New Zealand 20 years ago with her first husband, a French diplomat, has lived in beautiful homes around the world. She was keen to unleash her continental flair on Cotter House, and fill it with the stunning antiques and art she’s collected over the years.
Changes made to the house include updating old and creating new bathrooms with features such as marble floors, antique vanities and imported French taps. She’s also restored the blue sitting room to its former Regency glory, complete with original wooden shutters and walls covered in shantung silk, added a marble terrace off the ballroom and transformed the kitchen with antique oak cupboard panels and granite benchtops.
But one of her top priorities was getting rid of unwanted "presences" haunting the house. "We had been here for two days when we were woken at 2.30am by the sound of loud piano music," she recalls. "We walked around trying to find out where it was coming from but couldn’t find anything. Fortunately, after 15 minutes it stopped." The first time Gloria ventured down to the cellar, where the prisoners had been kept, she had terrible chest pain. After a while her husband refused to go down there. Renovation work that should have been simple to carry out became dogged by problems.
"Everything was going wrong. This house would not let me decorate it," Gloria says. "Some not so good things have happened to people who’ve lived here. There have been deaths, one owner went bankrupt, my marriage broke up. I felt the house needed cleansing." Three exorcisms and one Maori blessing later, the house is ghost-free, says Gloria. "It has a wonderful atmosphere now." It was after her marriage ended that Gloria decided to turn Cotter House into a luxury retreat. She’s loved sharing it with guests but she’d now like to set up a centre for Ayurvedic medicine, so the house is on the market.
"I’ve always felt that this is not my house - I’m simply the caretaker. This house chooses its owners and then discards them. Now it is my turn to go. "Personally, I would love to see Cotter House bought by the Government so that all New Zealanders can enjoy it. "

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