Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Denis Hall: The real story of the “Squatter” at Oruawharo Homestead.

Hello all. Some of you will have seen the recent story on Stuff - about my home for 24 years - where they described me as a "Squatter".  Oruawharo Homestead - Orra Worra is how the locals pronounce it - still. 

I held a lease on the place for 24 years - and it was my home - and I did a lot to things there. 

It is interesting - and disturbing - when you see that people are trying to write you out of actual New Zealand history that you played a major part in.

I have sent the following to Stuff and maybe they will contact me - and maybe not.  But here it is - my reaction to a story in Stuff.
[See Update at the end]


G’day Stuff. 

Please read this in the spirit that is intended. I’m not angry - too late for that.  I’m just amused at how things can turn out - and this has been written with a smile - and all of it is in fact - FACTUAL. 

This is the real story of the “Squatter” at Oruawharo Homestead.

Hmmmmm - It’s not every day a News Organization gets to call me a “Squatter” - but that’s what you called me the other day in your story about Oruawharo Homestead. As much as it fascinates me that you labeled me like that without researching me - I thank you for the impetus you gave me to sit down and write this that follows. If I have time, I will turn it into the book I should have finished long ago - that I have called “The Homestead Tenancy”.

I have had several calls over the last few day suggesting that I should sue you for labeling me a “Squatter” - but I’m not an angry man like that.  I think I just can’t be bothered - and I thought I would instead - just give you the truth - and if you value integrity - you will publish it - in its entirety.  

Truth! - It’s still a thing!

My name is Denis Hall - and I am that “Squatter” in the story about Oruawharo Homestead - always pronounced Orra worra by the locals.

THERE’S ME ON THE FRONT STEPS.  I lived there with a peppercorn lease from 1976 to 1999.

I do know that people tell inaccurate stories about me and the Homestead - and in a way I should be flattered I suppose - because in fact I was the principal in a Limited Company that purchased the Leasehold Title to the Homestead in 1976. I lived there for 24 years. The rent was one peppercorn a year - and we had registered that Old English style lease document - put together by the Oruawharo Trust with the Courts. We paid $65,000 for it at the time - when a good house could be purchased for less than $30,000 - and interest rates went as high as 21%.

We loved the place - but it did prove too much for the other three shareholders - and relationships were shattered on the rocks of difficulty around the Homestead. They were Jim and Allison Brady - and my partner - the lovely Gypsy Bruce. They moved on - because it was all too crazy - but we are all still close friends. I stuck it out because I knew there was a danger that if I went that amazing house would be demolished - and we would all personally go bankrupt. (More about that down the page.)

It’s hard for a city slicker to find his way and get the confidence of rural people - and I suppose I was a little different to the norm. A bit earthy maybe.  Arty farty perhaps? Didn’t know anything about cows and sheep except how to season them.  Driving a bright yellow Chevrolet Convertible with a pretty woman at my side probably didn’t help much. 

Our first major interaction with locals was on the first New Year’s Eve we were there - and we were having a lovely extended family New Year celebration - with all the generations - from the babies to my old granny in attendance. Late in the evening - about 10-30pm - we were gate crashed by about forty of the clients of the Takapau Pub - which had obviously just emptied out - and there ensued the biggest brawl that that beautiful, paneled ballroom - and the Homestead itself had ever seen. 

I can still see my old Grandma sitting there - so confused - in an armchair where she had been put - in pride of place - horrified by what was going on around her - and my lovely mum standing dumbfounded beside and trying to protect her. Children were running to try to escape that lovely room - and I didn’t see it all because I was knocked unconscious in the main hall by a group of four locals. 

King hit from behind. SPLAT! Out like a light!

The first time in my life I had ever been in a brawl - and thankfully the last. 

I never was much on pubs and beer.

And well - I thought things could only get better from there - but they didn’t.  Unbeknown to me - the Hawkes Bay Farmers Meat Company had plans to build the Takapau abattoir and Meat Works one paddock over from the front gate of the Homestead. 

They did that - and started spewing stinking effluent all over a flood irrigation system that covered this entire 50 acre paddock - that occupied the space between them and us - and that had its lowest point literally 20 meters from our front gate - and that would sometimes flood onto the road directly opposite the gate and passing cars would spray stinking effluent all over the place.  

There could be on any given day - a thirty meter wide pond of stinking decomposing blood, stomach and bowel contents - mixed with frothy brown waste and discharge water festering there - and it took days to soak into the ground - because the fat content sealed up all the soak-ability that was left in the ground. Then the residue would lie there decomposing in the summer sun - or just looking slimy queasy in the winter - but still stinking high on the Richter scale of breathtaking.  I could not believe that a reputable company could possibly get away with that - and all my entreaties to the Central Hawkes Bay District Council might as well have been sent to North Korea as packaging around food aid.  

I would regularly be over there at the Meat Works Office - or at the Council Offices - jumping up and down - because one of the things we/I were going to use to finance the running of the Homestead - was catering - and Devonshire teas. Imagine - trying to run a fancy tea shop with all that filth at the gate - and in the air - and in every nook and cranny where air could get to - and they just fobbed me off.  I was just the crazy man from the Homestead. 

Don’t just believe me about how close it was - - just look at it on Google Earth and see for yourself.  

Or ask the Meat Works - in different ownership now - and see what they say.

I battled them for years - yes - years and years of stinking sh*t and unbreathable air - day and night - and the Council and the Authorities just treated me like a crazy man who didn’t matter - because I was the nutter that lived in the spooky old mansion - that no one cared about. Then after about ten years or twelve they eventually got their act together and got access to a wide area to dump all that crap out by the main highway. They still do it. They pump pristine clean water up from the aquifers - and then put absolute filth back into the earth - and I was one of the ones to pay the price.  All that time - for over a decade - I was battling to not go bankrupt.  

The Hawkes Bay Farmers Meat Company owe me big time - and they could start with a simple public apology.

I would get my insanity out of my crazy box and storm over there and into the Meat Works office and throw a complete John Cleese - but they just smiled and treated it as entertainment.  I knew I had to find a way to make the Homestead pay without having to rely on clean air - so guess what the answer was - sculpture. 

As it happened, I had injured my foot in this fracas I described above - and I was to spend a week with my ankle wrapped up and sitting there on the verandah in the sun - waiting for it to heal - and enjoying the many guests from far and wide who came to call.   A local potter had called to introduce himself - and I told him that as a kid I had displayed a talent for sculpture. The next day he turned up with three 100 pound bags of potter’s clay - and suggested I try sculpture while I was incapacitated and unable to mow the gigantic lawns. 

The very first real sculpture I did with that clay was prompted by a six foot four bloke in bare feet who arrived at the door - and he just looked like a model for a sculpture to me. I posed him as a guy lying on the floor - reaching up for help and I think that sculpture might have been my psychological reaction to the size of the job ahead of me with the Homestead. 

So there in that short space of time - was set the pattern for the next 20 years - because I was there till late 1999.  

So - to add to the ridiculous amount of work involved in looking after the Homestead - that had seen absolutely no maintenance for at least 50 years - I was also training myself to be a Sculptor - and some bright spark said I should make Garden Gnomes. I decided to make Garden Gnomes (fairies) for pot plants - because they were smaller - and that’s what I did - and before I knew it - we were selling them all over the nation. Below is a picture of Puk - sitting on a stump. He was very popular. I also thought it was a kind of self portrait.  Me - wearing funny pants - sitting on a stump - telling stories.

Rob Muldoon had one on his desk - and he was Prime Minister. (Dig out some pictures - you’ll find him.)

But I went on to a range of figurines all of my own design - that included Marlene - and this range of pieces were sold from many of the best stores in the nation at the time.  My sculptures - which were all designed and made in the Studio at the Homestead - are in thousands of Kiwi Homes - and now I wish I had signed them as “The Squatter.”

Over the early years - people with talent gathered around me - because the Homestead provided an inspiration and a venue for the arts - it just did - local people can pretend it didn’t - but it did - and that included some of their own.  

I was an ‘outsider’ artist - and that was more than fine with me - because I didn’t have to talk bullsh*t about my Art - it spoke for itself. 

Then one day - George Hanratty - who could shear sheep - turned up - and he just happens to be the best wood carver in New Zealand.  He did a small sculpture of a man shearing a sheep in that studio. (He was not ‘one ‘ of the best wood sculptors - the best - the very best - and I have three of his wood sculptures so I know - and I have never seen another to match him.) 

A copy of that Shearer fell into the hands of John Fagan - famous champion New Zealand Shearer - and he came to see us.  We discussed making a bigger version of it.  George had no knowledge of how to make large castings - but I had worked with concrete as a builder - so we decided that I should do the larger project myself.   

A twenty foot tall sculpture. Big enough for me to sit inside his head.

There's the picture of that - you will recognise the polystyrene. 

It turned into the biggest public sculpture in New Zealand - that we are all more or less familiar with - the TeKuiti Shearer. Picture enclosed. It was me - the Squatter at The Homestead that did that - carved it out of polystyrene in the stables at Oruawharo Homestead- and cast it into concrete there - and then trucked it off in pieces and assembled it in Te Kuiti.  It’s been there for about thirty years now - and they had asked me to guarantee it for five years - and their budget was $60,000 - for the biggest public sculpture in the Nation - and it would have cost ten times that much to create the park it’s displayed in - but let’s ignore that. 

It’s still there - way past when the guarantee ran out - and it will be there now for hundreds of years - because it becomes more treasured and valued and more historic every year. In the future they might build a building over it to protect it.

Show me the biggest sculpture in New Zealand - and the Squatter from the Homestead made that.  Part of TeKuiti’s History is the History of the Squatter from Oruawharo Homestead. 

Then one day I was mowing that gigantic park sized front lawn that I mowed 25 times a year for 24 years - and I was thinking about Rob Muldoon. He had - such an unusual face. Well he just did! 

The day before I had been sitting on the Verandah - drinking sherry with the wives of two local farmers - (as you sometimes do) and while we chewed the fat about farmers - I made quick little portraits of each of them in clay - and realized I could get a likeness. That wasn’t so difficult Denis - was it?

So there I was - driving up and down that lawn - on a mower that had cost me four times as much as my car - and thinking about Rob Muldoon. I parked the mower down by the front door - and rushed inside - and called Parliament on the wind up phone. Yep - wind the handle - and an operator comes on and asks what you want. 

I asked for the Prime Minister’s secretary - and when I got him I said this:-  “I’m a sculptor - and I have an idea. How about I do a sculptured bust of the Prime Minister - while we chat in a friendly way - and we can invite TVNZ to come in and film the work and the chat. I’ll make a clay portrait of the Prime Minister - while he does a verbal portrait of himself.  It would be an opportunity for Mr. Muldoon to be seen by the public in a non confrontational situation.”

The Secretary asked me to wait - and moments later the very distinctive voice of the Prime Minister came on the phone. “What’s this all about?” he asked - so I repeated myself - and he asked me - “What do TVNZ say about this?”  I said I didn’t know - because I hadn’t talked to them yet. “Well call me back when you have.” He said - and hung up. 

Two weeks later - there I was - the Squatter from the Homestead - sitting at Vogel house - with a TV crew - and a little table - and Rob Muldoon sitting in front of me - and two big bags of mud - that I firmly believed would look just like him by the end of the week. 

Picture enclosed - so you decide. 

Is it him?  That - was the first and only proper portrait I ever did - because around then I was also painting the Homestead for the first time - and I had started around the back - because I was afraid that if I painted the front first - the back might not get done. 

So as it turned out - I was led to believe that was the longest interview that Rob Muldoon ever did - and at least six hours of that would be there somewhere in their archives - and in their wisdom - because of course they didn’t like him - and they do think the world revolves around them - it was cut down to a 30 minute program including space for commercials.  


Then I got married again and my then wife Jane - took me to the States to try and establish my work there - and I got distracted - and came back with what was at that time - the biggest Hot Air Balloon New Zealand had ever seen - and taught myself to fly it off the front lawn of the Homestead.  

Yep - doing that was and still is legal - and I’ve got pictures of that too. Flew that Balloon and many others off the front lawn of the Homestead - so I was not keeping a particularly low profile while I was “Squatting” there. 

I also did a sculpture of the two principal dancers in the Royal New Zealand Ballet company and as a commercial exercise it was a disaster - but here is the result of that alongside the models. 

We also used to have “Fly ins” with World War One aircraft shooting the house up in Dawn Raids - and looping the loop all over the place - all organized by one of New Zealand’s most respected and experienced aviators - (John Lanham - the former New Zealand Strike Force Commander - until Helen Clark thought it was all too masculine - and destroyed the Airforce.)  He was keeping them all organized and safe as he still does with Peter Jackson’s magnificent collection of vintage aircraft. Then in the evenings we would have a slap up dinner around the big table in that wonderful room with the wooden ceiling and the giant fireplace - and celebrate the wonderful days of craftsmanship and enterprise that built marvelous old airplanes and caused a place like Oruawharo Homestead to be built. 

We had many big roast dinners in that room - many many - (at least 20 times a year) - and all the guests were all very respectful of the place. They loved it - the woodwork in that building is High Art.   

It also represents great memories for many people from all over New Zealand - because in those days the Homestead was welcoming. It was me - the Squatter who expected people to be respectful of that building - and even though I loved every day of it - and it was part of the richness of my life - I shared it with thousands of others. I gave 24 years of my life to keep the Homestead standing - until a day like today - when people like Stuff can finally perhaps - see the value of it. 

I was married there - had children there - and it was an unforgettable time of their lives as well - and no matter what people try to do to us - that time belongs to me - and us. Me and Jane and Daisy and Jonty!  The Homestead was our home - and my two youngest children’s first home.

It just was. 

We played croquet on the side lawn regularly - drunk Champagne on the veranda and cheered on the players. Lovely barbeques under the Copper Beach tree on the side lawn.  We had so many lovely dinner parties with people from all over the nation and the world. We had international students stay with us in exchange for help. People moved in and lived there when they needed a break from real life. The place was alive - and vibrant - and it remembers us well.

I know it - because it told me. 

One day the Governor General Paul Reeves turned up and landed on the front lawn in a helicopter.   That was nice.

I painted the entire building twice - - - twice - every inch of it - from top to bottom - beginning at the back both times - and the paint that I applied to the main building is the paint that we see today - December 2021 - with the exception of the red around the bottom and the Verandah.   

The lovely people at Resene paints donated all the paint the first time - and Craig Moller in Wellington did the colour scheme as a gift. I painted it off a wobbly old P&T extension ladder - with a safety rope tied to one of the chimneys. It had not been painted in at least 50 years - and in fact had not been prepared properly then - and the water blaster blasted paint off like the white skin off an Englishman after a week in the Italian sun. 

Each time I painted it I water blasted the entire building - sanded it all - two undercoats and two finish coats of Resene’s finest. Then in the nineties I did it all again - with financial help from the Takapau meat works - who were trying to apologise for stinking us out for so many years - and I used Resene paint again - because it is actually the best. 

There’s also still wallpaper in a number of rooms - that I hung there. I need to go back and look and see how many rooms are as I left them 

I need to tell you - and you can check if you want - but in the late nineties - one day - by surprise - there was knock on the front door - and it was the famous Dunbar Sloan. Remember him?  He was a well known auctioneer and valuer from Wellington - and he was at our door with several of his staff. He told me that he had been instructed by the Trustees of the Oruawharo Trust - to value the place for demolition - right down to door handles - all paneling and doors - window frames - flooring and all the main timbers in the place. 

So get this clear in your minds People - and Stuff - and Media in general - go and check what I have said here with whatever is left of the Dunbar Sloan Business.   The Oruawharo Trust - my landlord - had paid Dunbar Sloan - the most respected auctioneer and valuer in Wellington - and some of his staff - to drive up from Wellington to carefully itemize all the wealth of craftsmanship and paneling and materials in that great house - FOR DEMOLITION PURPOSES. 

Go and ask them - there will be a record of that. 

Try to understand people -  that I knew at that moment - that the only person standing in the way of the destruction of this beautiful and historic house - was me - the person that Stuff calls the “Squatter” - because to be able to demolish the Homestead and sell off all that stuff - they had to break that peppercorn lease that I held through a Limited Company that I owned - - - and try to understand - that peppercorn lease had been their idea in the first place - and they needed to break it to get me out of the way - so they could demolish it - rid themselves of it - and hold the ownership of the land beneath it. 

So to do that they served me papers to take me to the High Court - to break the lease - for what reason? To demolish it? Why else would they do that?  And destroy what we are only now - through a Media that used to look the other way - finally recognizing as a national treasure. YES! That's what it is - a National Treasure! Well - It was me - the Squatter - who already knew that - and I had known it since the first time I became aware of it - in a story in the Woman’s weekly in about 1975. 

So I doubled down.
I went and saw Kevin McKay - the ancient and eminent crusty old Lawyer who was a Trustee of the Orua Wharo Trust - and I basically said to him - very politely - because I was respectful - and we did actually get along quite well - the following:

“Mister McKay” I said.   “If you go ahead with this court case against me - you will surely win - because I cannot afford to defend myself properly - but just as you win - the Trust will find itself with a very bloody nose - - because I will defend myself and the Homestead all the way to hell and back - and I will fight back as hard as I am able - even though I have nothing to fight with but my dogged determination - so get ready!”

At that moment - just as I was saying that to him - I remembered that the Limited Company - our Company that was the actual owner of that lease they wanted to break - had actually been struck off a couple of months earlier - because I couldn’t afford or perhaps I had forgotten - to pay the Companies Office Registration fee. I did wonder why neither he nor his Law Firm - nor Simpson Grierson - the flash Auckland Law firm who conducted the case against me - had not checked that out.  I had immediately found the money to reinstate it - and I paid it up and that Company came into existence again in time to be sued. 

Let’s see what folk might do with that little snippet.  You can check!

That part of this story still baffles me - but I’m too old to care now - because what can anyone do to me? I’m 80 - with severe Heart Failure - so I won’t be here much longer anyway.  

Remember - it was early 1999 or late 1998 - and our next response was for members of my family to offer the Trust $370,000 for the freehold of the place with the peppercorn lease still on it - and of course that Lease diminished the value of it - because it could not be broken without going to Court - and a big Court case like that costs a lot of money - and I cannot see why they couldn’t have figured that out already. 

But I suppose - all the Lawyers knew they would get paid - so……!  

It’s all about priorities isn’t it. 

They ignored our offer - and the big high court case went ahead - lasted five days - and of course I lost - and then the day after the verdict a car load of security Guards turned up to throw me out - after 24 years - and I suppose that’s when the “Squatter” stories began.  I had to organize friends to help me load out all the furniture from a fully furnished 36 room mansion - and in the afternoon - with all my belongings out there on the drive in the light rain  - waiting for a truck to turn up - Kevin McKay - that Trustee - turned up with the Manager of the adjoining Oruawharo sheep station. 

He (the station Manager) was a nice man - and he seemed very uncomfortable.  Mister McKay opened the conversation with this pearler:

Denis,” he said. “I don’t want there to be any hard feelings between you and I.  We have known each other for a long time now - and I wish I had listened to you when you said we would go away with a bloody nose - because we have certainly done that. This whole exercise has cost us $460,000 dollars in legal fees."

Four hundred and sixty thousand dollars - down the gurgler!  That sure made me smile. 

Then not too long after that they sold it for around $460,000 - to the man who has just sold it again after spending a good deal of money on it over his 20 years there. Interesting that that sum was the same as the current owner told me he paid for it - and the same amount that Kevin McKay told me the Court Case had cost them. 

Could have been a coincidence I suppose. 

Well - think about that. The Trust had spent $460,000 in Court convincing the world that everything that was wrong with a 121 year old building was all my fault - so that would have scared the hell out of any buyer - but now twenty one years later - it has sold for a figure in the millions. Fascinating - how people will allow themselves to be convinced of things that are not quite accurate. 

They won the battle with me - but lost the war. I won in the end - because I just wanted to save Oruawharo Homestead from demolition - and I succeeded.

Such a shame and such a waste for all of us. 

But my memories of it - are of wonderful times living in a very friendly and comfortable mansion - and sitting 20 people down to dinner in one of the most wonderful rooms in the nation - on many nights for 24 years. 

Money just can’t buy that!
The real story of Oruawharo Homestead - Orra worra - is - an absolutely unique New Zealand story - and I spent almost a third of my life there - and no one knows it better than I do. 

I have to finish by saying again - that we had such lovely times there - it was a highlight of our lives - and I know from the attitude of the house - that ours were the happiest and most colourful years in its history. I can feel it in the spirit of the place - it talks to me still. Last time I was there we talked - and I have promised it I will return to live there when I die. 

So - when you are there - and if you happen to hear the sound of footfall - and a door somewhere opening in the night - a creaking floorboard - a rattle of a window in the wind - or the distant sounds of Dark Side of the Moon playing in a room somewhere in the depths of the house - or clinking cups and someone humming in the kitchen after midnight - it’ll be me - so be not afraid - I mean no harm - it’ll just be me - looking after the Homestead.  

But  - try to destroy it - and things just might get awkward.

And - while my door is open - and I’m talking - - I have another confession I have to make: I got so pissed off with people making up stories about me - that I decided to make up a bigger and better one of my own. A Saga in fact - a religious erotic fantasy that took place at the Homestead. 

I decided - that if the Truth was not good enough for people - then I would write a Saga about me and the Homestead - that would eventually find an international market. That book is now on amazon as an E Book and it’s called - “A Well Intentioned Sinner” because that’s what I am. I have always meant well - even now.  It will be the naughtiest book to ever come out of New Zealand - and a hard copy of it now sits in the Library of Orraworra Homestead - waiting for the new owner - and with time that book will be a very influential part of the legacy of my time as the “Squatter” - come leaseholder of the Homestead.

Remember people - if you are at the Homestead - and you hear a noise in the night - it’ll just be me keeping an eye on things. Don’t be afraid of the dark - I have spent many many nights alone in that house - and we know each other well. 

Now - and finally - there is this:

Back in 1980 - I did the sculpture of which I am most proud. It was of a Cambodian Mother and Child - and I called it “The Mayhem Madonna.”  I did it in the furniture department of James Smith Department Store in Wellington. 

I was trying to make the point - that women and children get hurt by unnecessary wars too - and in one of the pictures below is an Evening Post story of that at the time - March 31 1980.   It was clay - and I managed to get it back to my studio at the Homestead by laying it down on a mattress on a trailer.  The problem was - I was just too overworked and broke to make a mold on it.  The next picture is as it was when I was evicted from the Homestead - because I couldn’t’ move her - so I left her in my studio in the main house.

I apologized to her at the time - for leaving her behind to an uncertain future - and you can see that in her face - can’t you. That was late 1999. I wonder where she is now.  Perhaps someone needs to ask.

Did someone move her to safety - or was she destroyed. 

My money - is on destroyed.

Update: As a result of Denis contacting Stuff, they have now removed the term "squatter" from the article.

Denis Hall describes himself as an old man and an artist - a thinker - a writer - and a commentator. He does what he does - for the love of it. 


Chris said...

A great article about a great house and other stuff. Back in the early 2000's a group of us from the Feilding area did quite a bit of horse and waggon trekking using 100 year old waggons. Went to Takapau on one trek and visited the homestead where we were shown through. The story about the prisoners of war who made the ball room ceiling was one which has stuck in my mind.
You did a great job, Denis looking after the house. Hopefully the new owners can spend the millions on it that it needs.

A Bennett said...

Wow that was incredibly interesting.
I hope that book gets written!

Unknown said...

What an awesome insight into the backstage area of this beautiful homestead story. I was first invited there for high tea a year back. I found the homestead mesmerizing. Thankyou from my heart for sharing this.

hayden.pietrecupa said...

Wow! I would love to know where the Cambodian sculpture is. And YES her look has changed!

Nicola T said...

What a very fascinating read! I have five of your fairies/gnomes. They sit on a shelf in my lounge and are always commented on. I never knew where they had come from as they used to be my mother's. I have Puck, Hoon, Peewee, Slosh and small mushroom with a face. So pleased you were able to save such a beautiful home.

grant said...

Hello Denis, what a wonderful story, and a story that should be published in a book so please keep writing. I reside in the Wairarapa and have a huge affection with NZ grand country houses, hence my continued interest in this stunning house and property.
What an amazing time you must of had living in this beautiful house despite all the hard work and continued maintenance you invested to preserve everything. Thank you for your fight, passion and determination, as without your fight, this grand home would be just a distant memory for all.
Grant Alecock