Home Doll house Forget Larnach Castle, This Dunedin Farmhouse Is So Flashy It Has Electric Call Buttons To Call The Maids

Forget Larnach Castle, This Dunedin Farmhouse Is So Flashy It Has Electric Call Buttons To Call The Maids

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If you didn’t know it was there, you might walk past Olveston House.

Sitting on Dunedin’s Royal Terrace, with the greenery of the city belt as a backdrop, the historic house is almost hidden from view by a high stone wall and screen of greenery.

Viewed from the bottom of the long gravel drive, however, the stately home, built in 1906 for the Theomin family, is nothing if not cinematic: a crenellated, Jacobean facade, with twinkling leaden lights, crowded with mature trees and flowery, like something out of a gothic novel – pure Dunedin, then.

“The Theomin family had passion, they wanted to leave their mark on the community and Dunedin,” says Jan Davies, manager of Olveston House. “They did it, and they continue to do it even long after they’re gone.

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“Our slogan is ‘Authentic historic experience in the heart of Dunedin’ because we are the heart and everyone working here has a heart, especially for the house. The passion is just amazing.”

Like something out of a Gothic novel - Olveston House is pure Dunedin class.

Kylie Klein-Nixon / Stuff

Like something out of a Gothic novel – Olveston House is pure Dunedin class.

It’s true, the passion for Olveston is tangible when you enter what would once have been a small living room or garden room at the back of the house. Although now a small gift shop, it still feels like entering a private home. Maybe because it always is.

Open to the public 364 days a year – it’s only closed on Christmas Day – Olveston still has residents. The bedrooms at the top of the house, once the servants’ quarters, are occupied – the only area off-limits to visitors.

Davies says having residents helps provide the livable feel that Olveston gives visitors. But it’s also because everything that was in the house when the Theomins lived here is still there – even the hand-printed wallpaper is the same.

The entrance to Olveston House, filled with items the Theomin family collected on their travels and designed as a Jacobean armory.

Kylie Klein-Nixon / Stuff

The entrance to Olveston House, filled with items the Theomin family collected on their travels and designed as a Jacobean armory.

When the last Theomin, Dorothy, died in 1966, she left the house and its contents to the city and the people of Dunedin, so nothing was taken away or touched – a long-extinct Edwardian lifestyle, captured in architectural and social amber.

In fact, it’s a little less frozen than that. Olveston is so comfortable and inviting, so far from a museum, you feel like you could sink into one of the Arts and Crafts style armchairs with a copy of Matthew Arnold’s Collected Poems, kick your feet up on a velvet pouf and spend a nice cozy time reading the afternoon.

But there are still two floors of lavish art and curious curiosities to see, so no time to slouch.

We start with the kitchens, where the first thing that stands out is how technologically advanced the house was, and perhaps still is, even by modern standards.

There is a built-in water filter in the butler’s pantry and copper-lined sinks in the galley to protect the ceramics.

“It was so forgiving,” says Davies. “If you drop a piece of china into the copper sinks, it won’t break.”

The kitchens were modern and comfortable to work in, including copper sinks to save washing up.

Kylie Klein Nixon / Stuff

The kitchens were modern and comfortable to work in, including copper sinks to save washing up.

This was the first house in Dunedin to have electricity – The rest of the town was not yet wired so they had their own petrol generator in the basement – so the call system is electric, with buttons to call the butler or housekeepers in every room, including the covered terrace outside.

The house has central heating and radiators in every room. The bathroom even had a heated towel rack – most Kiwi homes didn’t have anything like this until the 1980s.

They even had an in-house phone system, so the family could find each other no matter which end of the house they were at.

The electric "doorbell handle" call servants in every room of the house.

Kylie Klein-Nixon / Stuff

The electric “bell” to call servants in all rooms of the house.

In some ways, the Theomin represented everything progressive about the relatively new middle classes. They have embraced history and culture as well as the latest in lifestyle technology. The house, designed in the UK and built by local firm Mason and Clark, is inspired by the 17th century and filled with objects from around the world, collected during the family’s travels from Japan to the Middle East, including central Europe.

But the Theomins also collected works by New Zealand artists long before it became fashionable.

“Curators in the past, well into the 1960s, only bought English art because it was thought to have value,” says Davies.

The library is a cozy and comfortable room in which you just want to snuggle up and read.

Kylie Klein-Nixon / Stuff

The library is a cozy and comfortable room in which you just want to snuggle up and read.

“Well, the Theomin family used to buy works from young New Zealand artists a long time ago when they needed support. That’s the wonderful thing about the house’s artwork, from Grace Joel to Frances Hodgkins to William Hodgkins, even.”

The rooms have been designed for comfort, not only for the family, but also for their staff. The kitchens and pantries are large and airy, with views over the gardens. The doors are wide, to facilitate passage with a tray.

Every detail has been thought of: upstairs there is a billiard room – with a reinforced steel floor to support the weight of the professional size table, and above is a skylight with windows that open to let the cigar smoke.

The Orientalist-inspired smoking room.

Kylie Klein-Nixon / Stuff

The Orientalist-inspired smoking room.

Next to this room is a small smoking room decorated in the Orientalist style like a Bedouin tent, with a lantern that casts the shadow of a Star of David on the ceiling, a nod to the family’s Jewish roots.

“It’s truly an honor to work here,” says Davies. “To have the opportunity to tell stories and to have had the honor of bringing more people through.

You can sample this lifestyle at formal dinner parties, tea parties, and other events currently happening at home. More information about the events and the history of the house are on the site Olveston.co.nz.

The 'modern' bathroom from 1906, with shower over the bath and heated towel rail.

Kylie Klein-Nixon / Stuff

The ‘modern’ bathroom from 1906, with shower over the bath and heated towel rail.