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Founding father’s historic hospital homestead goes on the market for sale

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One of Whanganui’s most historic homes – once used as the city’s Karitane Hospital for the care of newborn babies and as an influenza isolation ward – has been placed on the market for sale.

Colonial-inspired Stewart House in Campbell Street was built in the early 1890s by Whanganui founding father John Tiffin Stewart who immigrated to New Zealand in 1855. The imposing mansion comes complete with a ‘secret’ staircase currently hidden behind sealed walls.

As an engineer, John Tiffin Stewart surveyed the route for the railway line through the Manawatu Gorge, designed the layout of the park around Virginia Lake, and mapped the Whanganui River. He also surveyed and planned the layout of many of Manawatu’s towns – including Palmerston North, Feilding, Halcombe and Rongotea.

John Stewart and his wife Frances lived in the two-storey Campbell Street homestead with their 10 children. Women’s rights advocate Frances Stewart became the first woman member of a hospital board in New Zealand in 1897 - where she campaigned for better training of nurses.

John Stewart died in 1913. Frances died three years later. At their bequest, the expansive homestead was bequeathed to Wanganui Borough Council to administer on behalf of the Plunket Society as a Karitane Hospital for the care of new born babies.

In 1918 at the conclusion of World War I, control of Stewart House was temporarily handed over to the Whanganui Hospital Board to care for patients of the world-wide influenza epidemic which killed some 6680 New Zealanders.

Stewart House operated as a specialist influenza ward for some six weeks – caring for scores of sick returned servicemen and Whanganui locals.

Wanganui District Council, as it had become over the ensuing decades, sold Stewart House into private ownership in 1979 with the proceeds used to refurbish the Whanganui Plunket rooms.

Now Stewart House is being marketed for sale by negotiation through Bayleys Whanganui sales person Kim Ahern, who said that while the ‘bones’ of the original property remained intact, considerable additions and alterations had been undertaken on the home over the past nine decades.

“This is certainly a project property for someone who wants to return this wonderful dwelling to her former glory. Much of the original interior layout has been altered through numerous redesigns over the course of some 100 years – turning it from a family home, into a hospital, then back into a home,” Ms Ahern said.

“There’s a games room where a billiard table would once have been, a study or ‘gentleman’s retreat’, what would have been a library, a full butler’s pantry, six bedrooms and three bathrooms.

“There are glimpses of how Stewart House looked in the 1890s – with some of the rooms still showing the original rimu and matai doors, frames, stairwell, bannister railings. Most likely, there’s still more of this native wood to be exposed underneath the carpet, or behind layers of paint and wallpaper.

“There is believed to be a hidden narrow staircase in the walls – linking one of the upstairs bedrooms to the kitchen. That was the style of many homes built in that period – where the servants were partially segregated from the family. You could say it’s Whanganui’s very own version of Downton Abbey.

“The original plans showing the mystery hidden staircase have only come to light recently. While the current owners of Stewart House are curious to find out if the staircase still exists, they are hesitant to begin any demolition work to expose the staircase in case it puts off potential buyers – so you could say the home is being sold with a mystery thrown in for free.”

Ms Ahern said the 32-room home ranked among Whanganui’s biggest, and sat on 1486 square metres of land.

“If Stewart House was for sale in Auckland it would have a price tag starting with a ‘two’… million that is. Because it’s in Whanganui, we’re expecting offers to come in about a quarter of that,” she said.

“Externally, the filigree and fretwork are all original – and still in amazing condition considering the age of Stewart House. It just goes to show the quality of workmanship which went into creating what was one of Whanganui’s finest homes in its day.

“The home just needs new owners with the same passion and resources to bring it back to the majesty the Stewart family would have known and loved. Who knows, Stewart House could even once again host the charity fundraising parties and socialite soirees it was famous for almost 100 years ago.”

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