The importance of Fernside is best understood through the families that arrived from England and settled in the South Wairarapa. In 1839 William Elgar first arrived in Port Nicholson (commonly known as Wellington harbour). He was boatswain on one of the first immigrant ships, the Tory. His son Charles William Elgar arrived in Wellington in 1873 and he and a partner purchased over 8,000 acres well to the east of Fernside and later sold this substantial block to Charles Johnson Pharazyn. The Pharazyns became one of the largest land-owners in the Wairarapa.
Charles Elgar's links with the influential Pharazyns strengthened. He managed large tracts of Pharazyn land and in 1890 married Ella Grace Pharazyn, daughter of Charles Pharazyn junior. In 1886 Charles had leased 1,134 acres known as Fernside, near Featherston, and purchased the property in 1897. A railway station of the same name stood near the north-west boundary of the property.
The first substantial home on the land now known as Fernside was built by Mr & Mrs R J Barton in the 1870s. In 1923 a fire completely destroyed the building and its contents. Little information about the earlier home, other than a single photograph, remains.
The second home at Fernside was built in 1924. This structure is Georgian in style compared with its more colonial predecessor. Fernside's architect Heathcote Helmore worked for a time with Sir Edwin Lutyens. Ned, as Lutyens was popularly known, was both famous and prolific. He deigned over three dozen major English country houses and altered and added to many more. He designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the Viceroy’s house in New Delhi, (now Rashtrapati Bhavan). A more whimsical creation is Queen Mary’s Dolls” House which is now in Windsor Castle.
Fernside’s architectural style has been attributed to Lutyens and his colleague Gertrude Jekyll but this is a tenuous link to the famous architect and the equally famous garden designer. Paul Waite, an architectural historian and trustee of The Lutyens Trust describes Fernside is a hybrid, a synthesis of both American and British styles coupled with the need to accommodate New Zealand country living. According to Paul, the floor plan is English while detailing and decoration is American Colonial, a style never used by Lutyens but undoubtedly known to Helmore through contemporary American architecture.
Click here for more information about Sir Edwin Lutyens.
The links to Lutyens, while tenuous, are curious. Fernside’s hall (drawing room) could easily be mistaken for the white drawing room in Knebworth House as Lady Lytton found it and as she and Lutyens redecorated it.
The Elgars, for a second time, amassed a fine collection of antiques. Vacations abroad were frequent so they had plenty of opportunity to collect items for their new home. Ella Elgar set about making Fernside the meeting place for visiting aristocracy and those generally described as "the rich and famous". One local newspaper reported that Lord Bledisloe described Fernside as "... my favourite New Zealand country home because of its elegance, appointments and delightful garden setting."
Charles Elgar died at the nearby Tauherenikau race-track in 1930 and Ella moved to Christchurch some 10 years later. Fernside was divided into three blocks and sold. A collection of English furniture from the "Elgar Collection" was bequeathed to the Nation by Ella Elgar.The house and 54 acres, including the formal gardens, parkland and 2km driveway were purchased as a residence for American’s official representative in New Zealand. Fernside is one of very few land titles in New Zealand that bears the inscription "The Government of the United States of America".
As an ambassadorial residence Fernside continued to host New Zealand's elite and contributed to the local community as a venue for various fundraising events. On 9th February 1952 the local Jaycees arranged a garden festival to raise funds for a local memorial scheme and prepared a pictorial album for Ambassador Robert M Scotten. The inscription reads: "This volume is presented to you on behalf of the board and members of Masterton Jaycees Inc., as a token of our appreciation for what you have done to assist us in our work. By your generosity in opening the Embassy and grounds for the "Fernside Garden Festival" sponsored by this society, you have earned the deep gratitude of the people of the Wairarapa. Your kindness has been the means of giving great material aid to the War Memorial schemes of the district. We hope that in years to come a glance through these pages will revive happy memories for Mrs Scotten and yourself."
The history and mythology of Fernside is extensive. While stories of Fernside and the Elgars abound, distilling the facts from Fernside mythology is difficult. The trustees responsible for Fernside are compiling material with the intention of preparing a definitive Fernside history. Any material, anecdotes or other information would be gratefully received.