Last week my sister the Chef and I were down in the South Island of New Zealand, having a road trip.
We were whizzing* along on the road from Arthur’s Pass to Greymouthâ€ when we whizzed past this sign:
I slammed on the breaks** and pulled over to the side of the road. The Chef and I looked at each other.
“Did you just see that?”
“Did that sign just say ‘Historic Miniature Bungalow”?
“Are we going to turn around and have a look?”
So we did.
And it was historic (1930s), and it was miniature (3/4 scale), and it was a bungalow (self explanatory):
This teensy-weensy bungalow was built in 1938-40 by 10-12 year old students at the Jack’s Mill School at Kotuku, led by their headmaster who believed in hands-on learning and wanted to give the students practical skills, and something to care about amidst the deprivations of the Great Depression.
The students completed every aspect of the construction: it was even design by 12 year old student Rosemary O’Brien.
When we pulled up at the school grounds the sign said the house was only open on Sundays (boo), but decided we could at least have a look around the grounds and peer through the windows, and when we did, we discovered that the doors were all open! So we got to explore the house all by ourselves.
At 3/4 scale, the house is big enough for two adults to explore, though you do have a weird sense of being a giantess. You could sit on the bench-setee in the lounge:
And lean on the brick fireplace:
The doors were just tall enough for me to walk through without ducking, but I think I would have struggled to eat a meal at the tiny dinette table!
The house was built just like a real house, with electricity and running water. The students even managed to source a special 3/4 scale stove, bathtub, and sinks:
I had the most fun exploring the kitchen – I wished the cunning cupboards were still full of things, and that you could cook something on the little teeny stove. Mostly I just liked seeing what a 1930s kitchen would really have looked like. The most striking thing was how modern it actually was. In full scale, it would have been quite an acceptable kitchen today!
The lounge led on to the dining room, and then to the kitchen, and the dining room and lounge both had outside doors, but you had to go out on to the porch from the lounge to access the bedroom and bathroom.
It seems odd, but I suspect it is an accurate representation of a the type of bungalow that was becoming popular in New Zealand at the end of the 1930s (though it was quite innovative of the students to design and build one in this style). I’ve certainly seen houses that have rooms that were clearly made from outside porches that have since been closed-in.
Sadly, I didn’t get a photograph of the bedroom with its narrow single bed (double beds clearly being a slightly too advanced educational concept for 10-12 year olds in the mid-20th century!), but we did our best to document the pastel bathroom, with its scaled-down medicine cabinet and functioning water heater.
I didn’t try the taps in the sink to see if they would work, just in case they did!
And, of course, the famous 3/4 scale bathtub, which it turns out is just the right size for me to get stuck in, which I suspect is karma for having got in it in the first place .
In addition to the fully functional bungalow (which was used as the world’s most awesome home-ec classroom until the school shut in 1955), the students designed a garden built around the points of the compass, and built a small outbuilding for the house. For wood storage perhaps?
They also indulged in themed rock-gardens, which I can only surmise were a peculiar early-mid 20th century craze which has since died out.
The rock gardens came with labels (‘1937 Sammy the Starfish Rockery’) and are protected by little corrugated plastic hutches. Can you see Sammy?
In addition to Sammy, there was a rockery for Disney’s Snow White and her seven dwarves, reflecting the latest cultural phenomena. The film was showing in major cities in New Zealand in late 1938 (it came out in the US in 1937). I wonder how far the students of Jack’s Mill had to travel to see it?
The grounds also included the actual schoolhouse (very important!) and a hall.
The hall contained fascinating displays about the surrounding area, and work done by the students, like this modernist rug made from wool that they spun and dyed themselves in 1941:
Everything in the halls was a bit grubby and dusty, and while the bungalow was nice and cool, the hall and school were stiffling hot, and I soon gave up on the displays and retreated outside. I hope the students stuck in the hall and school on hot days at least got to have the windows open!
After the school was closed in 1955 the bungalow fell into disrepair, until the former students took an interest in it in the 1990s and worked to restore it. The information board for the school had a wonderful photograph showing a student whitewashing the chimney in 1938, and again in 1996 when the bungalow was restored.
The miniature bungalow, school and grounds are a now historic reserve, and are owned and managed by the Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. You can read more about the school on the Department of Conservation and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust websites.
* And by whizzing, I mean driving along at 5kph under the speed limit, because I’m expressly forbidden by Mr D from becoming part of the holiday road toll unless the circumstances are utterly and completely beyond my control. But whizzing sounds better.
â€ At the mouth of the Grey River, because people giving European names to things in New Zealand ran out of ideas shortly after eureka moments like “Doubtless this is a bay, so let’s call it Doubtless Bay!” and “I’m doubtful this is a sound, but if it is, we’ll call it Doubtfull Sound”
** Well, slowly and responsibly applied the breaks while signaling that I was going to pull over and finding a suitable spot to do so. But slammed sounds better.