Hard News by Russell Brown

11

Michael Baker and the Big House

One of the key voices in this extraordinary time in which we live is that of University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker. Philip Matthews did an an excellent job this weekend of capturing the way he became the man for this moment in a profile for The Press.

But one part of Michael Baker's own story isn't covered in the profile – his stewardship across nearly 40 years of the remarkable institution that is The Big House in St George's Bay Road, Parnell.

I'm a former resident of The Big House and in 2006 I interviewed Michael for a Metro magazine story about the place, its people and its stories. It seemed like a good time to republish that story.

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The opening sequence of the 1994 thriller Shallow Grave depicts a group of twentysomethings grilling applicants for a spare room in their Edinburgh house. They fire oddball questions ("Leveraged buy-outs - a good thing or a bad thing?") at squirming contenders until they find their perfect flatmate

The first time I was in this room, at 42 St George's Bay Road, Parnelwas a little like that. I was 20 years old, not long in Auckland, and I'd answered a flatmates-wanted ad in the paper – failing, I suspect, to pay much attention to advice about the process. I turned up on the appointed evening to be ushered down to the dark, warm basement kitchen of a huge old wooden house, where perhaps a dozen people were gathered.

The interview began: I was asked what I did, what I believed and what I might bring to the house. Some people, I thought, liked me, while others seemed positively suspicious. They debated amongst themselves. It was unexpected, and somewhat unnerving. The situation was made more acute by the fact that there were four or five applicants, and only two rooms going. I summoned all the charm I had. I didn't want to lose.

The kitchen's décor is no better this bright morning, but the mood is much lighter. Four young men are making breakfast: poached eggs simmer on a giant gas stove. They greet me casually, pleasantly, as if they're used to people turning up at the door.

Hi, I say, I'm Russell. I used to live here.

"Really?" asks one. "When was that?"

1983.

"Wow," he says. "That's the year I was born."

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The house was built in the mid-1870s to house Mary Ellen Clayton's Melmerly Collegiate School for girls. Princess Te Puea Herangi and pioneer aviator Jean Batten took lessons in one of its 21 rooms; the big space on the ground floor later known as the ballroom.

The precise layout of the house has changed repeatedly in the years since the school's closure in 1920, but it sprawls across five levels, from the basement to the attic. Some bedrooms are grand, others no more than nooks and crannies. It has been a boarding house, may have been a brothel and was almost certainly the place that police long batons were first drawn in anger.

Bruno Lawrence lived there; a generation later so did Nandor Tanczos. Spookily enough, Kerry Fox, the star of Shallow Grave, came to the house a lot in the 1980s. It has been home to kids who became doctors, lawyers and consultants, and to a few people who wound up in the slammer and the looney bin. At any one time, around 20 people have lived there. For longer than anyone can remember, it has been The Big House.

The Big House makes the headlines every now and then: most recently in October last year, when a balcony crowded with nearly 200 partygoers collapsed onto 40 people below. It was something of a miracle that no one was killed, or even badly hurt.

Dr Michael Baker was lying in bed on a Saturday at home in Wellington when the news came on the radio, "and I heard 'party, Parnell, veranda, people in hospital, St George's Bay Road', and I knew that it was probably The Big House."

Baker also knew that reporters would be calling, because for the last quarter of a century he has owned The Big House. To call him the landlord is something of a disservice. Baker is the gentle father of an institution.

New Zealand was sharply politicised in 1981, waking up and taking sides over the tour, and Baker was a third-year medical student, living at the house, which had been owned and operated as a single tenancy for the past 10 years by the Mercep family trust. He missed the infamous party where police arrived and drew PR-24 batons. In the dark, people thought they were machine guns and ran for their lives.

Baker had been visiting the house since 1979, when it was home to 70s pop group the Crocodiles (for whom Lawrence played drums) and various former members of Lawrence's seminal hippie arts troupe BLERTA, including actor and broadcaster Ian Watkin. The inventor and photographer Robin White was there too, and the house was littered the debris of White's cottage industry - the Humdinger range of wooden children's toys.

"It was a big, communal arrangement," recalls Crocodiles member Fane Flaws. "I remember my kids and Robin's being there, and the huge room downstairs being the playroom, where we built big castles out of cardboard boxes, walkways and all sorts of stuff. We had a practice room for the band, and there was a sort of chaotic, communal life. The mothers would be cooking all the time and feeding kids. It was a bit like a marae, I suppose."

It all seemed set to end in 1981, when the Mercep family trust resolved to sell the house. Baker, who had recently moved into the house's vast attic, after his brother David moved out, figured the run-down house was "destined for demolition" under new ownership. So, 23 years old and "knowing nothing about property," he decided he would buy it.

Ivan Mercep, later the co-founder of the Jasmax architectural firm, had the duty of disposing of the property after his father died. He agreed to leave in some vendor finance, and Baker made up the difference with a bank loan and some assistance from his own family.

"We made it easier for Michael to purchase, because of the way he wanted to use it," says Mercep. "He wanted to retain it and develop it for student use, and that appealed to me. I thought it was going to a good parent."

As ambitious as the purchase itself was Baker's blueprint for the household. He has never had a tenancy agreement. Instead, he drew up a house constitution that runs to several pages.

"It sets out the obligations of people living there, and how decisions are to be made. In the end, the essential element is that people do have to meet, usually about every two weeks, to make decisions. It also sets out my obligations and describes the decision-making process," Baker explains.

"A friend of mine, Carol Cohen, was very experienced in organising direct action work and had spent a lot of time developing ideas around consensus decision-making. So we picked up her ideas, particularly on consensus decision-making, which is the opposite of majority rule. It's the only way to run a house like that, because if you have majority rule, you're going to have factions."

It sounds fanciful, but 25 years later, the residents still hold those fortnightly meetings. Although I'll lay odds that they're not as dramatic as they used to be when I moved in in 1983. Anything from ideology to dinner menus could spark long, emotional debates.

"The house meetings were unbelievable," recalls Phil Twyford, who lived at the house from 1982 to 1984. "It could be very fraught."

There could be tears and comforting at meetings. I don't actually recall the nature of the dispute that led to me one night comforting one of the tearful protagonists, in a wholly consensual fashion, all the way upstairs to my bedroom. There was probably a lot of that.

At one point, there was particularly heated argument over the fortnightly women-only nights, ordained by Fay, a kind but demanding lesbian, so that the radical lesbian separatists could come around without having to breathe the same air as men. I took those nights as an excuse to go out drinking with my mates (although I was horrified by a subsequent proposal for a parallel mens' group), but Oliver, an intense South African who played jazz on the piano in the ballroom, objected, both on principle and because he had nowhere else to go. I felt sorry for him.

The house minutes book records that shortly after I left in 1984, Oliver was sent packing on account of "referring to the women of the house as 'girls' on at least three occasions."

Baker continued to live in the house himself in the early years, but rarely sought to assert authority.

"Very much so," he agrees. "Partly just for practical and personal survival reasons. It just wouldn't have worked - being the landlord with 24 live-in flatmates. Obviously, with such a big group, it does favour the more vocal people. If you were passionate and articulate, it could have quite a big effect."

The joke then - and, it appears, to this day - was that Baker, now 48, had set up the house as some grand psychological experiment and was taking notes. He laughs.

"Well, particularly as I've gone into population medicine and epidemiology, I possibly wish I had set up a grand experiment - and now I could be analysing the results! But it never was. It was a happy accident."

Twyford, then a law student, later the director of international advocacy for Oxfam in New York and recently the Labour Party candidate for North Shore, remembers stumbling upon The Big House as an 18 year-old.

"I'd been travelling for a year in Asia and Europe and I came back in January 1982, and I was basically walking around looking at student flats in the inner city. I had no idea where I was and I walked up St George's Bay Road at twilight - and there was this kind of mystical Addams Family house, with music and marijuana clouds kind of wafting in equal proportions out into St George's Bay Road, and people lolling around out on the front balcony. And I just found myself irresistibly drawn in."

He stayed for dinner, later passed the audition ("much like the Nuremberg trials") and soon found himself facing the daunting prospect of his first turn on the cooking roster.

"I was a kid, I'd never lived in a flat before, I'd never cooked or anything. And they put me in charge of blending the pumpkin for the pumpkin soup. It was a lovely old blender with a glass jug, and I stuck a wooden spoon down in it when the blender was going. And glass and pumpkin was sprayed around the room … "

Every second Sunday night, there was something on in the ballroom. The Topp Twins played one night (it is a measure of changing times that these days the talent is more likely to be trash-rockers Deja Voodoo).

"It was kind of a paradise for anybody who was gregarious, because there was always someone to play with," says Twyford. "I'd come home from working in a pub on a Friday night and there'd be half a dozen people sitting around having a party."

A chap called Paul Stephenson slept in a tree house in the back yard. Back then, he was a street-theatre hippie with freaky hair. Now, he's a partner in consultancy group Synergia and a member of the Auckland District Health Board's public health advisory committee and has served as general manager of public health for both West Australia and the Auckland region.

"It was cheaper!" remembers Stephenson about the tree house. "One of the people who formerly lived there had put the back of his truck up the tree, so it had this little pot-belly stove, which made it quite warm in winter. And it enabled you to experience the large number of people at the Big House but also escape.

"I think it was a marvellous instruction in interpersonal relationships and complexity," says Stephenson. "Strangely enough, the theoretical basis to my consulting now is around complexity theory."

Although by no means everyone in the house was political, there was an undercurrent of activism. A former resident of the house came back and prepared there for his protest dive when the US Navy frigate Texas visited Auckland in 1983. Word came through that he'd been arrested and to "hide the drugs". One day, some of the flatmates painted a giant anti-nuclear symbol on the roof. It was visible for miles, and featured on the front page of the Auckland Star. Baker went to court to try and keep it, but eventually it had to be painted over.

Joanna Easingwood, who moved in aged 22 in mid-1982, says being there "honed my own identity in terms of what I believed in and what I didn't, because when I went in I had a very airy-fairy notion about community good and political correctness and feminism, and being in that place really challenged your thought processes, because you were constantly in debate with people. It was an amazing ferment of ideas - and often conflicting ideas. I went in with a raw mass of feelings and came out with a much clearer intellectual appreciation of the issues."

She also left with her life partner. She now manages oncology and related services for the Auckland District Health board – and she and Twyford are still together 23 years after they met on the house maintenance committee.

The large-group dynamic meant the tenor of the household could change quite rapidly. After I left in 1984, links strengthened with the Centrepoint community - but not without controversy ("Bert Potter came once on a Sunday night," says Twyford, "and a riot almost broke out when he suggested that women who were raped bore responsibility.").

Shortly after that, it lurched in another direction altogether. Punk rockers with sugared-up mohawks moved in, two junkies arrived and began making homebake in their rooms, and a pair of prostitutes lived there (one, rather memorably, granted another flatmate a freebie for his birthday). 

"It was anarchic," says Nat Curnow, the grandson of poet Allen Curnow, and then a musician, who lived there at the time, along with future tattooist-to-the-stars Inia Taylor, and poet and academic Catherine Dale.

He recalls the day one resident, a burly chap whose father was a regional police chief, got so drunk at the Windsor Castle pub on Parnell Road that he decided he shouldn't drive his Fiat Bambina home. Not on the road, anyway.

"So he drove his Bambina on the footpath all the way up Parnell Rise on a Saturday afternoon, poking his head out the window and saying 'Excuse me! Sorry!' All he had to do was turn left into St George's Bay Rd at the top, but he veered and hit a car coming up the street, panicked and drove straight down to the Big House, into the driveway and crashed into the front steps, then ran all the way up into the loft and hid. The police turned up - three vanloads of them - found him, and dragged him kicking and screaming all the way down the stairs and out of the house.

"There was a dramatic house meeting when people tried to kick out a guy called Rob, who referred to himself as 'Quail'. He decided one night to entertain himself by putting grease on all the door knobs, toilet latches, windows and everything someone might touch. He also used to sit outside people's rooms and go 'Quaaaiil' in the middle of the night. Then someone would shout 'Fuck off, Rob!' and he'd cackle 'Quaaiiil!' and run off down the hall. He used to turn up at the Windsor wearing nothing but a top hat and underpants.

"He had to leave in the end, but the irony of the story is that it turned he was the only living relative of a very wealthy Christchurch philanthropist, and inherited four million dollars and ended up in private psychiatric care in Dunedin.

"The Baker boys used to visit every now and then in their little Nash Rambler cars. They were extraordinarily laid-back about the whole thing - they didn't seem to be bothered by anything. They'd just say, how's it going, and there'd be drunk people falling around the place."

Michael Baker confesses he really wasn't as laid-back as he might have seemed during what he describes as a "dark period" from 1984 to 1986, when he was a trainee intern and then spent his first health surgeon year in Whangarei.

"I worked tremendous hours and I hardly ever got back to the house. I'd make it back for the odd weekend, and the house seemed to have gone over to the dark side a bit. It did get quite anarchic, and some of the organisation broke down. It was more than I could handle for a period - I'd come back and I'd sort of sprint from the front door up to the attic and close the trapdoor after me."

The house's peril was quite real. It was declared a "residential institution" by the council, which ordered a raft of health and safety improvements and the designation of a "housekeeper" - on pain of demolition. Baker, who had left for a job in Wellington as a Ministry of Health advisor in 1985, approached a friend, Edward Meyer, who he credits with turning the place around.

"The punks were quite sweet," says Meyer of the household he found. "It was more the skinhead and construction worker element that was the problem."

Meyer, who now practices as a psychotherapist, began inviting people to fill vacancies in this "pretty wild" environment, as "pioneers". He took over rent collection ("from the house heavy") and food-buying and started cooking by himself four or five nights a week, "to give people a sense of how it could be different.

"On the heels of that, I re-introduced the idea of a cleaning roster, the first one for a long time. It had all these tasks on it - and the last instruction was to say 'fuck' a lot. Little things like that seemed to work - it made it easier to clean the bathrooms if the instructions included saying 'fuck' a lot while you did it."

He left "quite quietly" in 1994, unable to sustain the "social energy" demanded by the house as his practice built up. By then, the Big House was saved.

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The Big House is at ease these days. It is going through what Baker describes as "a very social phase" and it has continuity in the person of Logan Petley who has lived there for 15 of his 35 years and keeps an eye on things for Baker. Petley, who makes feijoa wine (yes, that feijoa wine) has run anti-GE and native forest campaigns from his room in the attic. It's been a while since anyone was asked to leave.

The ballroom has no piano now, but it does have lighting bars and mirror balls. The party I went to last year (my first time in the house for two decades) was big and lively, but there's still a slight sense of shock about November's balcony collapse. Baker carefully notes the irony of the collapse: it happened just as the present $400,000 upgrade began. Engineers who inspected it afterwards could find no fault - there were just too many people on the balcony.

"It was a very chaotic half-hour," says Petley. "There was a lighter moment. The fire alarms were going because the balcony cut through the cable, so four fire engines turned up. Then people on the phone got the ambulances here, and they came in force because it was a balcony collapse. Then the police turned up and there were people all over the street. And in the midst of it all there's this guy wandering around with his little pad trying to find a flatmate to give a noise abatement notice to."

The household, dominated by people in their early and mid-20s, now encompasses students in art, medicine, Maori studies and fashion design, a chef, a visitor from Sweden, a kindergarten teacher, a Youthline worker, a refrigeration engineer, and people who work in publishing, the music industry and the finance sector. Just for old times' sake, there's also a German anarchist.

The most recent arrival is 22 year-old Vera Wennekers, a final-year civil engineering student, who originally sublet a room (my old room, we discover) and became a full-time resident three months ago. She found the place on the recommendation of her mother's friend, who came to a 21st party "and thought, oh, what a cool place and what nice people."

She is gobsmacked by the story of the flatmate ejected for referring to women as "girls" ("are you serious?") and avers that it's different now.

"There are so many different people, from different walks of life," she says. "There's a good feel about the house. I've lived in flats where you do your own thing and no one really cares, but I really like the feeling of belonging. And it's also really easy - you don't have to worry about anything, you just do your cooking and your choring. And there's always someone to talk to."

Petley has overseen the clearing and replanting of the huge backyard (the section runs to nearly an acre) - it will be wonderful in 20 or 40 years, he says. We agree that it is remarkable in today's world that it's possible to look so far ahead into the Big House's future.

Baker's will provides for the house to pass into a charitable trust on his death, and continue indefinitely under its present status. Some measure of that gesture can be gained from the knowledge that the council valuation of the land nearly doubled to $2.68 million between 2002 and 2005 (ironically, the value of improvements was slashed by more than half to $180,000). Parnell has gentrified around it: the house across the road is now $400 a night boutique B&B.

He wants to organise a reunion of former residents, perhaps next year, after the renovation is completed. I'll be there. I may only have been a bit player in the long screenplay, but I'm grateful to have been in the movie.

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Originally published in Metro magazine, April 2006

Photograph by Carlotta Arona, from Hopskipdive.

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