If these walls could talk
An iconic Paekākāriki building takes on a new life providing space for local artists.
by Kate Burney
Back in the 1920s, a day trip from Wellington out to the Paekākāriki village required careful preparation.
Unlike today, the only way north from Wellington was a winding, narrow journey over the Paekakariki hill. Passengers in their Sunday best could peek carefully down the side to see a few Model T Fords that had gone off over the side. Like today, the top of the hill provided travellers with a view of the golden beaches of Kāpiti that awaited them.
It was with these travellers in mind that led the construction of the historic art deco Holtom’s Building on Beach Rd in Paekākāriki. Frank Holtom planned to build a garage on the ground floor to service vehicles that had made the journey from Wellington, while hungry travellers lunched on the first floor.
Construction started in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1922 that the building was fully completed - and it remains today the only prominent art deco building left in the region.
The building has taken on many incarnations in its long life; it’s been a billiard parlour, tea rooms, an indoor bowling facility, and a sewing factory for wrangler jeans. Today, it continues to provide an important space in the community, housing Alan Wehipeihana’s gallery and artists’ studios.
Weihipeihana says that although most of the original fittings remain, the inside has changed a lot over the years to best use the space and let in more light for artists.
“It was originally just me up here and I’ve slowly opened it up more and more,” he said. “Doors have come off and walls gone up, people come up this little narrow staircase expecting to go into a cave, but it opens out into this really big space.”
Weihipeihana has lived in Paekākāriki for thirty-five years and been in the building for twelve. He said he loves the great collaborative energy of the place.
The building’s history within the town is intertwined with Weihipeihana’s own creative journey; soon after moving to the village he quit his postie run at age forty-two to learn stone carving. After mastering the craft, he branched out into wood carving, painting and writing, and many of these fascinating works are on display in his studio.
There are also six main artists working in the building, and other artists who ‘come and go.’ Doorways lead through different labyrinthine hallways and into separate spaces containing artists’ and their works.
Eclectic artworks are spread throughout the first floor, and around every corner is the promise of something new and interesting. Like many, Weihipeihana is fascinated by the history of the Holtom building, and said he’s often visited by people who have their own memories and connections to the space. “Kids come up who had their skate ramp in the corner of the building back when it was empty, or someone’s mother worked in the jean factory, or they flatted here,” he said.
Paekākāriki has been the perfect place for Weihipeihana to hone his creativity and bring up his family, although he was daunted at first about moving from the city to a small town. “The first couple of summers it was singlets and shorts carving in the shed with the chisel, then diving into the ocean 2 or 3 times a day to clean off of the dust.” Alan said he loved that fact that the Holtom’s building history now includes himself and other artists.
“Sometimes I go back and revive old ideas and they’re all here around me. I’m surrounded by history. I love having this building to provide a space for my voice.”