Arthur Edward Russell sold a large sheep station in Hawkes Bay, and started farming at Te Matai near Palmerston North in 1884. In 1886 he married Ethel Williams, (descendant of the missionary Williams). The Russells’ four children were born between 1886-1898. In 1899/1900 Arthur sold Te Matai and retired from farming, though remained involved with the farming community & was President of the Manawatu A & P Association, 1901. He bought part of the Prendergast Estate, and Wharerata was designed for him by Charles Natusch. It was built in 1901, of native timbers. The house’s name is thought to be derived from Arthur’s nickname Rata (Red beard). It was originally two words, but the two have been elided.
In 1906 alterations were made to the east end of the building and a matai dancefloor was laid in the morning room. Wharerata then became famous for its “champagne” dances organised by Mrs Russell. Telephone installed 1907.
1910 the Russell’s son Guy was sent to school in England, and whole family moved to England, to a house in London’s Eaton Square, and caretakers were installed to look after Wharerata. Guy served in the 1914/18 war, survived but died of influenza 1918, and the family then returned to NZ, to find the house and gardens overrun by rats. Arthur Russell died in 1924. In 1930 Mrs Russell had a trip back to England where she bought a large collection of antiques. She decided to alter the house, to accommodate them, also to redesign the garden. Christchurch architect Heathcote Helmore was commissioned to do this, and he extended this room, the Drawing Room, (Russell Room) built the concrete balustrades and steps, and formalised the garden, breaking the sweep of the lawn with a formal sunken garden. The garden featured in an Evening Post article in 1935. It was badly damaged by a cyclone in 1936, but Mrs Russell was not one to be defeated by the weather, and she supervised her gardener in the planting of 1000 new trees.
From 1931 Massey Agricultural College was a near neighbour. Some land was leased from Mrs Russell for a sports field by the College, and a small area was bought from her in 1947. Initially she firmly resisted all offers to buy the remaining house and land, but in 1949 an agreement was drawn up to sell it to the Crown for educational purposes, in exchange for £14,000. She died shortly after this, and the property was transferred to the Government in May 1951, for the use of the College. It was used initially as accommodation for Sheep Husbandry, Horticulture and Economics, the drawing and morning rooms becoming lecture rooms.
In the early 1970s the University’s Education Department occupied part of Wharerata, while the University’s Staff Club took over the remainder. The gardens were used in the 1970s and 1980s for the production of Shakespeare plays. Extensive renovations were carried out between 1975 and 1979. Further alterations converted one end of the first floor into apartments, and Mrs Russell’s bedroom, with a magnificent view to the North, served as a boardroom. Many important functions, social and official, have taken place in this room or the gardens during the past 30 years or so, overseen by the portrait of Mrs Russell. Additions have been made to the kitchen area to improve accommodation for the cafe.
Wharerata is classified category II under the Historic Places Act 1993, and conservation work on it in the late 1990s has been of a high standard.ContributorMassey University Archives