Inverlochy House is a Victorian mansion designed by local architect Thomas Turnbull for a prominent local family in the late 1870s. A contemporary account described the ‘unrivalled family residence’ as having ‘fourteen rooms, two bathrooms, every modern convenience, water laid on, two conservatories, a vinery,  fernery, fowl house, wash house and offices and a stable with two stalls and loose box’.

The house was built for the McDonald family between 1877 and 1878 using mainly local timbers, such as the beautiful heart kauri in the staircase. But many of the original fittings such as the mosaic tiles in the hall, the ornate carved fireplaces and the two lion fountains at the front of the building were  imported from Great Britain and Europe. The house is named after a thirteenth century Scottish castle. In 1431 clansmen of Alexander McDonald defeated King James the First’s larger army in the first Battle of Inverlochy, which was fought in the vicinity of the castle.

The front of the house circa 1890 - 1900 (from the collection of the Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa Tongarewa)

The house was first owned by Thomas and Frances McDonald. Thomas was born in Boulogne-sur-mer in France in 1847 but some years later he returned with his parents to the family’s highland home in Scotland. The young man was educated in Dundee and later at Hare’s Private Academy in Adelaide, Australia. It was there in 1870 he married a young Australian woman called Frances Rossiter.

The couple arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, in July 1871 and Thomas worked for a time as an accountant with the firm of Jacob Joseph and Company. That year he established his own business; T. Kennedy MacDonald and Company. This grew to include land, estate, share-broking, auctioneering and commission agencies, and operated throughout the Wellington province and beyond.

Thomas and Frances produced three sons in the 1870’s but sadly all of them died during the scarlet fever epidemic of 1876. The couple later adopted Vera, one of Frances’s nieces, as their daughter.

Thomas became an advocate for local industry and was involved in founding and promoting many local concerns including the early tram and rail networks, the Gear Meat Company and the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts (NZAFA). His expertise in land matters led to his appointment in the 1880s as auctioneer, auditor and umpire to the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, and following the Government Advances to Settlers Act 1894 he became the official valuer of state lands from 1895 to 1901.

This group portrait from around 1899 is of an early  meeting of the Council of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts Council .
Thomas McDonald is seated at left. (Photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnball library).

He also became involved in local politics and was City Councillor for Te Aro ward, City Auditor and President of the Chamber of Commerce. In 1890 he became a Member of Parliament. Frances, too, enjoyed local politics, and was a leader in the Women's Social and Political League.

Like many local businessmen Thomas suffered some serious financial reverses in the late1880s and was declared bankrupt in 1891. This forced his retirement from the House, and although a discharge was granted he was not re-elected in 1893. In business terms the bankruptcy had only a limited impact on his domestic activities because the canny Scot had already transferred the ownership of Inverlochy House to his wife.  In 1893 the couple moved to the new (but smaller) house they had built up the hill at 192 The Terrace.

McDonald was a man of vision who expended much of his time and energy on helping to develop the young county. Five Wellington streets were named for him or for members of his family. In his later years he suffered from poor health and in 1913 he was admitted to Porirua Mental Hospital where he died of 'Chronic Brain Disease' in 1914. His wife, Frances, lived till 1921. They were both buried with their sons in the Sydney Street cemetery.

For a while the house was privately owned but at the turn of the twentieth century the house was divided into a number of self-contained flats and it remained in this condition for seventy years. Then, in 1979, William Development Holdings announced plans to knock it down and build a seven storey hotel on the site. The building’s inhabitants were issued with eviction notices but together with other local residents they began a fight to save the historic building. Led by house residents Martin Hanley and Fiona Cameron the group organised a programme of fundraising activities and public meetings and Inverlochy House became the focus of a wider campaign to preserve the city’s remaining heritage buildings from the wrecking balls of developers.

In November of 1980 the group won their battle (but failed to keep their flats) when William Development Holdings magnanimously arranged to present the building as a gift to the city, for use in the arts.  A trust was set up to manage the building which included then mayor Sir Michael Fowler, Warren Goston (for WDH) and Guy Ngan (President of the Academy of Fine Arts). In 2006 the building gained official protection when the New Zealand Historic Places Trust registered it as a Class Two Historic Place.

In 1982 the proposed hotel (the Terrace Regency) was built up above Inverlochy House on the Terrace. Inverlochy remained empty from 1981 to March of 1986 when the NZAFA began to restore the house using their own funds and money obtained from grants.

Pilot courses began in 1986, with an initial programme in 1987, but the Art School was not formally launched until December of 1987. At this time there was a ceremony at the house at which the Mayor, Jim Belich, formally announced the beginning of NZAFA’s first comprehensive art education programme, to begin in 1988. The school continued to slowly expand its classes until 1994 when NZAFA voted to close the ‘unprofitable’ operation which had become ‘a drain on Academy finances’. The president of the Academy, Tony Arthur, disagreed with this view and resigned to help set up a new incorporated society comprised mainly of tutors.  Since then Inverlochy Art School has run successfully to this day.

The front room on the left. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand -Te Papa Tongarewa)

Is Inverlochy Art School really haunted? While some people have had strange experiences in the building others have lived or worked in it for years without incident.

But the building has had a reputation for being haunted since the 1970s. Recently it has been the subject of an ongoing paranormal investigation by local paranormal investigation group Strange Occurrences. In most reported cases no actual ghost is seen but rather objects appear to move by themselves. Accounts of this work are included in ‘Spooked – Exploring the Paranormal in New Zealand (Jo Davy & James Gilberd, Random House NZ, 2011). However, at least one person has reported seeing the apparition of a young woman - possibly wearing Victorian clothing - on the first floor landing outside the Print Studio. There are rumors that ‘the ghost’ might be someone who died in a fire in this room around the turn of the last century but there is no solid evidence to support this idea. Other people think it is the ghost of Frances McDonald, who has also been reported as haunting 192 The Terrace.

One witness is Martin Hanley. At the time he was an architecture student and a tenant in the upstairs flat. One night in the early 1980s he and his partner Anna  were wondering if it was safe to go out (and leave the house unguarded from the developers) when a large mirror appeared to leap off the wall of its own volition before hitting the wall opposite and sliding slowly (and ‘unnaturally’) down to the floor. Not surprisingly, they both took this a sign not to leave the building that night!

Since the art school started the upstairs flat has been the home of the art school’s caretaker. In the late 1990s this position was held by Sva Brooke White, who had a number of strange experiences while he was living there. In one incident a large bucket full of paste in the Sculpture Studio was apparently thrown by an unseen force; and another time he had just nailed a large sheet of wood across the door to the room when it was suddenly and forcibly removed by another (or the same) invisible agent.  A strange smell seemed to linger in the room and shortly afterwards the building was blessed by a Catholic Priest and later by a local Kaumatua. This seemed to calm things down and the current caretakers have reported nothing unusual during their tenure. Of course many of us believe that ‘paranormal events’ are just in our imagination or made up by pranksters. What is certain is that no-one has ever been really frightened by the Inverlochy ghost and most people seem to agree that if the house is haunted then the ghost is a benevolent one. If it is Frances, it is to be hoped that she is happy to see her family home full of art lovers such as herself.

This is part of a documentary which screened on TV One in March of 2001.

View an interesting video 30 Odd minutes with Strange Occurrences spokesman/leader James Gilberd on an American paranormal show.



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Inverlochy Art School
3 Inverlochy Place
Te Aro, Wellington 6011
Phone 04 939 2177
Email [email protected]

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The Williams School of Art at Inverlochy Incorporated - Trading as Inverlochy Art School. Registered Charity CC54321