George Hutchison was born in Scotland in 1846 and came to New Zealand when he was 20. He would later become a Member of Parliament but began his career practising law in Wanganui and Wellington. In 1874 he married Agnes Barbour Hogg, daughter of the Wanganui Reverend David Hogg, and soon thereafter commissioned the building of a house for his new family. Construction began in 1875 and the building was completed the next year.
The Italian villa was built at a time when good quality timber was plentiful and reasonably cheap. It was large covering an area about 70ft square, and the two-storeyed structure with a two-storeyed tower atop was built of heart rimu. It stood on Wicksteed St between Cameron St and Guyton, St where St Mary’s Catholic Church now stands, and the height made the building a visible landmark on the townscape.
It was commonly referred to as ‘Hutchison’s Folly’; possibly a response from the locals who didn’t appreciate a wealthy English lawyer imposing his Victorian mansion on the centre of their town. Nonetheless, they could not help admiring the building.
The house had a concrete verandah with a cast iron rail and heavy wood balustrade around three sides of the building. These were fairly standard features for big homesteads of the time, but the second-floor balcony around three sides of the house, accessed by French doors and with views of the town, river, and Mt Ruapehu showed a little more luxury than was usually experienced.
Hutchison spared no expense on the lush interior: parquet floors (with both English and New Zealand timbers), plaster doorframes and detailed capitals stained to match the wood, a large wine cellar, crystal chandeliers, ornate tinted plastered roses on the ceilings, fireplaces with marble surrounds and tinted glazed hearth tiles are noted features of the house. It was also practical, with a large indoor-water tank fed by the roof and internal lead pipes to take the water where it was needed.
It is not known exactly how much the building cost at the time; however a retrospective estimate made in 1944 stated it would not have been less than £10,000 using materials at that time – equating to more than $800,000 in 2014.
The family resided there only 13 years before relocating to South Africa where Hutchison had been serving military staff duty and decided to move his law practice there. The house was rented to Dr Saunders of Wanganui until he passed away. In 1898 it was sold to the Catholic Church when it was renamed Villa Maria and became the temporary accommodation for the boarders of Sacred Heart Convent until 1911.
The building had other uses; the second floor (base of the tower) was converted into a music room for the students of the convent, and the remaining rooms were used as headquarters by other institutions including St Vincent de Paul and the Maori Missioner.
The house became a primary school from 1927 until it relocated to another building on the same block in 1934, then after some alterations Villa Maria became St Augustine’s Secondary School opening in 1944.
Until then the building had remained much the same, but a lot of change was carried out over the next few years to accommodate the needs of the school, until it relocated to new premises in 1967. From then Villa Maria continued its service as the headquarters for various organisations and societies run through the Catholic Church.
Villa Maria was demolished in 1974 and the new St Mary’s Catholic Church opened in 1976.