The House That History Built

The House That History Built
  • Written by
  • Dyani Van Basten Batenburg

Journey to the Elms, Te Papa

It’s not often you step from bustling city curbside to find yourself immersed in another world beyond the gate, but The Elms heritage site – nestled in the heart of Tauranga’s CBD – is one such majestic fixture.

The historic grounds set on a hectare of land deliver a storytelling journey full of intrigue, partnerships, family tales and cultural unions, and all at the cusp of Tauranga harbour.

I’m still standing

“Many people are quite taken aback when they visit us,” muses Andrew Gregg, manager of The Elms. “Which is why it pays to leave your

expectations at the door because it’s authentic and nostalgic in more ways than one.”

And whilst the city has changed around it, The Elms holds position as the pillar of the community – marking the birthplace of Tauranga, and the coming together of Māori and Pākehā into the Bay of Plenty as the Te Papa Mission Station in 1838.

“Missionary Alfred Brown formally established the mission station and his family first lived onsite in a traditional raupō whare. They lived in it for nine years before the main house was completed,” explains Andrew. “What’s interesting is that they actually recycled the raupō (bull rush) using it as insulation in the walls of the main house. They were very industrious and forward thinking!”

One for all

Over the years, the heritage site was passed down through two families

the Browns and Maxwells – and is now currently managed by The Elms Foundation who keep close ties with the Ōtamataha Trust. Both are vested in maintaining the integrity of the site, keeping storytelling alive and planning for the future.


“The Elms is multi-faceted – it’s not a static place to visit once and leave at that. It’s a place that is continually alive with stories of past and present it’s constantly evolving,” says Andrew. “As guardians of the site, it’s key that we maintain the level of care that’s been upheld by previous generations. Like Alice Maxwell and Duff Maxwell who dedicated their lives to caring for the property, so even through its years as a private residence of the Maxwell family The Elms was still open to visitors.” And whilst ‘anytime drop in’ has been taken off the list at The Elms today, the charitable foundation is continually working to welcome more people through its doors. Even those who are keen on science.

“We recently had a House of Science group come through who conducted bug exploration in our native tree area. It affirmed just how much The Elms has to offer: biology, history, geography and art.”

Alive and kicking

And, with its heritage garden project now complete, The Elms is adding yet another string to its bow.

“Our heritage garden aptly showcases the bond between past and present, traditional form and structure, and modern materials woven to resemble old,” explains Andrew. “Alongside we’re growing the traditional plants and vegetables they would have nurtured – kūmara, taro, raupō. Preserving and showcasing this innate slice of history in our community is a special thing to be a part of”

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