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Ron Harvey and Elizabeth Kyle. Photo: DAVIDDA HIKATANGATA

A new life for historic Thames courthouse

A love of art and history encouraged a fresh adventure for Elizabeth Kyle and Ron Harvey, the new owners of an iconic heritage building in Thames.
Light pours into the building’s main room, the gallery, from windows on the second storey.
The double-height ceiling makes room for assorted art pieces adorning vivid red walls and kauri floorboards.
Elizabeth had seen red walls before in a gallery in Sydney and she thought it looked fabulous, so she decided red was the colour they would paint her gallery.
Because the old courtroom space is two storeys high, it’s like a square box, so, the red focuses the eye on the art and sculptures in the lower section.
Setting up a gallery to showcase Elizabeth’s art was the couple’s main reason for purchasing and re-purposing the old Thames Courthouse in September last year.
The pair, who were living in Tauranga, had been looking all over the North Island for a permanent venue for around seven years.
“It felt as though it called us – as though the building needed us as much as we needed it,” Elizabeth said.
Due to the courthouse being a heritage building, the council’s conditions were that it must be used for commercial purposes, not residential. A manager’s flat was allowed, as long as it was upstairs, and that’s where the couple plan to live.
The previous occupants of the building were the Supported Life Style Trust, but it was owned by the Bahá’í faith, they said.
“That’s why I think the energy in here is so lovely. You wouldn’t want a disgruntled prisoner’s energy would you?”

Ron was a builder and had worked for 20 years as a construction site manager in Australia, which included work on refurbishing heritage buildings, so he is familiar with what’s required.
Any internal cosmetic changes can be made as long as they can be reversed in the future, i.e painting, window furnishings and lighting.
Most of the work they’ve completed so far had been cosmetic, with a lot of painting. No structural work can be done without getting consents from council, which automatically triggers a requirement that involves Heritage New Zealand.
A retail store is to be set up in the building’s front room to sell some of Elizabeth’s original artwork, cards, prints, and Medieval-themed items. Now Elizabeth is 72, she finds she is unable to spend long hours creating art works as she did in the past.
“I’m going to be more like a hostess here; talking about my artworks, and encouraging people on their own, unique, creative journeys.”
Everything in the gallery sits in perfect position. A rocking horse in the middle of the room, jester sculptures in the corners, and paintings in places where they all have a chance to shine. Plans were set to elevate a large sculpture of Pegasus above the gallery.
Another significant feature in the back corner of the room was a giant-sized book called Merlin’s Secrets. When the cover is pulled open, it reveals a secret door to Merlin’s den. It’ll be an interactive experience, and a magical room full of wonder and excitement – when completed. Merlin’s Den could be used as a storytelling space.
They plan to have special events of psychic, Oracle and angel readings in Merlin’s Den, and upstairs above the shop, plus a teaching room for Elizabeth to run her drawing classes.
Heritage Listing requirements mean the outside area has to remain pretty much as it is, but they have been working on a private garden at the rear of the building.

They can’t change much of the outside of the building, but that’s fine with them because they both love old buildings, and the building is superb just as it is in its beautiful heritage colours.
The building was built in 1870 and closed as a courthouse around about 1973.
Seeing early photos from inside the building was something they would have loved, however, due to a fire and flood in the 1930s, they haven’t been able to find any photo records. They did find some photos of the exterior at the The Treasury Research Centre and Archive building, also on Queen St.
All the original council records are no longer in the council archives, so they weren’t able to get any plans of the original building.
One way Elizabeth and Ron have heard old stories about the building was when people walked in off the street to tell them.
There was one visitor that called in unexpectedly and said that he “used to be the bailiff here”. He worked next door at the old Police Station.
“We both love history so that’s really fascinating to know.”