In April 1871 W. J. M. Larnach acquired a magnificent building site on the Otago Peninsula, 800 ft above sea level, from which were almost unsurpassed panoramic views of harbour, ocean, and coastline, and the environs of Dunedin. Plans for a mansion in keeping with Larnach's style of living were prepared overseas and supervised locally – and perhaps modified – by R. A. Lawson, a leading Dunedin architect. The mansion was to be an “elegant house” of three storeys, with a tower carrying an additional storey and the whole surmounted by a turret rising to a height of 70 ft. It was stated that the style would be “English manorial”, but in point of fact it became an extraordinary architectural creation with Scottish Baronial predominating. The interior decorations were equally grandiose, with intricately carved ceilings and staircases showing an Italian influence. Work began in early 1873 and continued for three years, the Otago Daily Times recording on 12 April 1876 that the building was at last finished “… doubtless the most princely, as it is the most substantial and elegant residence in New Zealand …”. Much of the stone for the exterior was quarried locally, but Italian marble, Aberdeen stone, Venetian glass, and rare woods were imported for special purposes. The ornamentation, the work of skilled carvers, some of whom were brought from Europe, was wonderfully executed and the furniture was designed to match. An impressive feature was a spiral hanging staircase, the rails of which were carved from solid blocks of kauri. Equally impressive was the ballroom, 90 ft by 30 ft.
The main approach to the building was guarded by massive stone lions, while at the entrance door were carved eagles with outstretched wings. The exterior buildings included stables paved with Marseilles cobbles, coach houses, harness rooms, and extensive glasshouses and conservatories, all in a setting of superb gardens. Not without reason was it known locally as “The Castle”. But Larnach called it “The Camp” because the family “camped” in another building on the site while work was under way. Various estimates have been made as to the cost, which was probably around £100,000 for the buildings and £50,000 on “extras” and grounds. In terms of present-day values this would represent an expenditure of at least half a million pounds.
Although today Larnach's Castle has lost much of its former glory, it is undoubtedly one of New Zealand's most interesting buildings and, in its class, unique. A.H.MCL.
Larnach and His Castle, Reed, A. H. (1950).