This old nunnery near Lake Hayes gets a glam new life

Resurrecting an old cottage, once home to nuns, thrilled its owner and the judges of the 2020 New Zealand Architecture Awards, who pronounced it an overall winner.

Words: Kate Coughlan  Photos: Rachael McKenna

Kristin Hanna breezed into Queenstown in autumn 1989 driving a Mazda RX7 with Ellie May, an enormous great dane, somewhat squished but comfy enough in the narrow space behind the driver’s seat.

During a skiing holiday the previous winter, Kristin had fallen in love with the town, the mountains and the people and decided to quit Auckland, her home since childhood, and move south permanently. She was ready to ski another season, see what unfolded and had a job lined up at the then-New Zealand Employment Service.

“I found a little cottage to rent from its somewhat bemused owners [‘Why would you want to live in our hut?’], bought warm clothes and, in my late 20s, settled into the wonderfully friendly little town that Queenstown then was. I loved the quiet and the sense of a cosy home I created in my wee house. This life suited me very well.”

Daughter Georgia is as much an animal lover as Kristin. Between them, they have three dogs (from left) Toby the border collie-cross who is always on the lookout for the regular appearance of a local hot air balloon or anything in the sky, Luna, Georgie’s adorable angel-like spoodle puppy and Cooper, Kristin’s rescue terrier, a maltese-cross and a tough little rabbiter. The dogs are in addition to Georgia’s cat Dex, two lovebirds and numerous pet sheep and chickens.

Everything was pretty near perfect for the Miss New Zealand runner-up, fashion model and stylist. The one exception was that silly racy rocket of a Mazda. Its list of inadequacies grew as Kristin’s life became more southern. What was just the ticket for a metropolis’ motorways was nigh on useless on the icy roads of a southern town in winter, even with a bag of cement in the boot to give it grip on slippery steep slopes.

And could the RX tow a horse float? No amount of cement could give it the gravitas required to move horses. It was soon traded for a more capacious Hilux and a horse float, along with a couple of horses to graze outside Kristin’s kitchen door.

She and her sister Jane Hanna, overseas at the time of Kristin’s move south before returning to become sales director at the large Auckland magazine publishing company, ACP, had ridden horses since they were little. The animals were integral to farm holidays with their grandparents at the family’s Maungaturoto farm in Northland; the ponies even went with the Hanna family on their annual trek to Lake Taupō for the summer.

The old cottage, once the home of nuns, was moved to the site, stripped back to its very soul but found to be sinfully rotten and mostly unusable. Kristin retained the timber and is proud that “every stick that could possibly be reused was”. The pressed tin ceiling is new but painted and rubbed back to soften the finish. The luxuriously comfortable Maker&Son couches (a London-based company with an Australian showroom) are enhanced by the gift of two pretty cushions made by a friend. Most of the light fittings are from ECC.

“One car driven by one parent would tow the float with our horses, the other car driven by the other parent would tow a car trailer to pick up various brothers with their vehicles in various states of broken-downness, which always happened on the way. My brothers would then work on their cars all summer — kind of like the hillbillies arriving in Taupō.”

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With her move south, Kristin and some girlfriends took part in the inaugural Cavalcade in 1991 — the re-enactment of the historic trek to the goldfields via the gold trails of Central Otago.

“We were dubbed the ‘Queenstown Bunnies’ but completed the seven days, surviving mountain-top blizzards, freezing temperatures and tricky situations, which earned the respect of our fellow riders. As I was the only one with a mobile phone, I kept the media informed on the amazing adventures we had.”

The kitchen tongue and groove wall linings are made from timber repurposed from the old cottage mixed with newer recycled wood to patch the shortfall. The kitchen cupboards were copied from the original ones (in a new layout) with timber boards and similar hand-grab handles and hinges. 

Kristin went on to ride another four Cavalcades, enjoying new friendships forged on the trails and seeing much of the countryside, which would become so beloved to her. And she wasn’t the only Hanna to fall in love with the south: sister Jane moved to Queenstown in recent years along with brothers Mike and Tim (who is now located further south). Their mother also chose to spend her final years in the area.

Today Kristin (now Darby) surveys her 20-hectare farm near Lake Hayes, looking north over lush paddocks towards the mountains. Her eight horses (some retired, some young) graze beneath mature trees, and Kristin says that she never regretted moving south.

Even recently, as her 20-year-marriage to property developer John Darby disintegrated, these hills and her animals, and their precious daughter, 19-year-old Georgia, as well as two siblings living locally, have given her comfort.

The stream was left to run beneath the glassed-in bridge, which judges in the New Zealand Architecture Awards felt cleverly connected the old and new worlds of the two buildings.

“I feel terribly fortunate to have made wonderful friends, who I love and who have supported me through the thicks and thins. There is nowhere else I’d rather be.

“I wake up to this gorgeous view of the mountains, which is different every morning, and I long to return when I travel. Always.

“When I first arrived, I couldn’t believe that from the windows of my cottage and garden in the Bendemeer Hills, I couldn’t see any houses. For a city girl, that was pretty exciting. The thrill has never left me.”

A recently completed project on her property also thrilled the judges of the 2020 New Zealand Architecture Awards when they assessed Kristin’s refurbishment of a relocated building as the living/kitchen area of a three-bedroom cottage development near her stables.

The walkway is a wonderful suntrap for a winter afternoon’s reading settled in the comfy sheepskin-covered chairs. The original 1880s building (with horizontal weatherboard cladding) sits harmoniously alongside the new buildings, which include a utility hut (adjoining the old cottage) and a two-storey bedroom wing. 

A derelict cottage on a suburban Queenstown street down by Lake Wakatipu had caught Kristin’s eye, and when a friend mentioned it might be available for removal, her heart began to beat a little faster. This devoted renovator, lover of old forms and style, and interior designer had been looking for just such a project.

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“I love creating comfortable and harmonious living spaces, often with furnishings and items collected and stored, then mixed with newer items. I have completed several accommodations over the years. One lovely example was the shearer quarters on Wyuna Station in Glenorchy. This was a wonderful retreat for us as a family and slept 18 or more. We holidayed there for nearly 20 years, riding horses helping with mustering and tailing, swimming and going jet-boating. I realized that I was good at this sort of thing and enjoyed it.”

The master bedroom is enormous with a cathedral ceiling and a roomy sitting area and east-facing double doors overlooking wildflower meadows. Fabric for the bold, colourful curtains is from Designers Guild, and the interior paint throughout is Resene Black White. The birds in the cage light fittings provide a whimsical note. 

Perhaps this is no surprise. While working as the manager of Millbrook Resort, near Queenstown, Kristin faced such tasks as driving Nelson Mandela and his daughter when the hotel hosted CHOGM. She helped organize former United States president Bill Clinton’s visit to the region (and those of several other notable Millbrook guests). And she designed and completed the fit-out at the Amisfield Cellar Door and Bistro for its original opening in 2001 and worked on other properties developed by her and her former husband.

But back to that derelict dwelling on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Her sister Jane (now an agent with Sotheby’s International Realty in Queenstown) unearthed the owners. They were a philanthropic Queensland couple, David and Barbara Thomas, who had made a large fortune in 1997 selling their mail-order wine business, Cellarmasters, and then gave most of it away to environmental projects via the Thomas Foundation.

Encouraged by Kristin’s plan to breathe new life into the old building, they gave it to her. She learned it had initially been home to nuns in Naseby and a local builder assessed it as “in great shape, moveable and repairable”. Recalling his report makes Kristin laugh, rather wildly, as the work taken to resurrect that little cottage makes the raising of Lazarus from the dead seem an amateurish prank by comparison.

The building had become surplus to the nuns’ requirements and, sometime in the 1940s, was transported to Queenstown where it remained for nearly 80 years. A family used it as a bach, but it was more recently kept company by squatting tenants and browntop grass and broom.

Dan Ross and his team from Ross Brothers Builders were craftsmen, says Kristin, noting their work building many different shaped doors, putting together the jigsaw of american oak planking on the walls and ceilings and creating a concrete kitchen bench of quartz aggregate Kristin and Georgia gathered from the beach at Glendhu Bay, Lake Wānaka.

Kristin had it moved in 2014 and began work a couple of years later; stripping it back board-by-board before hearing another builder pronounce it “sinfully rotten”. Kristin, a long-time collector of items such as clawfoot baths and corrugated iron, insisted on keeping each salvageable piece of timber and, like George Washington’s axe, has rebuilt it from the inside out and the outside in.

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“It was a lovely project to get stuck into as it was built in the 1800s, so it already had a soul, a great deal of history and a wonderful ability to survive. Initially, I intended to move it up to Glenorchy as a crib until [then-husband] John suggested we move it onto our farm at Lake Hayes and restore it to live in while we renovated our farmhouse. Although it was in very poor shape, the cottage still fascinated me because it was old and told of the many lives who had lived in it. To me, you can’t build that into a new home. It was both lived in and abandoned.”

The daily centre of Kristin’s universe is her stables, from where she works with her warmblood dressage horses and cares for her menagerie of other animals, including dogs, cats, pet sheep and chickens.

Corrugated iron repurposed from an old woolshed found near Glenorchy gives the ironside look of historic Central Otago dwellings that Kristin Darby wanted in the three-bedroom cottage built on her property near Lake Hayes. When new iron (without nail holes) was required, it was carefully acid-washed in the paddock for a similar aged effect.

The ideal spot for the cottage to take up a new lease of life was in front of the small stream running under the huge oak trees, thought Kristin. She was advised to pipe the stream underground to remove the complication of building so close. But no.

“I love creating tranquillity, peace and honesty; my interiors are not about embellishment but practicality and comfort, harmony on the eye and the mind too. The creek, for example, wasn’t going to be sent underground but left to add its magic to the place. Running water gives life and calm. This creek grows watercress, and the ground is planted with irises among the existing daffodils.”

Kristin found a kindred spirit in Queenstown-based architect Anna-Marie Chin (of Anna-Marie Chin Architects). Together, they developed the plans for the restoration of the cottage as the harmonious heart set between two new buildings, each of which looks equally as old. One houses the utility area and the other, across the stream, is the bedroom wing connected via a bridge.

The awards judges were so enamoured of this spanning of the creek, they were moved to see somewhat magical powers in the bridge: “The single device which connects is a glass and timber bridge which straddles a creek and also seems to straddle time.”

And, thus, it came to pass that a disused nunnery from Naseby was born again as a charming cottage overlooking a fine pair of stables and dressage arena alongside Lake Hayes. If those long-departed nuns were to look down today from their celestial sphere, they’d surely remark that their old home is the luckiest little nunnery in the land.

The cottage is available for rent as Lake Hayes Farm Cottage via the Sotheby’s site,


Kristin has ridden and competed successfully throughout the country over many years (mostly saddle-hunter show classes). She recently developed a small warmblood-breed business focused on dressage horses (dressage being the equestrian version of ballet).

Her warmblood horses are tailormade as they are bred for movement and strength and possess a calm temperament. It is more of a hobby than a business as just a couple of foals are bred every two years.

What is it about women and horses? “It is all about the partnership. And respect. I can buy a new horse and think, ‘Right, we will go and do all these things’, but the horse doesn’t know me, so I have to earn its trust and confidence. I need to get to know this horse. That is quite a beautiful thing.

“Horses respond to care, attention, love and routine, and they become your friend. It is nice when you load them up on a truck, and they don’t necessarily want to leave their paddocks, but they do. They do it for us, and I feel fortunate to have those gorgeous relationships in my life. That is how it is for all girls who love horses; a creature to love, something to care for. The animals return the love, and they appreciate it.

“It’s not like a relationship with a dog. Horses have to carry us around, and sometimes we get demanding of them. It’s pretty special.”

Kristin started breeding horses with a palomino quarter horse stallion in 1998, breeding first-cross quarter horses for the Wyuna Station horse-trekking business, as well as several brood mares for the dressage market.

The Lake Hayes farm was home to 20 horses at her busiest, which Kristin has now reduced to eight. Four are retirees and life is so peachy they tend to live longer than an average horse lifespan.

Showing takes Kristin around the country in her four-horse truck; several times to the Horse of the Year Show in Hawke’s Bay and regularly to dressage competitions through the South Island.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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