Friday, July 29, 2011

The Harvey Tree at Martha's Corner

This year marks the tenth anniversary of a piece of whimsy in the heart of Auckland.

George Farrant, Auckland Council's heritage advisor, pointed out to me yesterday an interesting item in Auckland's CBD at an interesting site, dubbed "Martha's Corner" (Victoria and Albert Streets) after a noted madam during the years of last century's Great Depression, so the story goes, who spent profits from running a brothel in the upstairs rooms to fund a soup kitchen below for the destitute.

Just along from the corner, though, stands a tree, an oriental plane.

According to George, and to Brian Rudman, in his article for the NZ Herald, 30 May 2001, the following story was related by the former owner of Martha's Corner by the 1960s, Les Harvey, more famously remembered as the developer of Parnell Village.

"A few years before his death, Mr Harvey and George Farrant, Auckland City heritage manager, were walking past the tree in question when the developer turned to the bureaucrat and said: "I planted that bastard." 

"He continued the story in a nearby cafe: how in his youth he'd lived on the edges of the Paris Bohemian set, Jean Paul Sartre, Henry Miller, the lot. Great days.

"Much later in the 1960s, he said, one of his old Parisian friends, now a New Zealand diplomat back in Paris, sent him a memento via diplomatic bag.

"Delicately wrapped in moist tissue was a tree cutting and a note telling Mr Harvey he would well remember the parent tree. It was one he queued alongside so many times in former days. Mr Harvey said the note told him to plant it in a spot he loved and to give it a little bit of what it was used to."

So, sometime during the late 1960s or early 1970s, Harvey took tools down to a spot on the Albert Street footpath outside his building, and chopped through the seal to plant his Parisian sapling. All without permits, resource consents, environmental impact reports ... George Farrant recalled how he would see there an "insane-looking, ball-shaped tree clipped into a perfect sphere with a trunk hanging out the bottom" during the 1970s or 1980s. Harvey's contractors would keep the tree regularly pruned. Apparently, no one spotted Harvey also carrying out nightly watering.

Les Harvey died in 1994. Between that time and 2001, the tree survived but was in need of TLC. Then George Farrant, proponent of recognising our city's heritage and memories in the form of ceramic plaques at various places, chose to mark one of the quirky stories which give Auckland it's colour, between all the facts, figures and dates.

This Oriental Plane tree, propagated from one beside a Montmartre pissoir, was planted by the adjacent landowner Les Harvey. Appropriate sustenance for the young tree was provided by Mr Harvey and his family from time to time.
The plaque was unveiled on 29 May 2001. The footpath was opened up, the tree properly fed, and it still stands there today -- not on any heritage schedule, but definitely part of our story.


  1. Well, I didn't know that "appropriate sustenance" could help a tree grow. I KNOW it can kill off WEEDS!! I've been told anyway...

  2. It's the ammonia and nitrates, so someone told me once. Enough is good, too much kills. I seem to recall, in the movie World's Fastest Indian, Burt Munro had a lemon tree he kept going by such a method. While he was off conquering speed records, he asked a young neighbour of a lad to fill in for him ...

  3. LOL
    Yep, lemon trees love it, didn't realise other trees liked it, too!
    Fab stories, Lisa, on both Martha and Les, thanks for sharing them :)

  4. Replies
    1. Lisa et al - just an observation that after the asphalt was opened and the tree fed for a year or two to give it a boost, it is now in fine shape.
      We just need a way to dissuade the adjacent Thai restaurant dumping their nightly refuse on top of the monument - the tree might like some of the stuff, but it is probably more risky than the Montmartre version of sustenance...

    2. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear ...

  5. Harvey Tree will be chopped in 2020, for City Rail Link works:

    What’s happening to the Harvey Tree and the plinth next to it? When is this being removed?

    The Harvey Tree near the corner of Albert and Victoria Street West is among the trees that will need to be removed as it is severely intertwined with the utilities beneath the footpath. This will likely take place in January 2020. We will engage with the Harvey family on an appropriate replacement and use of the plinth. A replacement will include the use of cuttings taken from the current Harvey tree, which are being propagated in a nursery.

    1. Thanks for this. I'd suspected the tree would not survive the Albert Street works for the CRL.