The Man Who Bought A Town


Runtime - 5:10

Lester Rowntree is a self-confessed hoarder who’s filling the town of Otira with stuff, every nook and cranny. What’s Lester up to? Frank Film investigates.

Cradled in the Southern Alps, a two-hour drive west of Christchurch, Otira is the town you drive quickly past, perhaps even commenting to your companions “who on earth would live here?”

The town sees little sunshine in the winter and driving West Coast rain much of the year, averaging around five and a half metres per annum.

Lester Rowntree has installed a tall pole by the Otira Stagecoach Hotel on which he plans to mark the local rainfall measurement, well beneath the 11 metre mark - a yearly average recorded not far away in the Hokitika Gorge.

Rowntree owns the hotel and much of the town - 18 houses, a dance hall and a fire station.
He bought the 25-hectare property in 2014 for a price he won’t disclose but he will tell you that he’s spent plenty of money and time on improvements.

“The hotel was pretty run down when I got here but we've done a 100% renovation on it, taken it back to what it would have been like in 1902,” says Rowntree.

It doesn’t take long in Rowntree’s presence to realise the importance he places on history and heritage. As the Frank crew films, Rowntree reaches for curios and curiosities - the two-headed duckling, stuffed possums and rats, a rope-making machine, a segment of the first subterranean copper cable between New Zealand and Australia - in his hotel, surrounded by antiquities, Lester Rowntree is in show-and-tell heaven.

It’s no wonder he calls the Otira Stagecoach Hotel the most interesting hotel in the country.
How does he quantify that? The publican says he “asked the first 150 people through the door and 147 agreed that it was.”

It’s not just the hotel that is packed to the rafters with Rowntree’s collections. He takes us to film the dance floor, with the “magnificent spring floor”. Only there is not much floor to see. The hall is overflowing with Rowntree’s Trade Me wins and clearing sale finds.

“I am a hoarder” he admits. “My partner said if you bring another wagon back, I’m leaving. I got another five or 10 after that, but she did leave.”

Which means Rowntree is now on his own in Otira and wearing many hats. “I'm the publican, the bedmaker, the bottle washer, the cook, the everything sometimes.”

As a landlord of 18 houses, half of them tenanted, Rowntree says he also feels responsible for maintaining law and order in the town.

A sign on the dance hall warns that ‘A Class drugs will not be tollerated (sic).’

Rowntree explains, “when I came here there were a lot of drug addicts and we've got rid of them all.”

He’s also refurbishing his housing stock, possibly New Zealand’s first kitset homes, fabricated in Hamilton and transported to Otira in 1923.

That’s when the population of Otira numbered several hundred, boosted by the building of the Otira Tunnel and prior, the town’s popularity as a stagecoach post.

Lester Rowntree has discovered his great uncle was a stagecoach driver at Otira and says it’s that link to the town’s past that drew him here. He sees Otira as the perfect location for his grand five-million-dollar plan.

A plan he describes as “unique to the world, unique to New Zealand.”

Lester Rowntree shares his vision for Otira with Frank Film.