The Hillary homestead: Why we all should own the house that Ed built

Sir Ed Hillary's home of 50 years is up for sale. Why isn't the city or the government making an offer? Do we still not recognise the importance of remembering this nation's story?

UPDATE: Remuera Heritage wants Hillary home to be bought by government.

We're a mobile lot these days – upwardly mobile when we can afford to be – and it's increasingly unusual to live in one house for half a century. But then Sir Edmund Hillary was a man of a different generation and during a life of frequent travel he chose to return home to the same house on Remuera's golden slopes, with its views of Rangitoto.

That house, the home that Sir Ed built with royalties from this first books and lived in for more than 50 years, is now for sale.

The New Zealand Herald told at at the weekend that his family have put the house on the market to meet the terms of Sir Ed's will, and an open home was held at the weekend. If Bill English was still in Auckland after the Jobs Summit on Friday, I hope he popped in to take a peek and make an offer on behalf of the nation. Or perhaps John Banks nipped in with the city's cheque book in his suit pocket. Whether it's a civic or national purchase doesn't matter much, what's important is that the Hillary homestead be held in public ownership. And there's no time for dilly-dallying.

Upon his death in 2008, Sir Ed was widely regarded as one of New Zealand's greatest; remarkable recognition for a person to achieve in their own lifetime. Legend usually takes a generation or three to coalesce around person, allowing time to rub off the rough edges of reality. Looking forward, the man's stature is only likely to be enhanced as people remember less of the flawed man and more of his incredible physical courage and his dogged compassion. Now is the time to ensure future generations have a focal point for their admiration and a place to honour the quintessential Kiwi values that Sir Ed embodied.

We have few enough heroes in this young country, and little by which to remember those we have. Ernest Rutherford's laboratories are in Cambridge; Peter Snell's greatest miles were run in Tokyo; all we have to recall Kate Sheppard (ten dollar note aside) is a small memorial in Christchurch and a stairway in an Auckland square named after the capital of Sudan that has been compared to "a public urinal". Really, we're atrocious at honouring those we admire most. This house sale gives us the chance to change all that.

I had the privilege of accompanying Sir Ed and Lady June to Nepal for the 50th anniversary celebrations of his ascent of Mt Everest, as the New Zealand Herald's reporter. The paper had an almost limitless appetite for Hillary stories at that time, so I wrote many thousands of words about the man and what he means to this country. I spent some time in that house, talking with him candidly about that climb and a life well lived. It was a home full of stories.

I also walked with him round a Sherpa exhibition at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. We sat for a time in a reconstruction of a typical Sherpa home, and Sir Ed talked me through the furniture and utensils and told stories of evenings spent in similar places in the Himalayas. Homes do that. They provoke memories and give you clues to the character of the people who lived there. The Hillary homestead would do that for our children and grandchildren.

Yes, there are practicalities to be thought through. The obvious use for the house would be as a museum, but Hillary forged close ties with Auckland's War Memorial Museum during his lifetime and it already holds some of his most prized possessions. What's more, the home is down a private right-of-way off a busy road, only metres from a high school, so there would be considerable traffic and parking issues. But those are problems for the planners to solve. The important thing is to have the house in public hands so all options remain open.

There are a handful of local models for this, such as Katherine Mansfield Birthplace in Wellington and the Bradman Museum in Bowral, NSW. (There are also models for how not to do this, such as Frank Sargeson's oft-threatened home in Takapuna, but that's another story). The sad thing is that there are not more.

Really, if the Aussies did it for Bradman, why wouldn't we do it for Hillary? Consider what Wapakoneta, Ohio did to honour its greatest son, the first man on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong, a man Hillary was often compared to. Wapakoneta is home to the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum.

Let's grab the opportunity to keep alive one of the great achievements in our nation's story, and to honour one of our greatest citizens. And if you doubt the demand for such a site and its potential popularity to future generations, let me share a story of my own.

In the midst of one of the interviews I did with Sir Ed in his living room, there came a knock on the door. In the doorway stood a man and his son. A stranger to the Hillary's, a man who simply wanted his boy to meet a real, live hero. Sir Ed smiled, spoke some kind words, and signed an autograph. After a few minutes they were gone. When I asked Sir Ed whether that bothered him, he shrugged. It wasn't unusual, he said. He accepted it as part of his life.

If you ever wanted to find Sir Ed when he was alive, all you had to do was look in the phone book. His name and Remuera address were listed under H. Wouldn't it be great if it would be as easy to visit him in death?