Allan McLean was one of the major runholders and one of the wealthiest men in Canterbury during the early years of settlement. Born on 24 May 1822, he was the son of a Scottish farmer-fisherman. His mother was widowed early; left with nine children and a farm she decided they would emigrate to Australia. This was at the time of the gold rushes at Ballarat and Bendigo and so the family’s wealth grew. In 1852 John McLean and a friend Allan McDonald bought a block of land on the banks of the Waimakariri River near the present-day McLeans Island. They arrived in Lyttelton on the barque "Tory" in 1852, the rest of the family following with stock for the farm. Later Allan McLean and another brother took up another run "Acheron Bank", then "Lagmhor" and later "Morven Hills", an enormous run of 370,000 acres, at the time the largest in New Zealand.
This run was not broken up until 1899, at which time Allan McLean moved to Christchurch to Manchester Street where he planned a 40-room house to be called "Holly Lea", holly being the badge plant of the McLean clan and also a symbol of domestic harmony. England Brothers were employed as architects; among their designs had been additions to Riccarton House. Building of the mansion took until September 1900. It was believed to be the biggest wooden residence built in New Zealand up to that time with a floor area of 23,000 sq. ft with 53 separate rooms.
McLean died in 1907 aged 85 years. In his will he made generous provision for his relatives, his housekeeper and staff and provided for the establishment of the McLean Institute. He wanted his mansion to be used as his will says "as a home for women of refinement and education in reduced or straitened circumstances".
The Institute was incorporated by act of Parliament, the McLean Institute Act 1909. The Institute’s Board of Governors immediately looked for properties which could be used for beneficiaries (as the residents were called), also for the establishment of an office. McLean’s former housekeeper was entitled to occupy the McLean mansion for her lifetime.
The first property bought by the Institute was "Quamby", T.G. Russell’s home at 123 Fendalton Road. Russell was a lawyer and accountant and had been admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court in 1884. On the grounds of this property was an old sod whare, built of rammed earth, thought to have been built by W.C. Fendall. Russell’s home was a 9-bedroom two-storeyed wooden home with 5 acres of land and a porter’s cottage and other outbuildings. It was purchased for [[sterling]]5142. Some members of the Board considered it too far from public transport. The steam tram did not go past the railway line and the track or pathway to this transport was very rough. However as the house had immediate accommodation for 8 beneficiaries and additional accommodation could easily be added, the property was purchased by the Institute.
Miss M.L. Higgins was appointed first Matron. Twelve additional bedrooms were built in brick by Nightingale Brothers in 1910. Twelve more ladies took up residence in 1910.
In 1913 Mrs Emily Phillips (McLean’s former housekeeper) decided to move out of "Holly Lea" and so the Manchester Street property became available to the Institute. Both properties were soon running smoothly. However there was talk in 1922 of selling "Quamby" to the Salvation Army, mainly because of the cost and problem of recruitment of 2 complete domestic and garden staffs. However, the price offered was considered too low and the sale fell through. In 1928 a genuine enquiry was received from a prospective buyer but by then the property was not for sale.
There were more extensions at Quamby in 1955 when the original mansion was sold to the Government. The name "Holly Lea" was officially transferred to the Fendalton Road property in June 1957 when the new accommodation wing and facilities were officially opened. A plaque was unveiled which said:
"Holly Lea" commemorates the fulfilment of the vision of Allan McLean who established and endowed the McLean Institute in memory of his mother. From the founder’s own home came the name "Holly Lea" and many of the furnishings familiar to him in his lifetime. Let us forever honour him in an atmosphere of peace, tranquillity, and gracious living.
In October 1958 the Golden Jubilee of the Institute was celebrated. To mark the occasion a row of red-berried hollies was planted on each side of the drive.
In February 1963 it was decided that the Porter’s cottage was beyond repair and a two-bedroom brick house was built as a replacement. In November of that year a strip 25 links in depth which had formed part of the roadway for many years, but was on the Institute’s Title, was transferred to the Waimairi County Council. In return the Council met survey and legal costs and built a 10 ft.bridge over the side channel in front of the Porter’s new cottage.
In 1965 "Holly Lea" expanded yet again with eight additional flatettes. The new wing was officially opened by the Mayor, George Manning.
In 1983 the land in front of Holly Lea (1.8ha) was carved up into five sections and at the time was Christchurch’s most expensive subdivision. The Institute kept more than 1.2ha around the home but felt the extra land was surplus to its needs. Buyers had to submit plans to the Institute’s Board for approval subject to an architectural recommendation. A formal entrance to Quamby Place was built using Halswell stone inset with a carved jarrah name-plate and surrounded by native shrubs.
Today’s residents are encouraged to bring their possessions with them to "Holly Lea" and to furnish their own accommodation. The main lounge is resplendent with valuable antiques, some from the Manchester Street mansion and some from Allan McLean’s home at "Waikakahi" in South Canterbury. Fifty residents are now accommodated; preference is still given to ladies of limited material means.
- Architectural heritage of Christchurch. 3, McLeans Mansion. Christchurch, N.Z. : Town Planning Division, 1983
- Marshall, S.F. History of the Mclean Institute. Christchurch: The author, 1968
- Christchurch Press articles: 30 May 1981, 19 March 1983, 30 March 1983, 10 June 1983, 7 October 1983.