Trial by fire
Simon left a pot on the stove by accident,” says Sue Paterson, remembering the stormy night in 2003 when fire ripped through the Island Bay bungalow she and her husband, Simon Wallace, had so carefully remodelled into a light-filled family home. “He thought he’d turned the element off but it was still on low.”
Flames travelled up through the extractor fan and into the roof while Simon and Sue and their two young boys – Henry, then 11, and George, 15 – slept on. (Luckily, their eldest son Jack had already left home.) At 4am the smoke alarms went off and the family got out. From a dark, freezing footpath, in a Wellington gale, they watched their house burn. “I’d just finished chemotherapy,” says Sue, “so I was standing on the pavement in a howling southerly with a bald head!”
Firemen managed to save most of the downstairs, but the loft and the kitchen were destroyed. (The brigade was busy that night, says Sue: “Roofs were flying off!”)
It was the culmination of a terrible six months for the family. Simon had had heart surgery and Sue was recovering from cancer and the loss of her father. Still, there was much to be thankful for that night – not least that son George had decided to rough it in the backyard sleepout. “I had asked him to sleep in the loft because of the terrible weather,” says Sue. “But he insisted that he wanted to be in the sleepout and I’m so glad he did because he would have been toast. Thank God for smoke alarms, to be quite honest. For $10, they saved our lives.”
This is a house that has seen more transformations than most. When Sue and Simon first bought it, in 1988, it was a small, late-1930s bungalow, dark and gloomy, with all the living space down the back and all the sun up the front. Architect John Hardwick-Smith transformed it into a series of intimate, free-flowing spaces – sheltered and private yet flooded with light. Quirkily shaped windows offered slices of view. “I love not having curtains,” says Sue. “I hate them. I think they look great in other people’s houses but not in this one.”
The house was a stylish backdrop for Sue and Simon’s main passion – their eclectic collection of New Zealand and Pasifika artworks. Many of these pieces are by friends, since Sue has spent most of her career on the local arts scene. A former dancer, she managed the Front Lawn and Limbs Dance Company, not to mention the Royal New Zealand Ballet. At the moment, as executive director of the New Zealand International Arts Festival, she’s busy coordinating a vibrant collage of events for Wellingtonians. Home was a calm counterpoint to a hectic working life when NZ House & Garden first visited these sunny, practical spaces back in 2002 (September issue).
And then came the fire. What wasn’t destroyed was singed, water-damaged or stank of smoke. Many people would have walked away. “I wanted to,” admits Sue, “but Simon was determined. He loves this house.” Everything was stripped out and, believe it or not, sent to the dry-cleaners. “They were amazing; they even cleaned all the pages of the books.”
The family moved out for a year while the kitchen was rebuilt and a new storey put on top. If there was any silver lining to the fire, Sue says, it was that it enabled them to rethink these rooms. The new loft is a large guest bedroom/office space with a minute en suite – not a skerrick of space wasted. The simple galley kitchen, with its punchy red glass splashback, inexpensively rebuilt in custom wood, gave them the chance to fix some of the previous kitchen’s flaws. “That’s a rather dramatic way to go about it though,” Sue points out.
For the most part, she says, “We stuck to the bones of the house.” A former bedroom right by the living spaces became a television room, with bookshelves and sliding doors so that it can be separated off from the conversation area with its clean, mid-century lines and cosy ambience in winter. “We call these ‘the argument chairs’,” says Sue cheerfully, indicating the chunkily upholstered easy chairs sitting face to face.
Down a few steps into the living area and the feeling changes again, with a casual linen-covered sofa, charcoal carpet and large Buddha and Flowers painting by Gavin Chilcott. (“Right to this day, it’s my favourite piece of work in the whole house.”) Bifold glass doors can be flung open to the sheltered courtyard. “This is a lovely room to be in during the day,” says Sue. “It’s so peaceful to sit on the couch and read a book.”
It’s not often that a house has as many ups and downs as the people living in it, but this amalgam of comfortable family spaces evolving from the conventional into the offbeat, from 1930s weatherboard into corrugated iron, seems to qualify. “We’ve lived here for 23 years,” says Sue, “and it’s been through so many changes, pre-fire and post-fire. It’s grown organically with our changing needs. It has been lifelong renovation.”Sue Paterson is executive director of Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival, February 24-March 18, festival.co.nz