Clever inner-city makeover
When you tumble into something head over heels, you may as well formalise the arrangement. For Fiona Mackenzie, signing the deal on her Freemans Bay property was akin to a marriage. As a real estate agent, she was no innocent when it came to choosing this lifelong “partner”. Set on the fringes of Western Park, the house was built in the 1920s, possibly for the park caretaker. Its design appealed to a deep-seated memory from her childhood.
“It reminded me of one of the roughcast places in Havelock North where I grew up – a little bit farmhouse, a little bit arts and crafts,” she says.
Fiona had been flirting with the idea of owning the house as she ambled past it daily while walking Harry, her fox terrier. Then the “for sale” sign went up. Inside it was a bombsite – a scramble of rooms with an insipid fireplace that threw out meagre warmth. It was dark, with gloomy wallpaper and a loo that, when flushed, released a rush of water that made the whole place rattle and shake. Outside was an impenetrable garden with rickety red brick pavers.
Friends thought its layout too different and said that it could be dangerous living right next to the park. Luckily there was someone who shared Fiona’s singular vision. Her brother-in-law, Andy Coltart, responsible for creating projects such as The Black Barn and Riverside Lodges, flew up from Hawke’s Bay to take a look. “That night, we redesigned the floor plan over a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label,” says Fiona.
Nevertheless it was only three years later, after settling into an easy partnership with the house, that Fiona felt ready to begin the major renovations Andy had suggested.
The key design feature was a 2m-wide hallway down the middle. “Andy said it would give the house its strength and he was right.”
This generous bisection not only brings a spacious feel and symmetry to the home, it also acts as a channel for views. From the kitchen bench, you can look down its length to a cityscape framed by the arched entrance to the small original front balcony.
Completely reconfiguring the existing rooms and adding an open-plan dining/kitchen and living zone with a cathedral ceiling out back was a serious nine-month undertaking. But the builders – Craig Berntsen and his team – were equal to the task. Both God and the devil were in the detail. Framing around doors had to be millimetre-perfect. Strength and co-ordination were needed to install the heavy ceiling beams and some of the original windows were fitted elsewhere. It was a job requiring fiendish exactitude, with a heavenly outcome.
Today, 10 years later, the builder remains a family friend. “It was the most wonderful, funny time,” says Fiona. “The only stressful part was writing the cheques.”
The house’s roof “shout” is now the stuff of legends. “Early in the evening the guys stood up and sang a waiata – and the singing never stopped.”
The waiata they sang was a sacred song designed to bring a good feeling to a home. And someone up there must have been listening because this lightness of soul starts at the entrance, where wrought-iron gates open to a view of the pathway to the door and invite further exploration. “I like that the house is in touch with the street, not completely hidden by high walls.”
Once inside, there’s an immediate sense of relaxed luxury. “I don’t like to junk things up, but I’m not precious,” says Fiona of her style.
Interior designer Jen Pack helped with the furnishings and colours. These are a mix of soft creams and blue-grey for the joinery. The library is a room for all seasons. With built-in window seats and bookshelves and a lumpy leather sofa, it’s a sanctuary for humans and for Harry. “He sits here staring out the window 24/7, looking for cats.”
Underfoot sisal carpet adds a smart-casual tone. “I wanted the fat sisal that’s softer and I’ve had no problem keeping it clean.”
The bedrooms in the original part of the home are now flooded with light and there are layers of coverings and mountains of cushions – “I read in bed a lot,” says Fiona. In the morning she and her partner, fellow real-estate agent Rob Cochrane, can drink their tea sitting in bed with a view of the park reflected in the mirror on the opposite wall.
But it’s the social side of the home that really shines. The kitchen’s silvered elm floor is pock-marked by stiletto heels and the coffee table is reinforced with steel for dancing on. The fireplace roars and shadows from a bentwood sculpture play beautifully on the chimney. Artwork by David Bromley, featuring boats and tractors, and a French print of hot air balloons seem to celebrate the magical happenstances of life.
“I was introduced to the house as a fun place to be,” says Rob, a fellow Hawke’s Bay émigré. “There were always crowds of people and it felt warm and inviting.”
In the back garden, stately oaks, towering acmena and a Moreton Bay fig growing just beyond the fence form part of Fiona’s view. Rob has augmented a formal green-upon-green alfresco theme by planting a lemon orchard and is chief in charge of the barbecue. The recent addition of a motorised awning has extended the outdoor living. “When it rains, I spend my time gathering the rainwater that runs off it to put on the garden,” says Rob.
This is a house where you can embrace or escape the moment, where you can socialise or slip away into solitude. Fiona has taken a vow to cherish it forever. “Where else would I go?” she asks. Till death do us part.
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Story: Claire McCall
Photographs: Emma Bass