For the love of it
The owners of this beautifully restored Christchurch heritage home feel they are looking after it for future generations
Rebecca Simcock opens the door to welcome you and it’s like seeing double. There’s your smiling host and behind her on the wall, wearing a feather cloak with greenstone around her neck, is a beautiful Maori woman who bears a strikingly close resemblance. She was Rebecca’s great-grandmother, and she’s the person who gave Rebecca her love of old things.
“My memories are of her as an old woman in her 90s. She always had beautiful European art and antiques around her, but also the most beautiful Maori artefacts.”
Rebecca is co-owner of Youngs Jewellers in Christchurch, a specialist in vintage pieces. She is also, with husband Andrew, co-owner of this heritage home in Fendalton, which has a category 2 listing from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Millstream was built in 1920 for an English woman, essentially as a replica of another house in Wales designed by Herbert Luck North. The book Christchurch Heritage Houses describes it as an arts and crafts “gem”, noting its gently curving roof of Canadian redwood shingles, absence of eaves, hand-cut window frames and such “special features” as coved ceilings and semicircular windows.
The Simcocks bought it four years ago after moving back to Rebecca’s hometown. “We’d had a bungalow in Auckland we did up and we wanted somewhere with a bit of character. The minute I pulled up in the driveway I fell in love.”
She’s since discovered that this is one of those houses that everyone seems to know. People dropping them home will recall having once gone to a party at Millstream or will know someone who once lived there.
“Actually, I can remember coming to pick someone up from here when I was 16 or 17. It was painted grey then and was quite a foreboding sort of place,” says Rebecca.
There’s nothing foreboding about it now. The entrance is lined with mature cherry trees and a romantic garden and inside the house is light-filled and tranquil. Rebecca and Andrew have had to work hard to achieve that, however. Previous owners had put in a swimming pool and tiling and replaced what Rebecca understands was a “nasty 70s conservatory” with an extended, covered dining area at the back of the house. But when the Simcocks got the painters in they found that most of the window frames were rotten and needed replacing.
Finding people with the craft and commitment to take on such an idiosyncratic job – arch windows not being exactly standard these days – was a challenge. But they got there in the end, replacing all of the frames and windows, pulling up carpets to expose the floorboards and painting throughout. “People who’ve been here before say it’s a lot lighter and brighter.”
They say the same of the garden – an equally big undertaking. Andrew spent the first three months just clearing vegetation. “Thirty years ago it was supposedly magnificent and they had garden tours but it had been let go,” says Rebecca. “Some people buy a house like this and think it’s going to stay just as it is, but it requires a lot of hard work. You really have to love gardening.”
Rebecca had never seriously got her hands in the soil, other than to design the bungalow garden in Auckland. “This is the first garden that really feels like me.”
At the front of the house, around the established cherry trees and magnolias, she’s planted a herbaceous border garden, with peonies and roses in softer colours and masses of her favourite green and white. Up the side path, where it had become difficult to walk because of a tangle of over-grown hydrangeas, she’s gone for camellias, hostas, hellebores and holly. At the back of the property she has planted pittosporums and natives to go with the pongas that hang over a little artificial stream. Wisteria vines twine around the railings outside the kitchen windows.
“At our last house we had a more structured, formal garden that was all very perfect. I used to be down on my hands and knees, cutting edges. This garden needed to be softer, because I think it’s a soft house.”
Soft in appearance maybe, but recent events have shown it to have been built to last.
When September’s earthquake hit, Rebecca was overseas but Andrew and their seven-year-old son William were at home. Andrew woke to the sound of the dogs barking their heads off downstairs: a grandfather clock had smashed against the balustrading. Rebecca says she’ll paint over it but wants to leave the dent as part of the house’s history. Elsewhere you can see a few cracks but the worst of the damage was the loss of the house’s wonderful brick chimney, part of which crashed into the swimming pool and the rest onto the drive.
“The house stood up well though. Because it’s timber rather than brick underneath, it moved with the quake. We’ve certainly come off a lot better than some others on this street.”
The fact that the house is registered could help when it comes to repairs. But Rebecca is aware that people are often ambivalent about listing their heritage homes, fearing they won’t be able to make necessary changes. “It’s a tricky one. But I think it’s a good thing that we have that responsibility to this place. So many get knocked down.”
If anything, living in a heritage house has intensified Rebecca’s love of old things and her awareness of how much love and care they require. “It feels like a lot of people have lived here, which I like. William loves it too. He keeps asking, ‘You’re never going to move, are you?’”
One day they will, of course, and someone else will come to live in and love Millstream. “We think of ourselves as looking after this house for the future really.”
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Story: Matt Philp
Photographs: Daniel Allen