14 September 2016

A Golden Opportunity

Behind the façade of a popular Birkenhead café sits a hidden gem of a home, a time capsule dating back half a century.


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Mid Century design has enjoyed unprecedented popularity of late, so much so that finding a pristine example of this style of home has become somewhat of a Holy Grail for those searching them out.

When first conceived, the revolutionary design of these modernist homes reinvented the way we lived our lives by putting as much emphasis on function as they did on form. Before modernism, it was all about the public face of our homes – what they looked like from the street. The practical areas of the house, the kitchen, the bathroom and the toilet, were almost an afterthought when it came to design.

With this new style of home, the kitchen was brought into heart of the home, and the bathroom and toilet areas were redesigned to make them more practical and comfortable. Their design also incorporated new building materials and methods that allowed for greater connection to the outdoors and eliminated the need for bulky internal walls, giving birth to the open-plan living environments we now all crave.

I may be being a bit pedantic here, but I find the term ‘Mid Century’ a bit of a misnomer, when referring to this genre of home in NZ, as many were built way after the mid-point of the last century – more like the late 1960s or early 70s. However, the essence of their designs remains firmly rooted in the 1940s and 50s, when the modernist movement first emerged. And such is the case, here.

Tucked away behind a bustling, villa-fronted café on Hinemoa Street is a lovely, mostly unadulterated example of a modernist home. Commissioned by long-time local residents Patricia and Peter White in the late 1960s, using the services of architect Jarle Raimon, this single-level, two-bedroomed house is built around a quaint, brick-floored courtyard, complete with wandering wisteria.

The current owners, Leith and Andrew, are huge fans of Mid Century design, and have furnished the entire house with authentic furniture and fixtures they’ve collected from that era.

“We loved the house and we loved its location. As soon as we walked in we wanted to buy it,” she remembers.

“We bought the place two years ago,” says Leith. “We were living in a warehouse conversion in Ponsonby, but wanted something bigger.” The couple had been looking in the Westmere area, but couldn’t find anything that satisfied their craving for Mid Century architecture – that’s when they broadened their search.

From the street, you wouldn’t know it’s here – just a glimpse of a concrete block wall and hint of a cedar eave are the only signs of what lies up the narrow drive. Even at the front door, the house is reluctant to give away its pedigree.

Once inside, you’re immediately faced with a receding pair of arches, between which sits the home’s kitchen, perfectly sized and very original, down to the finest detail.

“We love the original features of the house, such as the archways,” says, Leith. “There are a lot of the top quality fixtures and fittings, sourced by Patricia and Peter, that still work perfectly.”

The kitchen overlooks the courtyard, which is effectively another living area that can be used most of the year round. “It’s so private and sheltered, which makes it very quiet,” explains, Leith. “It also opens up onto both bedrooms, the hallway, kitchen and dining – so it’s a very social space that can be enjoyed by most of the rooms in the house.”

Overhead, the gently raked, tongue-and-groove ceilings give the rooms below a generous volume. Dark cedar beams and rafters contrast the lighter tawa, and extend out beyond the footprint of the walls to form generous eaves all around the exterior of the house.

“We didn’t need to do anything to the ceilings,” says Leith, looking up.

“However, everything else was tired, so we painted the walls white (they were originally green and wallpapered), lifted all the carpets and polished the concrete floors. We also lost a few walls in the bathroom, to make it more open plan,” she adds.

The core of the house is reinforced concrete block. Leith says that the original intention was to be able to add another floor at a later stage, if needed. “Potentially, there are great views from the first floor – you can see the city and Rangitoto from up there.

Within that solid core is the flue for the fireplace in the family lounge – again, a generous, light-filled space that has direct access to a patio and the garden. The fact the house is right at the front of the site has made the maximum use of the site, allowing for a huge garden.

“It was a total jungle when we first arrived, but that’s all been tidied up, now, including trimming that huge, 100yr old Magnolia” says Leith. “All you can hear in the back garden is birdsong. It’s a totally secure space, great for kids.”

The final surprise this house holds is the huge garden ‘shed’ that contains a pottery kiln – a throwback to the previous owner, but a hobby Leith took up soon after moving in. “It’s a great creative space,” she says. “I enrolled in a pottery school in Bayswater and now make my own pottery, and Andrew brews his beer in there.”

This is a surprising little home, full of nostalgic touches that make you smile and nod in appreciation. Clearly ahead of its time, it offers endless opportunities for purists and renovators, alike. Move in and enjoy as is, or take it to the next level.

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