Written by John Williams
It’s no secret that some of the finest Modernist homes in New Zealand are found tucked away in the Waitakere Ranges, hiding beneath the towering Kauri, Rimu, Kowhai and Tawa.
Designed and built in the 1960s and early 70s, the very finest examples have either been bought up by devotees or, more often than not, unsympathetically reimagined as modern-day interpretations of their past. However, every now and then an exceptional specimen comes onto the market.
Tracey Lee and Philip Kelly fall into the devotee category, and have been the self-confessed ‘custodians’ of 203 Atkinson Road for coming up to ten years. They bought their home back in 2010 from its original owner – Master Builder, John Baker, who had lived there since he designed and built for himself and his new bride, in 1963. During the ensuing decade, the couple painstakingly and sympathetically revived its classic, mid-century bones to reveal a wonderfully simple, yet stunningly beautiful modern home.
“Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time making pilgrimages to Mid Century Modern architecture – Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies in the US; Le Corbusier in France…” says Phillip. Tracey adds that they’d also spent a lot of time looking around Auckland for a prime example to purchase for themselves, before settling on 203 Atkinson Road.
“When we found this house we were living overseas, in Shanghai,” she says. “It looked in amazing condition, so we immediately contacted an architect friend of ours who really knows this era well and asked him to check it out for us. He came back, saying, ‘you guys should buy this, otherwise my wife will make me buy it’,” laughs Tracey. “We already had a property in downtown Auckland – but why come back from Shanghai to live in a city centre, when you come home to New Zealand to reconnect with nature? This place is perfect. You’re just at the edge of the city, but at the same time you’re looking out on a rainforest.”
“We knew there were pockets of modernism around Auckland, particularly in Titirangi, but many [of the houses] had been done up and tampered with,” notes Phillip. “So when we found this place, and saw it was completely original, we were pretty excited.” Phillip says that Baker’s design was inspired by a book he owned on the pre-eminent Austrian-born Australian architect, Harry Seidler, who is considered to be one of the leading exponents of Modernist architecture in Australia. “It surprised me that he’d even heard of Seidler back then, let alone knew of his work.”
Interestingly, whilst most of the influences floating around New Zealand at that time were coming out of Europe, Baker turned to the New World – in particular to what was coming out of California – for the finishing details of his new home. “He was an early adopter,” says Tracey, citing details, such as the original quadrophonic speakers that were in the living room, the American mixer tap in the shower – typically, in that era, they were twin taps from the UK – and the blender mechanism built into the kitchen benchtop, which appears in Richard Neutra’s own home in Los Angeles.
“This is the only house John ever built,” says Tracey. “I remember him saying to me, ‘people always talk about what they’ll do ‘next time’. I did everything I dreamed about doing, just the way I wanted – I never needed to build another house’.”
As first impressions go, you cannot not help being wooed by the home’s carport, with its glass-panelled end wall that reveals a green canvas of native bush – think Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. And if that’s not enough to get you going, you will melt with envy as you step into the double-height entry atrium and climb the open-tread steel staircase, over the reflection pool and past the original sea-grass wallpaper and mustard pebble-dashed feature wall. It is outrageously good.
Into the open-plan living space, and you are met with an expanse of full-height windows, which completely open up the room on two sides, above which is a crisscross of magnificent Douglas Fir beams that effortlessly hold up the gently pitched roof. The outlook, over an endless canopy of protected native bush, is perfectly framed within six, huge panes of glass. It’s truly breathtaking… and not another home in sight.
Typical of many homes of this era, it features built-in furniture in most of the rooms; the most prominent being the modular storage unit in the living room that contains a mirrored drinks cabinet, plus a dedicated LP storage for all those vinyl junkies out there. This unit is staying, along with the adjacent sideboard that John Baker made to match. One of the most delightful pieces, however, is less obvious. Beneath the now redundant ‘telephone’ seat/unit in the hallway at the top of the stairs is a cupboard door that conceals a chute to the laundry below. Small details such as this illustrate the thought and attention to detail Baker gave to every inch of his new home.
Even after 50-odd years, the meticulousness of the original design shines through, and this continues to drive and influence Tracey and Phillip as they slowly, but sympathetically restore the house to its original condition.
Some things, however, could not be replicated or replaced. Most of the rooms, as was the trend back then, had wallpapered feature walls, but they weren’t in great condition. As they went through the house, Tracey and Phillip removed the wallpaper, noting the predominant colour and hue in each room, then painted the wall in a palette as close to the original as possible. This gives the home a clean and modern, yet nostalgic vibe that is totally in keeping with the home’s era.
The home’s kitchen and bathroom are almost entirely original; the only compromise to modern living being a new fridge and an induction cooktop in the kitchen and an active-controlled skylight in the bathroom. Other than that, it’s all pretty much as it was back in the 60s, says Phillip.
Tracey and Phillip have also collected period furniture along the way. Some came with them from the US, other pieces they’ve found here in New Zealand at the specialist Mid Century showrooms that have popped up over the past few years.
“All the lamps, which are staying, have been carefully carried back from Palm Springs and Copenhagen. There are vintage Poulsen lamps in the upstairs bedrooms, dining and kitchen, and a George Nelson for Herman Miller, Cigar pendant lampshade in the stairwell,” says Tracey. “We’ve also done all the loving things to make sure it lasts another fifty years,” she adds, referring to the important, but largely invisible upgrades, like completely replacing and insulating the roof with new Colorsteel cladding and industrial-level Kooltherm insulation, completely upgrading the underground drainage, and installing a new moisture barrier on the ground floor; and that’s not forgetting the more obvious improvements, such as the rejuvenation of most of the interior surfaces, including the native floor, tongue and groove ceiling and stripping back and repainting the deck and all the north-facing windows. “The only things left to do are the indulgent things – like replacing the Seagrass wallpaper in the atrium and continuing it through to the back wall of the living area.”
In its day, this house would have been considered to be the very pinnacle of modern living in terms of style and function. Modern technology aside, we would hazard to say that this home is still one of the most stylish you’re ever likely to come across.