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New Zealand Institute of Architects









The House Behind the Oak

This essay was the winner in the Secondary School Category of the 2016 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

By Amelia Meredith-Vaughan

Our little house sits on a hill, all red brick and soft, aged oak and richly-polished rimu. Warm reds and welcoming browns invite you inside. It’s as if the house is smiling genially, politely taking your coat, and ushering you through to the high-ceilinged dining/sitting area. Simple, unpretentious lead-panelled windows frame the views: north, out to the street and over the city to Mt Cargill; south, over the St Clair Esplanade, sheltering in the shadow of the hill, and out to the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

I remember us stumbling across the house, almost by accident. That Sunday, we went open-home viewing, a popular pastime in my family. That Sunday, we found our home. It’s funny now to think how close we were to never seeing it at all. It had started innocently enough, a flick through the property pages of the paper over breakfast, but then, well, then my father – ever the house-buying enthusiast – found a house that piqued his interest. Soon my mother and I had made our picks, so a trip was in order.

The first house turned out to be distinctly less charming in person, and we missed the second. Our rush to make it to the last house of the day saw us scrambling out of the car just as the real estate agent closed up the house. But a quick bit of banter and our palpable enthusiasm persuaded the agent to let us in – “but only for a couple of minutes,” he warned us.

From the sheltered porch, I recall looking up, up, at the towering oak that guarded the house. It was bare from the autumn and the trunk skewed out at a strange angle, but still I thought it was beautiful. In we went, through the pastel-yellow bubble-glass double doors into the wide entrance hall. Did I mention the house’s violently-clashing duck-egg blue window sills, russet-red brick and watery-yellow plasterwork? The colour choice was appalling, but even that could not mar the house’s well-balanced form, with its generous bay window placed firmly in the middle, partnered to the right by an artistic, tri-panelled window with a curving top to the centre panel.

It was a masterclass in design. To the left of the bay window lay a lower-ceilinged extension. Now, you must understand how easily that extension could have ruined this near-perfect house, but, somehow, the extension did not argue with the original house. Rather, its clever incorporation of the original window frames and modest profile allowed it to not only blend with but also enhance the existing house. Its roof tucked neatly under the eaves of the main house, the extension tidily filled much of the space between the old house and the boundary hedge. Inside, thanks to some ingenious later renovation, the space had been left open. A thoughtfully-placed, grey-tiled modern kitchen was at the south end; the north was home to the dining table. The old window frames would surely allow plentiful sunlight to pour in. Here, in this room, some of the house’s other less-desirable aspects were revealed: the fireplace, for instance, a multi-coloured clay brick thing, each block adorned with strange spiral carvings, and the cheap sliding door out to the back garden, its shrunken height exaggerated by the high ceiling. Well, every rose has its thorns.

And what a rose it was. The house was strangely unconventional in its layout. The doors to both the lounge and master bedroom were set at 45-degree angles, making clever use of a modest space. Beautifully restored polished oak panels graced the main entrance-way, and elegantly-understated plaster mouldings, each individual, each beautiful, adorned each room’s ceiling. Although generous with living spaces, the three bedrooms were small, tidy and compact. Finally, to the bathroom and laundry, tucked away in the southernmost corner of the house. The bathroom was an ugly duckling dressed in bright-blue wallpaper and cherry-red tiling, but curiously complemented by rimu panels and rich cork flooring. The laundry, accessed from the back deck, came with an infinitely high ceiling and a chipped red-concrete floor.

I’ve loved this house since that first moment when I stepped out of the car that Sunday afternoon, almost three years ago. It has always felt like home, even on that first visit. It’s not a perfect building, but frankly I love it all the more for its quirks. I find it hard to express exactly how much I adore my house, but I really do.

Read this essay and nine others in 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture / 2 available for $15 + postage in the NZIA shop