Kelburn’s majestic lady

For 63 years, Colleen Scott has lived in a rambling two-storey villa high on Kelburn hill, which she says "hugs her" every time she comes home. She talks to Sarah Catherall.

By Sarah Catherall
Photography by Brady Dyer

Featured in Capital #54
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Hidden behind wrought iron gates on Salamanca Road, the house sits like a majestic lady on the crest above The Terrace motorway tunnel, welcoming motorists.

“From the moment I arrived here 63 years ago, I have loved this house. My family have all said I can stay as long as I want to,” says Colleen, who has lived in Wellington all her life.

It was apt that Colleen celebrated her recent 90th birthday in the house. She threw a cocktail party with her four children, five grandchildren and 90 guests.

The house has seen many parties over the years − daughter Deborah’s wedding, Colleen’s parents’ golden wedding anniversary, charity events, and fundraisers. Colleen’s four children are now in their sixties, living in London, Sydney, Denver and Wellington.

Built by architect Frederick de Jersey Clere in 1898, Wyndcliffe House has only had three owners: the original owner, Thomas Ward, followed by Sir John Illot, and Colleen and her late husband, David, who bought it in 1957.

Colleen could see its potential when she and David found the house, even though she says that Sir John had “ruined” it by refurbishing it in an art deco style. When they arrived in 1957, the fireplaces were covered with chrome and surrounded by wood with rounded edges.

Sir John had pulled out the skirting boards, and removed the ceiling moulds. Despite its bright pink and black carpet, green and yellow woodwork and brown walls, the Scotts knew a gem lay beneath. Says Colleen: “It was unbelievably awful. I could see that we should get it back to its Victorian look. Over the years, we gradually got it back to how it would have been.”

Sitting in her sunny living room sipping tea from a china cup, Colleen looks out over the quarter acre section spilling down the hill. Sir John had built the garden walls and steps in the sloping garden, Colleen pulled out the native trees and plants, leaving just one tree − a magnolia. “Cabbage trees are lovely in forests but not in my garden.”

Her parents gave her a bequest in the mid-eighties, which Colleen spent on plants and trees that flourish today, aided by her gardener, Bryan Johnstone, who has been tending her garden for 30 years.

Colleen’s favourite time in the garden is spring and summer, although it has life throughout the year. Watching her garden begin to blossom from June is, she says: “like going to the movies. You get different things in different times in the garden.”

In August when Capital visits, daphne and camellias are alive with colour, throwing splashes of pink amid the green foliage. “There is always something to pick,” she says.

Hundreds of roses begin to bloom in November − different varieties of different hues dotted around the property. Hydrangeas burst into life in January.  “I got the gardening bug,” says Colleen who belongs to a local gardening club, has visited magnificent gardens around the globe and loves arranging flowers including for weddings. “I always hated cleaning and polishing and scrubbing, but I love doing flowers.”

When her children were young, the garden became their playground, where they conducted treasure hunts, and played on the swing and in the tree hut. Her five grandchildren also lost themselves in the garden when they stayed or visited.

Her children’s other favourite spot was the rambling attic comprised of three rooms, complete with a turret. In the 1960s, second-born, Deborah, moved her bed and desk up there while she was studying up the hill at Victoria University. The walls in one of the attic rooms are still purple and yellow from when she took over the space.

“Her friends would arrive and they’d all go up and up and up to the attic. I know they were smoking up there. But she got a degree,” Colleen laughs. “All my grandchildren too, all they wanted to do was play in the attic.”

At ground level, the living room and the dining room off it are calm spaces, with afternoon sunlight pouring in. With little children toddling around the ladder, Colleen painted the living room walls a pale grey in 1957. “When we arrived, the room was painted brown. It was horrid. But there was that wonderful feeling of getting it back, restoring it to the way it would have been. I’m sure the original owners would have been happy.”

Her husband had a deck built off the living room, which has sweeping views over the garden, cars running along the motorway, and Victoria University’s brick Hunter building on the hill. The motorway opened in the late 1970s. During the tunnel’s construction, Colleen remembers their house rattling as construction workers drilled into the land below. “We often thought there were earthquakes,” she says.

If Colleen had the money, she would have pulled out the art deco fireplace surround in her favourite room – the den – and also the built-in art deco cupboards. However, they did rip out the art deco handrail up the stairs, replacing it with a wooden one reminiscent of the Victorian era, which children have slid down over the years.

A keen pianist, she still plays the grand piano in the corner of the living room. A supporter of the NZSO and Victoria University’s music school, she regularly attends classical concerts.

The house comes alive when filled with people, and over the years, she has opened it up for charity concerts and garden events. Musicians and choirs entertain guests in return for money given to charity. “With no furniture and the wooden floors here, the sound is gorgeous. Holding these events gives a purpose to my being to be honest.”

“When we first came here, we used to have these wonderful Scottish dances. We’d dance and dance, and roll the carpet up. That was way back in the 1960s,” says Colleen, who laughs about the “human pyramids” her family played. “We tried to see if we could reach the chandelier.”

She decorated the bedrooms at a time when single beds were fashionable, rather than double beds. All the bedrooms, apart from the master, contain twin single beds, and a basin in one corner. Every bedroom also has a bay window and a working fireplace. When Colleen’s children were young, their live-in maid often lit the fire in her room.

She has kept the striking teal art deco basin and bath in the upstairs bathroom, and found a Florence Broadhurst silver and teal wallpaper in Sydney for the walls. Ditto with one of the bedrooms, which is papered with a green bamboo and floral wallpaper she found, matching its green bedspreads. “It is a house that has been full of fun for all my friends, and my children and their friends,” says Colleen.

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