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With a clothes-drying rack in the kitchen and the original food safe filled with fruit, veges, and a cooked leg of lamb, Sue Elliott’s Edwardian era villa is a home to be lived in.
When I step into the Thorndon house of Sue Elliott and Craig Smith, I feel I’m being transported back in time. Not because the house feels preserved, like a dusty relic, but because the way of moving through the rooms and using them has not changed. The bones are unchanged and the key original elements of the house are still in use.
The original clothes-drying rack hangs in the kitchen. While Sue and I chat, her daughter Isabella lowers it and adds another load of washing to it. The kitchen food safe is still in use. It looks like a regular cupboard, but when we open it a cool rush of fresh air blows in, as the back is open to the outdoors, covered by only a layer of mesh. It’s filled with fruit, veges, and a cooked leg of lamb.
“They knew a thing or two, the Victorians and the Edwardians,” says Sue. “The bay windows to catch the light and sun even in a south-facing room, high studs, generous rooms with a good flow — a circuit for my kids on trikes.”
In its 118 years of life, the house has had only four owners. It was built by the head of the Wellington railway in 1905, at a time when houses popped up suddenly all through Thorndon, as Wellington quickly developed a merchant class. It became the Lower School for Queen Margaret College for a few years, until a man called Jack Parker bought it, and lived there with his wife Adelaide for 60 years, selling it to Sue and Craig in 1992. They’ve lived in it for over 30 years, raising their two children Isabella and Jack there.
It was in close to original condition when they moved in, and while they have refurbished it over the years, there has been no major renovation. This feels quite refreshing: this is a house that has never been “flipped” or reinvented, so has never lost its original character to a passing fad. It has been loved for how it is.
Sue and Craig added more sash windows for natural light, and gibbed the walls and painted them bright colours — a vibrant theme of teal and orange runs through the house — though Sue insists there has never been any grand plan, or any specific style. Her logic has always been to only do or add things she loves, so that it will all work together organically.
The house has two floors and an attic, with all the rooms surrounding a large central staircase. On the ground floor, there is the study, the bright and summery living room, the deep orange dining room, and the off-white and enamel-green kitchen.
The staircase goes up to a central landing, off which there are four bedrooms and two bathrooms. One of them is original, and still features the original sink and tin shower head, and the other was converted from what was the sewing room when the house was a school.
It feels wonderfully open, with lots of flow. The rooms are large and airy, with no musty nooks and crannies. “The Edwardians had a plainer aesthetic than the Victorians, so the house isn’t over-stuffed, but simple in its design.”
With a driveway on each side, light comes in from every angle, all year long. “You can follow the sun around the house.”
The room that is most changed from its original state is the kitchen, although as Sue notes that it looks the most “in character”, probably due to the off-white and enamel green colour scheme. They removed a wall that separated off the scullery, and continued the tongue and groove walls of the scullery into the rest of the kitchen, giving it a rustic, farmhouse feel. They added glass doors that open to the deck and garden at the back, bench space, and a modern stove, though the original coal range is also still there.
The kitchen is clearly the centre of the home. It’s where Sue led me first, and we sit at the table drinking coffee. “I wanted a kitchen table like I had growing up – where everyone came and sat for a cup of tea.” A born and bred Wellingtonian, Sue’s roots and connections to the region run deep. She is a senior advisor at Massey’s College of Creative Arts and the Chair of the Wellington Sculpture Trust. One of seven children, she grew up with a strong sense of place and home. It was important to her to have this for her own family, and they’ve been lucky, she says, to have had a big house where the door is always open to friends and family. “As my mother used to say, ‘just one more potato in the pot.’”
Although it is a large house, and I can hear it creaking occasionally as we talk, it isn’t drafty or cold. Tongue and groove sarking behind the weatherboards on the external walls keeps it well insulated. The first thing they did when they moved in was put in central heating; after that they moved at “glacial speed”, doing up rooms as they could afford to, and enjoying it every step of the way. “We are people who take joy in what we have done rather than being panicked about what still needs doing.”
In the summer, they spend time in the sunny living room, and use the fireplace when necessary. In the winter, they cosy up in the study, reading books by another fireplace. There are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a beautiful wooden bookshelf ladder made by a friend. The books themselves are like old friends, Sue says, “so it’s a very comforting room to be in.”
The house exudes a feeling of comfort and care. As a large home to the same family for over 30 years, it could easily be packed full, but it’s as though the house itself never shifted into the era of consumables and plastics, so its inhabitants didn’t either.
“I’m not a big shopper,” says Sue. “Things have been given to me, or they were my family’s. I like a patina of age around things. I don’t want everything brand new and matchy-matchy. It will match in my view, and that’s all that matters.”
Heirlooms and memories are all through the house. A large stately portrait of Sue’s father, Sir Randal Elliott, hangs in the orange-painted dining room. He was a prominent eye surgeon and a key player in reorganising St John’s, merging the ambulance service with the first-aiders. Sue says the picture is a true likeness, but she “would never go out and buy a picture like that, or hang it over the mantelpiece.”
Instead, with a playful nod to the kind of art some folk do put above their mantelpieces, over the dining-room fireplace (yes, another fireplace), there’s a painting of a tuatara with a cigar and bowler hat. It’s a reference to the Goldie painting A Good Joke, and sums up Sue’s cheeky humour. “Tuatara, they are the establishment,” she laughs. “They should have a top hat and a cigar.”
In the study, there’s a collection of prints of colonial-era portraits by William Hodges of people from the South Pacific, arranged around one of a painting of Pūtiki Pā by John Alexander Gilfillan from the same era. Sue collected the prints when she was living in London, after graduating from university, long before buying this house.
“Houses are a series of collections in lots of ways,” she says. “The pew you’re sitting on came from my great-grandfather’s church on Kent Terrace. Everything’s got stories.”
She feels similarly about the public works of art the Wellington Sculpture Trust puts around the city. “They’re telling a story of a site, or a narrative for Wellington. I think that about the things that people collect around them in their lives.”
For Sue, her connection to the house and everything in it is a natural, intuitive thing. “I walked down the path here and I thought ‘this is it’. I didn’t weigh up the pros and cons.”
And she loves it deeply, even after all these years. “When I walk into this house, my heart still sings. And it’s now been the backdrop of my children growing up.”
“It’s an old house and we’ve had our time of being the kaitiaki of it. One day I hope somebody else will come in and love it too. Or maybe somebody else will come in and say, this is a do-up, and modernise everything. And that will be fine.”
Or maybe, I suggest, with all its interesting original features, it will become a museum, like the Katherine Mansfield House & Garden around the corner.
“Oh, I hope not!” she laughs. “This house is made to live in.”