Why one couple swapped Hollywood for Wellywood

By Sharon Greally
Photographed by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #87
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Our cool little capital has a way of pulling people back. The Dunhams tell Sharon Greally why they returned to windy Wellington after 20 years in La La Land, and show us around their Seatoun home.

Wellington has been described as a cross between Hawaii and San Francisco, and Don Dunham agrees. “San Francisco has wind and changeable weather – exhilarating there too, like here. On these fine days it’s extraordinary. Some days it can be a little bit challenging because of the weather, but it still has an energy about it.” Don is one half of an American couple who have transplanted themselves from the USA to New Zealand.

Don, an architect by training, has worked in museum exhibitions for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and had a long academic career at Jefferson university. Annette, a Harvard Classics graduate, is a writer, especially about the place of plants and their place in antiquity, religion, cuisine, and medicine. She loves the New Zealand native bush, where “everything is used for something.”

The couple, both originally from Los Angeles, met at the Getty, where they were both working. In 1992, Don was offered a job at Te Papa, which was too exciting to turn down. They came to New Zealand for work and adventure, and it straight away felt like home.

They loved living in an Ian Athfield house in Palliser Road. It was “in pretty bad shape.” Initially they considered making changes, but over time “I realised the genius that it was.” They invited Athfield to visit the house, which he had not been in for over 20 years, and he too suggested changes. “But we just wanted to clean it up, preserve it, restore it back to the way it was. It was fun putting the house back together.”

They were loving life in Wellington, but in 1996 the Getty called them back. The Getty Center in Los Angeles was being built – another offer they couldn’t turn down. “It was awful to leave,” says Annette, but family, including ageing parents, was also calling them back. They had become New Zealand citizens, but were not to return for 20 years.

New Zealand kept calling, and they kept planning a return. “We thought when we left in 1996 that it was the biggest mistake of our lives”, says Annette. Then the pandemic struck. “We decided it’s now or never.”

So in 2020 they returned, to live in Seatoun. “We’re so happy. We love the bush, bushwalks, tramping, the water, the flora and fauna, the multi-cultures that exist here, the people.” The Fort Dorset site appeals for its connections to significant European and Māori history.

According to tradition, the legendary Polynesian navigator and explorer Kupe was the first human to discover New Zealand, around 924 AD. He is said to have set up camp in Seatoun Harbour, where a striking rock formation is named Te Aroaro-o-Kupe (“the presence of Kupe” or “Kupe’s outlook”; Steeple Rock is its English name). It is here that the inter-island ferry Wahine capsized after striking Barrett Reef in 1968.

A shoreline path from the Seatoun beaches up to Point Dorset takes you to a poignant memorial. In the form of an abstracted waka, it marks the site of the seventeenth-century Oruaiti Pa. It is thought that people would signal from the point across to the Orongorongos, Annette says.

The couple now live in one of the Shoreline townhouses on the Boardwalk in Seatoun, which won Jasmax an NZIA award in 2005. Set in Fort Dorset, this bijou property is nestled in native bush, facing north-west across the harbour. Double-glazed sliders frame a picture every way you look, outside or in to the modernist living areas.

Don says the compact house is surprisingly narrow, and long, but “really well done,” an “easy place to live.” He analyses the design with an architect’s understanding: “As you walk in the front door, you enter a series of thresholds,” he says. “I think the step down to the living area opens this space up. You feel compressed walking through the kitchen dining area, and then with these doors opening up to the patio the living space follows into the exterior.” The house has three spacious bedrooms, with two bathrooms upstairs. There are skylights along the ceilings above the showers, which cast an ethereal light. The dark floor tiles sit comfortably with wooden cabinetry and white-tiled walls. The bedrooms all have views over the sea and hills.

There is a striking black and white poster above the stairs to the bedrooms, from a project, Beyond Beauty: Antiquities as Evidence, they both worked on at the Getty Museum. A stunning painting, Command Module Red, by Sheyne Tuffery, hangs in the hallway and demands your attention.

In the master bedroom, an abstract work on paper, Copris II by local artist Rob McLeod, seems to reflect light and movement off the sea outside the window.

The galley kitchen and living areas have wooden floors that glow golden. The kitchen is compact, but functional. Annette says they have had many gatherings here, and people flow easily from one area to another. “We love the engagement with the outdoors. It pulls you in and out simultaneously,” she says, in a “dialogue between inside and outside.”

“It is a restrained house – we really like the minimalism of it. It does everything really well. It has changing light throughout the day, and provides a real sense of wellbeing. We love living in nature. Everything just falls away. It keeps unfolding. It has a cinematic quality – even though it’s linear, it’s a series of thresholds, of steps that take you through.”

The living area is furnished with a replica Eames circular table and Hans Wegner chairs. Don says he likes the use of plywood in furniture, and draws attention to the Shell chair, designed in 1962: “It’s an effortless chair. It flows easily in spaces, and is nice to sit in too.”

The outdoor wicker chairs, from Nood, sit comfortably in the environment.

Replica Eames Eiffel chairs grace the dining table, the originals being “super expensive! And the dogs knock everything over, so too much to worry about.” Their two Irish setter, Muna and Kuri, (“sweetheart” and “dog” respectively, in Māori) love the beach and bush.

“Mesmerising” is a word often applied to their view to the sea. The meandering pathway to the beach is very private, another clever feat of the design. “No one has ever walked up here by mistake,” says Annette. The site is tucked away, surprisingly protected from the southerly. Native birdsong prevails. Windsurfers can often be seen from the house, flying past and providing endless entertainment. They used to walk their dogs from Breaker Bay in the ’90s, and fell in love with the area. They watched with interest as the building works started, and noted that the “understated modern houses that really engaged with the site in a meaningful way.”

Annette enjoys the view from the sun loungers on the deck.

“The tuis are really going nuts now because the flaxes are flowering. It’s relaxing. We feel miles away from the CBD, but are just a stone’s throw from all the wonderful energy that Wellington city has to offer.”

Don says he’s retired, but still continues to teach architecture online at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. That’s when he’s not “obsessively doodling” in his spare time. “The creative juices are always flowing.”


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