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First time buyers Kathryn Jackson and Tom McGrath thought they’d made a big mistake when they brought a damp, wonky home in Newtown, but with a little love and a lot of hard work they manged to give it a new lease life.
In the kitchen of Kathryn Jackson and Tom McGrath’s restored 1920s Newtown home, a large cane elephant head hangs on the wall, the trunk pointing upwards. As they say in Tom’s favourite film, Aussie classic The Castle, in Thai culture this brings good luck. For a number of years as they renovated the house, Kathryn and Tom needed it.
On their first visit to the house as prospective buyers in 2015, Tom gently pressed a finger against a wall, and it slid right through.
“It was totally rotten,” he tells me. “There were problems everywhere.”
The piles were also rotten, the roof was shot, the floor was on an angle, and the house seemed to be sinking.
But Kathryn, a production manager at Weta, and Tom, a high school deputy principal, could also see the potential. For a young couple looking for a first home, it ticked all their boxes: central location, big garden, double garage, multiple bedrooms, plus some additional features, such as a pool and a conservatory. And the previous owners had lived there for almost 70 years. Kathryn and Tom decided to take it on.
“Having a home was always really important to me,” says Kathryn, who had saved towards owning one from the age of 19.
The day I visit is still and sunny, with crickets trilling languidly and tui hopping heavily between trees. An almost otherworldly tranquillity hangs over the property, which is tucked away off a quiet Newtown Street – quiet until their two papillons Stanley and Ronda rush out yipping to greet me.
Inside, the house is barely recognisable from the 2015 pictures Kathryn shows me – an entire wall is gone, as are floral wallpaper, patterned carpet, and lace curtains. It is light and airy now, not damp and cold. The newly-painted white walls are dry and solid, and the whitewashed floorboards no longer squelch. A new kitchen and fireplace have been put in and the space is minimally decorated with plants and beautiful, meaningful pieces – Tom’s family’s big wooden dining table, Kathryn’s grandfather’s toolbox as a coffee table, an ornate liquor cabinet built and carved by Tom’s great-grandmother, a framed colour-pencil drawing of their beloved first dog Neko, and the cane elephant head – a gift to Tom from Kathryn, brought back as hand luggage from South Africa.
But change took time. They lived in the house as it was for two years. Their first night was stormy and a low branch scratched noisily against the roof of their bedroom all night.
“We were like, ‘Oh my god, what have we done?!’ There was water running everywhere. We thought we had done something really wrong,” says Kathryn. “That feeling actually lasted for about two years,” adds Tom.
“In those first couple of years we were just hoping not to blow a fuse, not to have a disaster, not to have the piles wash away,” says Kathryn. They didn’t. The elephant kept its trunk up.
Living in the house before starting any work allowed them to learn what the sun did, save money, and decide on a sensible plan. When the work began, it was all-consuming. They removed the roof, walls and floor, moving out briefly while the piling was redone. They were involved in every part of the renovation, saving money wherever possible by doing it themselves.
“You don’t know what you can do until you try it,” says Tom, “and it’s only through doing that you learn what it’s worth.”
“There are of course some costs you can’t get away from – the piles, the wiring, the plumbing, the roof – those are non-negotiable and you need professionals,” adds Kathryn. But even when professionals came in, they would muck in and work alongside them. They had a builder fit the first board of their new deck and then copied his process, building the rest themselves. Five years on, the home is transformed.
The petite, rectangular lap pool clad in pastel-coloured tiles is a restoration highlight. It looks like something out of a Wes Anderson film. They put in the filtration plant and plumbing, and did a whole lot of concrete drilling. Kathryn’s colleague helped them. ‘Without him, I’m not sure it would have been done by us at all. We would have needed a professional concrete cutter.’ Sitting in the hot sun dangling our legs in the pool, it’s as clear as the water that the hard work was worth it. I’m told one of the neighbours comes over for a swim almost every day – and sure enough, half an hour later she turns up, bringing a carton of eggs as a gift.
“It’s a great neighbourhood,” says Tom. “We all take care of each other.”
Another restored relic is the original kitchen, tucked away in a nook off the living room. Rather than rip it out, they kept the sink and restored the pale-green wooden cabinetry, replacing the old oven and fridge with a washing machine and linen cupboard, and turning it into a laundry. They removed a pelmet that had accidentally been built over a high cabinet in the 1950s, opening it for the first time in over 60 years. Inside were stacks of dusty medicine bottles (including a dubious-looking hemorrhoid cream) from Castles Chemist, a pharmacy on Riddiford Street that opened in 1888 and still operates. Tom took some of the bottles down to them to add to their display.
The conservatory at the back of the property is another special feature – a great space not only to grow plants and dry washing, but just to hang out and be really warm, especially in winter.
“This heat was a selling point for me, being from South Africa,” says Kathryn, as we stand sweltering amongst bone-dry towels. A task ahead of them is figuring out how to reattach the roof to the main house – it had to be disconnected when the house was lifted to re-pile. There is more work to do – the back room where they spent their first, terrible night is still in its original state, with pale pink stucco walls. It is currently a music room and home office space. The corners of the windows are rotting and soft to touch. It is hard to believe that most of the house was like that. This project has taken a huge amount of hard work, vision, and commitment, and the results are remarkable.
Together for 14 years and married for five, it is clear that what Kathryn and Tom have here, and with each other, is something special. “It is really a labour of love. As a couple, it’ll make you or break you,” says Kathryn.