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Converted into flats in the 1940s, this brick beauty on the cliffs above St Clair is now a family home again. Kim Dungey reports.
Restoring this large Dunedin home was not for the faint-hearted.
False ceilings, rotten windows and surface-mounted electrics greeted Aucklanders Eunan Cleary and Gillian Alexander when they first saw the St Clair property in 2017.
Built in 1906, it had been split into flats about 1940. When the couple took over, there were still eight bedrooms, five bathrooms, three kitchens and two front doors.
"The previous owner had lots of ideas about what he was going to do with the house and bought lots of stuff for it, so basically the whole downstairs was being used as a storage area," Ms Alexander says, explaining that the chattels included antique light fittings, imposing sideboards and imported radiators.While the pair had their hearts set on buying an old house with character, they initially had no thoughts of taking on a renovation.
"It was a really big mess and at the time, the owner had quite a high price on it ... Our eldest son, who came down with us to look, said he wouldn't touch it with a barge pole," she says with a laugh. "But we watched it online for several months and the price kept coming down, to the point we thought maybe it was doable."
Students at the University of Otago in the 1970s and '80s, the couple had worked in Auckland for 33 years - Ms Alexander in pharmaceuticals and Mr Cleary in public transport.
"One of the big attractions of moving back to Dunedin is that it's a city of fabulous architecture," says Ms Alexander, now treasurer of the Cargill's Castle Trust, which aims to preserve the ruins of another of St Clair's former stately homes. "The prospect of being a little part of that was pretty attractive."
Charles Shiel (born 1859) came to New Zealand with four siblings in 1878.
Six years later, he established his first brickworks at Rockyside, Caversham, later being joined by brother William and relocating to a 4ha site in Forbury Rd.
The business, which employed 60 staff at peak production, included a brickworks on the eastern side of Forbury Rd and a quarry on the opposite side where the Frances Hodgkins Retirement Village now stands. Clay was taken from the cliff face and sent across the road to the brickworks by trolleys on an overhead conveyor.
Working the clay at the top of the hill with a steam shovel was costly so in 1915 the brothers imported an excavator they had seen on a trip to the United States. Similar to those used in the excavation of the Panama Canal, it was controlled by a single electric motor and was said to do the work of 60 men.
Charles and wife Elizabeth had five sons and a daughter. Although not verified, the home they built above the quarry is rumoured to have been designed by architect F.W. Petre.
Current owners Eunan Cleary and Gillian Alexander believe it was turned into flats in 1940, after the brickworks suffered financial problems and the house had failed to sell. A 1939 advertisement said the "imposing residence", then owned by one of the Shiels' sons, boasted magnificent living rooms, an asphalt tennis court and "one of the finest views in New Zealand".
Some of the floorboards were affected by borer and could not be saved, she says. The builders planned to saw down between each joist before removing each board "but when they started flicking up the floorboards, the joists came as well because they were also full of borer. They had no strength in them at all."
Then came the bombshell that a bricklayer repointing the four huge chimneys had felt the one above the coal range wobble. "He got off the roof as fast as he could and work stopped.
"The other was when they took the false ceiling out of the old kitchen and found a hot water cylinder that they didn't know was there. They'd taken the wall out from under it and it was just sitting on a 2x2. So they all scarpered again. The plumber had to come to empty it."
Undeterred, the couple spent eight months living in a rental while they tackled the jobs they did not want to pay professionals to do.
These included water-blasting brown paint from a band of white bricks on the exterior of the house, searching second-hand yards for period fixtures and installing insulation. They also restored fire surrounds and stripped paint and wallpaper from almost every room, sometimes engulfed in clouds of dust.
Built by the owner of a brickworks, the house has triple-brick exterior walls and double-brick internal walls covered with lime plaster - a highly alkaline material that can irritate the skin, Mr Cleary explains. "You'd go home after a day here and you'd be desperate for a shower."
Although the experience was completely different from their office-based jobs, the rewards were worth it. Both recall the excitement as blocked doors were opened and partition walls and false ceilings came down, revealing light, spacious interiors. In the back hall, they found an arch that had been bricked up and the original cornice, hidden under the lowered ceiling. Even the loss of the wooden floors had an upside, Mr Cleary says, as half of the ground floor now has insulation and a vapour barrier.
Originally built for gas, the house was soon converted to electricity. The original coal range with two fire boxes no longer remained but the flues became the main conduit for taking new wiring between the floors.
The 420sq m home, which had a reputation for hosting raucous parties in the 1980s, now has five bedrooms, three bathrooms and a layout that largely matches the original.
One change they made was creating an open-plan kitchen-family room from what was originally a breakfast room and the housekeeper's bedroom, Ms Alexander says. "We didn't need another bedroom and although we wanted to retain the old features, we wanted a house suited to modern living."
While not ruling out another renovation in the future, the owners are content to enjoy the fruits of their labour and have no plans to turn the property into a bed and breakfast as some people have suggested.
Ms Alexander says there was "definitely a bit of naivety" going into the project and if they had realised what was involved, they might not have started.
"The thing is by the time you first have that thought, you're already so far into it that you can't stop. For at least 10 months, the house was such a mess that it was worth nothing ..."
However, they could not be happier with the outcome.
One selling point for Mr Cleary was the off-street parking and two garages, which can be difficult to find in Dunedin; the original owners were early car enthusiasts and competed successfully in Otago Motor Club hillclimbs. They also appreciate the 180-degree views of the city and coast, the 3.5m stud that makes the rooms feel airy and the triple brick walls that hold heat in winter.
"It's light, spacious and captures all the sun. It's easy to live in," Ms Alexander adds. "There's nothing that we wish we'd done differently."