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Home ownership is not usually about daring physical feats but nobody's told outspoken city councillor Lee Vandervis. Kim Dungey reports.
Lee Vandervis was 15m above ground, spreadeagled over the peak of his roof.
Moments earlier, he'd climbed out of the house on to the slate tiles and crawled along the ridging to repair and rewire a floodlight.
The operation he admits was a ''bit dodgy'' was also typical of the boots-and-all approach Vandervis has taken to the restoration of his Roslyn home, built in the late 1890s for Otago Medical School dean John Halliday Scott.
As he looks up at a finial he painted, he recalls placing a 5m ladder in the bucket of his cherry picker and thinking that if ''the OSH people came along, they'd have heart attacks''.
Another time he decided to move a mature phoenix palm to the property, not realising the root ball weighed 10 tonnes and even after every frond had been chopped off, power and telephone lines in Garfield Ave would have to be lifted.
And the 52 cast iron radiators he bought for $1000 from the old Trustbank building in lower Dowling St were not quite ''the bargain of the century'' they first appeared to be. The heaviest weighed 300kg and the lifts in the building were no longer working: ''My back was in a brace for three weeks afterwards. It wasn't clever.''
A third-term Dunedin city councillor, Vandervis has hit headlines for labelling Forsyth Barr Stadium unaffordable, describing community boards as ''job-creation schemes'' and calling for some Christchurch rebuilding to be shifted to Dunedin.
But away from the council table, the son of a Dutch builder likes nothing better than modifying old lights, restoring musical instruments, doing up vehicles, building trailers: ''You see something at the end of the day and after a few days of council meetings, you need to do something real. Keeping your sanity in council is not easy.''
Vandervis says it was more than 25 years ago, after he had renovated the Methodist church in Dundas St and a three-storey Mornington villa, that he was approached about the Garfield Ave home a former mayor had divided into seven flats in the 1930s.
A real estate agent who knew the acoustics engineer was looking for a bigger house for his growing family, liked ''old stuff'' and was up for a challenge came ''roaring around'' with a set of purchase documents: ''They were all filled out with the price. `I've found the house for you', he said. `Sign here'.''
The only problem was the tenants did not want the house to be sold so would only allow Vandervis and his first wife into the back rooms.
What they found after buying the property and stepping in to the entrance hall was that a former owner had hacked through the main staircase near the bottom to put in a partition. Floors had been patched with chipboard, the heart rimu woodwork had been painted in a rainbow of colours, from pink and purple to a ''garish green'', and there was hardly an original light fitting, fireplace surround, door handle or window catch remaining.
"One room we called the axe murderer's flat,'' he says.
"It had an axe over the door, everything was painted black and upstairs [in the roof cavity] there were watering systems, trays and potting mix.''
But it was not all bad news. By attempting to modernise the house and covering the original features with hardboard, the landlord had inadvertently protected them. The entry's decorative wooden ceiling, for example, was still intact underneath. And if the 20-room house had not been in such a sad state of repair - it was valued at just $1000; the land at $248,000 - they would never have been able to afford it.''
For us it was a stroke of luck that it had been butchered. And the thing was, most of the bones of the house were still there. It took a lot of time [to restore] but it wasn't expensive.''
After moving into one of the flats with his wife and three children,Vandervis continued to run his sound and lighting business but often worked on the house until midnight.
With the help of only one other person, he added a deck, replaced ugly fire escapes, installed secondary glazing; reinstated the bottom part of the stairs, stripped paint, applied shellac and rebuilt the rotten back wall using macrocarpa from his Pigeon Flat farm.
He also built a boundary wall with 13,000 bricks and nine tonnes of concrete but no string line, figuring that if he made the wall dead straight, the house would start to look crooked.
Seven sound systems that he could not bear to part with after swapping his day job for council duties were crammed in under the house. Switchboards, baths and toilets were heaved over the edge of the second storey balcony into a ute below.
Then he set about finding doors, bannisters, fire surrounds, old gas lights that he could convert to electricity and tools to do the work - discovering the best places for the latter were ''garage sales where angry wives were throwing out the contents of their ex-husband's workshops''.
And in a scene reminiscent of a Mr Bean skit - the one in which he covers everything in newspaper, puts a stick of dynamite in a can of paint and blows it up - the 59-year-old painted the interior of the 600sq m house in a day. It was an 18-hour shift that involved an airless sprayer on ''full blast'', 70 litres of Resene half Spanish white and a century's worth of dust that began flying out from behind the plaster cornices.
Though some of the fine particles stuck to the walls, he isn't too worried: ''In an old home, imperfections are what tell the stories''.
Later, he and his wife also bought the property's original stables, adding a second storey to make it a ''usable renter'' and matching the existing roof with slates bought through Trade Me and garage sales.
Living in the house has given him enormous respect for how things used to be built, he says, pointing out that capped ventilation pipes running inside the internal walls up to the roof keep the home warm and dry. Plaster dross and wood shavings from the build were added to a false floor between the two storeys for insulation ''and ''having the master bedroom as far as possible from the nursery was a stroke of genius''.
But it was the large north-facing windows that most excited him when he first saw the property. On the ground floor, they bathe the living areas in light. Upstairs, they provide good harbour views from the bedrooms and from the study used by wife Antonie, ''blighted only by the toast rack below''.
Glass was also used in the roof but only three of the original pink panes have survived, the other skylights replaced with wired glass and perspex.
Downstairs, the dining room still hosts some large gatherings, the original study has become the kitchen and the adjoining drawing room has been extended at some stage to take in what was an open balcony.
At the back of the house, 16-year-old Juliette sleeps in the former nursery, a steep staircase once used by the servants has been repaired and the original kitchen (now a bathroom) still has its big coal range with three separate ovens and flues.
A note in one of Scott's photo albums suggests the house may have been designed by John Arthur Burnside, whose notable buildings include the Otago Early Settlers' Museum, Ashburn Hall and Transit House (at 44 Park St) and who was one of the first professional architects to be born and trained in New Zealand.
Scott called the home Carlinwark after his mother's Scottish home but, unaware of this, Vandervis named it Redwood after two large trees on the property. One had been cut down before he bought the house but the other is being enjoyed by a new generation, a flying fox stretching from the deck to its furrowed branches. He and Antonie - a senior lecturer in the German department at the University of Otago - have eight children between them.
As he looks back on the many years of restoration work, Vandervis says the house was always screaming out for someone to return it to how it was and he's hopefully left it in better repair than when he found it.
He and Antonie like the space and despite having only two children still at home, have no plans to move to a smaller property.
''`It's been a blast,'' he says.
''It's a fabulous thing to be able to do up an old place ... and then have the joy of living in something that's really well made with a spacious design and beautiful timbers.''