12 September 2019

Labour of Love

The story of one man’s mission to save and preserve what many consider to be the country’s most significant modernist home.


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Paul Jenkin describes himself as a ‘glorified maintenance man’, which is a tad self-deprecating considering the enormity of his achievement over the past two decades. Back in 1998, against his better judgement, he reluctantly purchased an overgrown and dilapidated house that sits high up on a spur overlooking Titirangi village. By his own admission, he had no idea what he’d bought, both in terms of its architectural heritage and of the job he faced.

His then partner, illustrator, cartoonist and ceramicist Anna Crichton, was the protagonist, not him, he recalls. “Anna had been up here a couple of times, sneaking up the driveway to have a look. She was dead keen, so when it came onto the market, we rocked up for the auction. I took a good look around and said to Anna, ‘I do not want to do this thing at all, forget it. If you put your hand up, I’ll pull it down.’ And that was it.” But that wasn’t it.

Two years later, the couple who bought the house at that auction were having a garage sale and Anna was back up the drive. She got talking to them and arranged for Paul and her to meet up one evening later that week. At that point Paul still didn’t know the home’s provenance. He didn’t want to know it, because he still didn’t want to buy it.

“Long story short, after being plied with whiskey and looking out to the twinkling lights of the city, Anna started in on me, and I rolled over… and my life has been very different ever since,” he says, shaking his head. “From that day on, I’ve never really stopped. People say to me to this day, ‘have you finished that building you’ve been working on for 20 years?’ – and here I am still painting it and fixing it up. It’s like owning a lovely old boat, but never quite going sailing.”

So what exactly had Paul and Anna bought all those years ago?

The story begins back in 1947 when the house was conceived and designed by the now Auckland Council’s chief architect, Tibor Donner, as a home for himself and his family. During his years in the role, Donner, an émigré architect from Hungary, was responsible for shaping Auckland’s post-war skyline, designing many landmark buildings that continue to define our city today – buildings such as the Civic Administration Building on Greys Avenue, Parnell Baths, and the Savage Memorial at Bastion Point, to name but a few.

In post-war New Zealand, materials were scarce and budgets were tight, and consequently most new homes conformed to a traditional, tried and tested aesthetic, cookie cutter in form and basic in function. Donner’s thinking was different. His designs were ambitious and forward thinking, taking their cues from the modernist Bauhaus movement in Europe, with little regard to the New Zealand vernacular of the day – his unique response to our climate, building materials, and budgetary constraints.

The resulting house certainly broke new ground in terms of looks and functionality. The immediate and most obvious sign is its slightly curved form – apparently a first for a New Zealand house. Inside, the home heralded the idea of open-plan living, built-in furniture, and connecting to the outdoors – over-used buzzwords these days, but 70 years ago, quite radical departures from the compartmentalised, closed-in homes of the time.

Apart from a large flat-screen TV and a pair of thumping great speakers, walking into the cavernous downstairs living area is like entering a time capsule. And that’s how it is supposed to be. As much as is humanly possible, Paul has been true to the architect’s intent in his restoration of the house. The devil is certainly in every detail of this home, with subtle curves and built-in furniture pieces throughout.

There’s quite a bit of Donner still here, says Paul, as we walk around the lounge. On the walls are some of Donner’s original etchings, made in an acid bath he’d installed beneath one of the two studios he built on site. There are also various pieces of Donner-designed furniture scoured from TradeMe over the years.

“When they arrived and we put them in the lounge, you could see it was exactly the same language, the same joinery as the built-in pieces that are still part of the house,” says Paul, clearly enjoying them as much today as when he first found them.

The pièce de résistance in terms of furniture, however, is a rather funky-looking chair donated to the ‘house’, which had been made by Donner for a bach he designed in Piha. When it arrived, it was covered in ghastly Formica, says Paul. So, as per the rest of the house, he went about restoring it.

“The original interiors were very different from what you see here today,” Paul says.

“When I first saw them, they were painted in what were called aqua tints – soft hues of blue and green – and all the walls were covered in scrim. Unfortunately, the people we bought from had removed all the scrim from the downstairs walls and painted the place white.” But that was only the half of it. When Paul and Anna moved in, there were holes throughout the upstairs ceilings, with buckets and paint cans hanging to collect the drips. That’s how the previous two homeowners coped with the place, he says.

The root cause of the problem was an experimental roof, conceived with good intentions by Donner, but which turned out to be a complete failure. “Prior to leaking, it must have been an incredibly beautiful roof,” says Paul. “Donner had asked all his staff to bring in their empty wine bottles, which he then smashed and mixed together with cement to create large, biscuit-like tiles that covered the entire surface of the roof.”

The problem was that these ‘biscuits’ were laid onto tar which, in time, failed, allowing water to penetrate down through the house. Donner had to revisit the roof many times, painting out the glass mosaic, but to no avail. The beautiful roof is now shrouded and sealed in a thick cloak of rubber – effective, but not as magnificent as the original.

A keen gardener – he did, after all, design the Savage Memorial Gardens – Donner also created a wonderful terraced garden to surround his hilltop home. But all his wonderful landscaping was all lost to the bush after he died in 1993; Paul thinks it may have been lost much earlier, as Donner and his wife were progressively housebound as they grew older.

And so began another incredible journey of discovery for Paul. Every day, for eight long months, he pulled back the vines and the overgrowth.

“All the terracing and brickwork was here; you just couldn’t see it. It was a complete mystery, because it was completely covered by a river of jasmine. Progressively, I cut everything back to reveal the structure of the garden beneath. Every day, there was something to discover. It was insane, and that’s what kept me going,” he says.

Walking around the grounds of Donner’s house, Paul points out various ‘relics’ from the past. Anyone else would walk past them, dismissing them as rubble or junk, but such is Paul’s knowledge of Donner’s work that he seems to know – or more hazards an educated guess – the provenance of every item, pairing pieces of glazed brickwork, mosaics and broken-up paving with many of the civic buildings built back in the 40s and 50s.

Given Paul’s now almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Donner, it seems quite inconceivable that he was blissfully unaware of the man or his house when he took possession of the property back in 1998. In fact, it was Bill McKay, now a senior lecturer at the School of Architecture at the University of Auckland, who first alerted Paul to his home’s history. “He came wandering up the drive unannounced a week or so after I’d moved in and asked if I’d mind including the house in an event that was being put on at nearby Lopdell House, called Western Lights, showcasing the artists, artisans and architects of the West. I think I was still in denial to be honest, I didn’t want to know… I was still in shock after buying it,” he laughs.

Having such a pivotal slice of the country’s architectural history in his possession is a responsibility Paul now takes very seriously. With this in mind, he has taken steps to protect the house for generations to come. It is now a Category 1 Heritage-listed home, with Donner’s studio gaining a Category 2 listing. “It’s now fixed in time forever,” he says, with some satisfaction. However, he does ponder whether listing it has been a good thing for him financially.

“By listing it, have I shot myself in the foot when it comes to re-sale? People can’t do anything with it, because it’s locked in a box forever. Maybe it’ll put a lot of people off. Over time, though, surely people will value this home for what it is, not for what it could be in terms of its development potential.”

Deep down, though, Paul knows he’s done the right thing. “Can you imagine my professional peer group’s distain if I hadn’t done it?” he asks. “I’ve protected and lifted this place’s profile, so it doesn’t get ‘done over’ and fall victim to someone else’s ideas of what it should look like. If anyone in the future wants to develop this property it must be done with heritage architects in tow, so now it has every chance of surviving intact, as it was first designed.”

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