By Siobhan O’Brien
Trudge through the tangled greenery of the public reserve at Palm Beach, and the world opens suddenly onto a craftsman bungalow from the early 1900s.
A rambling residence, perched on a rise with impressive 360-degree views of the sea, it reeks of early American style.
This is not unusual given the original house was designed by American luminary James Peddle – with influences from the celebrated brothers Greene in Los Angeles.
Approach the house today from the street, and the vista is alternately reminiscent of narrow Greek laneways or a Sergio Leonie Spaghetti Western film-set.
Though this sensitively restored and reconfigured house – the winner of the 2002 R.A.I.A Greenway Award for Conservation – bears the thumbprint of international flavours, it couldn’t in fact be more Australian.
According to the Chair of the State Jury for the R.A.I.A, practising architect and professor at Newcastle University, Peter Stutchbury: “It’s a free-spirited building which is a living, breathing historical representation of our culture. Culturally Australians aren’t good at respecting their immediate history – it’s not something we’ve learnt to recognise yet. Not only that, but this is an informal, clever little building and for a client to be insightful enough to recognise that and a conservation architect to add to that – is something which should be encouraged. This is a one-off submission, in fact you wouldn’t get many clients who would want to do this – it’s a rare opportunity.”
The architect responsible for making this rare opportunity happen is Robert Brown of Casey Brown Architecture.
But, before Brown got his eager hands on this house, eighty years had lapsed – and osteoporosis had already set in. The aging stone pillars were crumbling, the rickety rooms and veranda’s needed much medical attention – while residents of another kind (white ants) had moved into the vertical posts supporting the roof.
In it’s hey-day – ‘Craigee Lee’ built in 1916 – was a clever, unobtrusive structure of random stone, unframed board, black stained batten timber walls, with a corrugated iron roof.
Says Brown: “The original design has lasted the test of time not only in its use of simple materials but the original designers understanding of the site. The wide verandas for shade, the massive stone fire place for warmth, the casement windows catching the breezes, the orientation on the hill to glimpse the vistas to the sea. It’s these features which worked to produce an infinitely liveable building.”
So, an insightful architect and an optimistic client turned a blind eye to the poor condition of its fabric and any imminent problems with extending. They focused instead on its unique character and bush setting.
An impressed R.A.I.A jury applauded Brown’s conservation work as having, “a deft lightness of touch…showing admirable discretion…whimsy and wit is evident in many of the details…Robert Brown has successfully balanced the need for expanded accommodation and upgraded services without compromising the spirit of Peddle’s modest seaside house…A sensitive marriage of old and new fusing good design, good judgement with a little architectural humility…A sensitive appreciation of the essence of the old work using original building materials and techniques.”
Peter Stutchbury elucidates: “This award hasn’t been issued in five years and it’s not normally given for houses, so it’s extremely prestigious for Casey Brown to receive this award.”
Part of the problem, which faced Brown was, “how to retain and minimise change to the original house while catering for a growing, expanding family.”
His solution was not only the conservation of the original house, but its reconstruction, restoration and preservation. Two residential pavilions were added on an adjoining site – providing two new bedrooms and bathrooms, a playroom, study and storage space.
“The understated solution of the pavilions is inspired by rambling country properties with collections of structures to the rear of the main house,” explains Brown.
While the entry – formerly accessed from the tangled bush of the reserve – was relocated to it’s current street-side location.
“There was a problem having the entry via the rear – so we came up with the concept of a boardwalk linking the new to the old,” he says.
Together, the three buildings nestled on all sides by trees and exposed sandstone out-crops, retain a remote sense of place. And while the separate buildings never touch, a sense of enclosure remains.
“For me the project is the result of creative clients realising good architecture means clients and architects work closely together to arrive at a solution neither side could have envisaged before they started," claims Brown who, along with his client, was familiar with the property years before commencement of the project.
At the front of the original home, the wide curved stone veranda was restored to its former glory.
The family room, which overlooks the veranda – home to a chunky sandstone fire place and wall – was taken down and rebuilt.
This space, not the original, was refurbished in the 1960s. Today it, and the rest of the house, is a maze of second hand furniture and meticulously restored and sourced detailing.
Window frames and doors, handles, linoleum, tiles, lighting and other interesting reclaimed oddities – both matching and not, retain its old-world appeal.
The new kitchen retains details including benches, open shelves, taps and the meat safe pantry. Vegetables can be found in a hidey-hole in the floor. An AGA stove from the 1950s, fires up in immaculate working order.
Says Brown: “It’s really a return to simple living and preserving history. We went to great lengths to match up even the smallest details.”
Out the back, a boardwalk interconnects the buildings, subtly fusing the old and the new. Materials applied in the new additions, though similar to the old, are clearly contemporary.
The first building along the boardwalk is the long pavilion. At one end wide windows bring the outdoors in, while at the other a stone balcony encloses it, echoing the veranda of the original house. Along the buildings side, a massive sliding door opens the multi-purpose space, easily converted for living, playing, dining or entertaining.
“The kids will grow, their needs will change, and the owners can shift this large space around to suit different eras and needs.”
Overhead are industrial lights and fans, perched on heavy beams. For the impeccably crafted project, well-documented drawings were unearthed depicting the original, the builder immersing himself in century old techniques.
"The builder John Fielding was incredibly passionate, with a relentless sense of perfection.”
Further along the boardwalk, rising high above the other two buildings is the two-storey master bedroom, bathroom and study. The view from top floor makes it easy to understand why the thrilled owner deems it “a house with a thousand views”.
From this intimate space, entirely designed for sleeping, windows on every side take in a 360-degree view of the ocean and surrounding bush. Downstairs there’s a study, with windows on all sides. All these windows, yet each area remains entirely private.
And a final word from Peter Stutchbury: “It’s simply a fantastic record of history.”