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Grandfather’s House

This essay by Piper Whitehead was the winner of the secondary school category of the 2017 Warren trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

If you asked my mother about it, she’d say, “That house is the closest you can get to him. That and Bing Crosby music.”

My grandfather was as idiosyncratic as they come. Totally bloody-minded, he would settle for nothing less than precisely what he wanted; in restaurants, he would force the family to switch tables until he found the exact seat he desired. He had a wicked sense of humour and was famous for practical jokes. Once he told a friend he looked so fine in his dinner suit that he wanted to paint him. The friend agreed, only to end up wearing a coat of house paint.

When he reached the ripe old age of 52, divorced and with the kids fully grown, my grandfather decided that what he needed was a home to while away his days in peace and contentment. That perfect place could only be created with himself as the architectural auteur.

Ideas formed. The old family bach on the Coromandel coast had fallen into disrepair. Removed, it freed up a large patch of hillside with a view of the ocean; thus, the Top House was born. Captivated by the architecture of Europe, my grandfather envisioned the Top House as a slice of Tuscany, slap-bang in the middle of the Coromandel. For 10 years, the house existed only as a photo on his wall and a warren of earthworks on a hill.

Twenty-five years later, when being inspired by Italy is something of a cliché, the house is still unique. About half-way up the steep, overgrown driveway, which only a four-wheel drive can manage, you begin to catch a glimpse of yellow plaster walls beneath a warm terracotta roof. Follow the drive as it curls around the corner and you’ll end up on the lawn, with the land falling away down to the beach at your right, and the beginnings of the silver slate deck to your left. The house looks best at sunset; the sun travelling over the sea makes the house luminous, and everything is gold.

Every time we arrive at the house, open the dark wooden shutters and light screen doors, and step inside, it’s a reunion.The slate tiling and plaster continue indoors, forming a high ceilinged, open-plan living space like the hollow of a seashell. The seating area is spacious, with slouchy leather armchairs making an open-ended rectangle, catching the warmth from the fireplace on the back wall. By the hearth, built-in timber shelving spills over with books, board games and LPs. There’s a yellow pot of artificial tulips that has been there as long as anyone can remember. To the left is the kitchen, complete with Shacklock coal range in a green-tiled alcove. While, to the untrained eye, the wooden dining table might seem just slightly too big for the space, it’s the only way to fit everyone inside for dinner.

If you stand in the entrance, your eye is drawn upwards along the staircase with its spindly, mānuka branch rail and up to long, stained-glass windows, set high into the back wall. A mismatched selection, with squares and diamonds of jewel-like blue and red alongside warm yellows and oranges, the windows are church-like in their effect. Up the stairs and through the windows, you find the master bedroom, long and airy, filled with dusty light, with a creaky screen door leading to the hillside and windows peering towards the ocean. Once this was the only bedroom. Now, down a broad external staircase that folds neatly to the drive, resides a series of cool, shady rooms, a solitary man’s garage converted into children’s bedrooms. It would never really be a one-man house.

Like true love, the course of building a house never runs smooth. My grandfather went through his fair share of architects and builders. The resulting irregularities, coupled with dormant periods resulting from the house’s service as a bach, have produced no end of things needing repair, from missing roof tiles to an entire ceiling defeated by a leaky shower. But as some things got broken, others were brought back together. Even though they were divorced, my grandfather built the house with my grandmother. She was the only person from whom he would take advice. My mother believes my grandfather hoped the house would lure my grandmother back, and in a way, it did.

I never met my grandfather. He passed away when a blood clot took up brief residence in his brain, years before I was born. But I know him. He was the kind of man who planted olive trees on a hillside tousled with toetoe and fern, who wanted to see wild goats through stained-glass windows. He is buried next to his house, although, in an appropriately haphazard way, no one quite remembers where. And later, my grandmother joined him. More than anything else, his house is family.