In Valencia they might call it una casa hermosa (a beautiful house); in San Francisco street-slang they’d probably enthuse that the decor is hella neat, but for Melanie and Joe Spooner, who immersed themselves in both those Northern Hemisphere cities for several years, this residence on the slopes of Remuera, Auckland, which they’ve practically rebuilt, is a place to belong.
For Joe, who lived here as a teenager, there is a personal history in the house and the neighbourhood. For Melanie, originally from the North Shore, it was somewhere she could see their children – Lucia, now 14, and Ruben, 12 – living like Kiwis. “Both our kids were born in Spain and have American accents,” she explains. In 2016, after a decade away following Joe’s career as an America’s Cup sailor, it was time to bring them home.
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Joe’s parents moved into the Californian bungalow in the mid-1980s. They were avid gardeners and established a lushly planted patchwork to surround the three-bedroom weatherboard dwelling. Some 35 years later, the upkeep of the property was getting a bit much for Joe’s dad so the second generation of Spooners bought the home and began to recraft it for their own young family.
The couple previously lived in a Victorian house in San Francisco so harboured an affinity for character. Although they loved this house’s original features, it lacked a powder room and laundry, the hallway was dark and narrow, and the plum colour scheme a tad oppressive. While they would have loved to keep the garden going, the tapestry of plants was high maintenance and the lack of outdoor space unsuitable for the boisterous needs of tweens and teens. A full redo was on the cards.
Say it fast and it seems easy; in essence, it was a protracted process. “First we had to get consent and a design, then we moved out for two years while they demolished and rebuilt,” says Melanie. Makes sense when you realise the scope. From the basement, where they dug out another 40cm to achieve full head height, to the central core where they widened and heightened the hallway, to the add-ons – a loft guest bedroom above new double garaging, extra footage on the living zone and a new upstairs main suite – the bungalow was pushed and pulled this way and that.
Architect Warwick Lee, a family friend, tied in the emerging aesthetic with the old, keeping a sense of nostalgia alive. Elements such as leadlight windows, a brick fireplace, wainscoting and beam-and-panel ceilings were retained or replicated where possible but a double-height new entry foyer and a hallway that soars to 5m are very of the moment. Original jarrah floors, stained dark, give way to concrete in the large open-plan living area and the connection to the outdoors, with room to toss a basketball, a swimming pool and a spa, completes the structural revolution.
While a convoy of tradespeople moved through to effect the transformation, Joe and Melanie tried to keep their fingers on the pulse while holding onto the reins of Kiwi Flush, a business they started as a side hustle, which simply took off. “Portable toilets,” says Melanie. “It’s random and not very glamorous but we feel lucky to have thrived during the pandemic. What we lost out on because events were cancelled, we more than made up for with building sites.”
It’s difficult to equate this stylish mother of two with the mobile washroom industry but fortunately, the rebuild provided plenty of opportunity to express her creative side. Sharing ideas with Clare Kitching from Peachhaus Design, she chose finishes such as the vivaciously veined Arabascato marble for the kitchen island and splashback. “It overhangs on three sides so a special steel frame had to be built to support it,” she explains.
Her selection of walnut veneer for the cabinetry harks to her love for mid-century design and international influences can be found in the dining room: a glittering circular chandelier over a glass-and-brass dining table with a gilded tray and display unit holding crystal and vintage glassware. “I am a fan of Hollywood Regency style,” says Melanie who is just as likely to purchase these from a Webb’s auction, a vintage furniture boutique or online. “Some call me the Trade Me queen,” she laughs. “I have a lot of favourite searches set up, so I don’t miss anything.”
French designer Pierre Vandel is one current fixation and in the formal lounge, a mid-century style sofa and a glam-chic Vandel side table are perfectly teamed on a Persian rug in front of the white brick fireplace.
Melanie perhaps inherits her eclectic eye from her mother, Wendy Paul, who is a curator of vintage clothing and other finds: “Sometimes we swap pieces.” This long-held passion meant that once the couple were ready to move in, they had a house load of furniture already in storage. Two 1930s Italian chairs, purchased on a road trip from San Diego, now flank a mid-century drinks trolley, fossicked at the Alameda Pt Antiques Faire, east of San Francisco. “It was only right I get the chairs because on that same road trip Joe bought a Mustang,” says Melanie.
In October 2020 when the Spooners moved in, the car, conceived as the “workingman’s Thunderbird” slotted neatly into the new double garage. Melanie and Joe woke that first morning to a distant view of the Sky Tower through the shuttered windows of their bedroom eyrie and the kids, who are losing their American twang, invited friends to swim in a post-lockdown celebration of freedom.
With layers of personal history, global finds and enough room for both “we” and “me” time, the mark two version of the Spooner home has become the fulcrum of a well-balanced, well-rounded lifestyle. “When we left San Fran, I was worried I would miss the energy of that city,” says Melanie, “but this project has been a labour of love. We’ve really settled in.”
Q&A with Joe and Melanie Spooner
Best renovation tip: If you’re time poor, get a great team in place. We used contractors, an architect and builder but also an electrical consultant for lighting placement and an engineering consultant for recommendations on effective heating for the house and pool/spa. (Joe).
Best design decision we made: Lots of living spaces – a godsend with the work-from-home scenario due to Covid. Also, allowing for flexibility in the budget for the special items and finishes we did not want to compromise on. At the time it feels like a bottomless pit of expenses but when it all comes together… (Melanie)
Anything you would have done differently: Ultimately no. There were a few decisions that at the time felt like budget blow-outs, but we don’t regret any of them. The built-in spa was a last-minute addition and gets used every day. (Joe)
Next on the to-buy list: More Pierre Vandel. I’m obsessed with his brass, glass and lucite vintage pieces. They are very hard to find but I’m fortunate that Charlotte Rust from Babelogue store will hold pieces for me as they become available. (Melanie)
Favourite garden plants: The sago palms that we kept from my parents’ garden and the sculptural form of the giant bromeliads (Alcantarea imperialis ‘Rubra’). (Joe)