IT is early November 2018, and a storm of activity is swirling through a Cooks Hill landmark.
The time-seasoned bricks and mortar of the 19th-Century building on the corner of Laman Street and Hunnifords Lane are reverberating with the sounds and fury of the 21st Century, as teams of tradesmen simultaneously race the clock and, with their skills, turn back time.
“We’ll be done before Christmas," says project manager Greg Baker, without even a hint of worry or doubt in his voice.
On the face of it, as more than a dozen workers scurry around the site, that deadline seems ominously close.
What’s more, this project seems hugely challenging, as a piece of Cooks Hill’s history is literally joined to the architectural present to ensure this row of terrace houses has a future.
Standing in the midst of the maelstrom are Matt and Marilyn Sainsbury, and on each of their faces is a smile. This is their building restoration and extension project.
For many a home builder and renovator, what starts as a dream disintegrates into harsh reality or, worse, a nightmare. But not for the Sainsburys.
For one thing, having worked as an architect since 1975, Matt Sainsbury knows about the frequently bumpy journey from the drawing board to the moment a front door is finally opened.
Both he and Marilyn knew what they were letting themselves in for when they teamed up with Matt’s sister Helen Griffin to buy the property in 2015.
“We just knew it would be the sort of project we’d be passionate about,” says Marilyn Sainsbury, as the whine of a power saw cuts across our conversation.
In this building, these three are not just shaping their new homes. They are restoring, reconstructing, and saving the past. In the process, they are repeating history.
The trio is also creating a work of art. Which, considering what the building used to be, seems entirely appropriate.
LIKE anything - and anyone - with a past, this two-storey building punctuated by an arched passageway has long beguiled and intrigued passers-by.
The building's most famous resident, art gallery owner and author Anne von Bertouch, would hear people standing outside, wondering what this place used to be, and offering theories about its former life. A monastery, an inn, a bond store, a chapel …
In response, von Bertouch wrote the building’s biography, which is also a survival tale - both hers and the houses’.
The book’s title is drawn from the question she would so often hear uttered outside: What Was It? Before It Was A Gallery.
The row of four terrace houses was believed to have been built in 1879 in what was then a working-class suburb that had sprouted along the sandy rise on the fringe of Newcastle’s heart.
For a time, these four workers’ homes were listed as being off Laman Street, before the lane they fronted took on the name of Thomas Hunniford, a local hotelier who also owned the row of houses from about 1891. The houses themselves came to be known as Hunniford Terrace.
In each of the houses’ warren of small rooms, families lived for decades. But the years gnawed away at the houses themselves.
As Anne von Bertouch wrote in her book, “By the late 1960s they were derelict, stripped of all dignity, beginning to give way at the ends and about to be demolished to make way for a nine-storey block of flats”.
Von Bertouch lived nearby, at 50 Laman Street, where she had also established her art gallery. It is believed to have been the first commercial art gallery in Australia outside a capital city.
In 1969, von Bertouch was recovering from injuries sustained in a serious car accident. As she recuperated, she directed some of her will to live to the building dying before her very eyes across the road.
“If it could be saved I too might survive and all might yet be well,” she wrote.
With little money but stacks of determination, von Bertouch struck a deal with the terrace’s developer owner to buy the property.
The saving of Hunniford Terrace turned into a five-year project. With materials salvaged from doomed and demolished local buildings, and with help from a team including architect Brian Suters, artists and craftsmen, tradesmen and supporters, the building was restored and extended.
When she opened her new gallery in 1974, Anne von Bertouch simultaneously returned life to Hunniford Terrace and breathed new life into Newcastle’s cultural soul. The building was a home for von Bertouch and a nursery for the career of so many artists.
“She embraced it, transformed it, and it became an icon, and it became a symbol of her life,” says Gael Davies, Anne von Bertouch’s close friend and the gallery manager for 30 years.
More than being an art gallery, it was “almost like a community centre”, recalls Davies. “Everyone was made equally welcome”.
Among those who would walk on the lumpy sea of bricks along the passageway into the cathedral-like main part of the gallery were Matt and Marilyn Sainsbury, and Helen Griffin. They particularly loved von Bertouch Galleries’ renowned annual art sale/street party, Collectors' Choice.
“We didn’t know Anne particularly well, but I love ceramics, so I loved Collectors' Choice for that,” recalls Marilyn Sainsbury.
“I still remember people lining up for days before [the exhibition] down the street,” says her sister-in-law, Helen Griffin.
Anne von Bertouch died in 2003. By early 2004, the gallery was closed.
“That was the end of an era, it would never be what it was again,” says Gael Davies.
But what it would become was the focus of uncertainty and debate for years. The property was sold in 2007 and again a few years later. The owners had plans to convert the building into four townhouses. Then, in 2015, the property was back on the market.
Marilyn Sainsbury had been scouting for a new home close to the city for about 18 months. She and Matt wanted to move on from their large family home in Adamstown Heights.
Her sister-in-law was also trying to plot the next stage of her life. Helen Griffin had been recently widowed, and she and the Sainsburys had been talking about finding a property where they could be close together, watching out for each other, while still leading their own lives.
Then Marilyn saw an advertisement for 61 Laman Street, Cooks Hill.
“I said, ‘C’mon Helen, we’ve got to go see this!,’ recalls Marilyn.
“And I said, ‘I’m in!’,” adds Helen.
What they found at the inspection was quite a renovation project. The row of houses, they noted, had deteriorated since its gallery days. The trio also encountered potential competition. Marilyn Sainsbury estimates about 100 people attended the open for inspection.
“And 99 said, ‘I’m not going near that property’,” says her husband.
“We were the silly ones!,” laughs Marilyn, who felt a connection to the old houses.
“When they looked derelict, it looked like somebody had to do something.”
The Sainsburys and Helen Griffin figured they were that somebody.
They bought the property for $1.4 million. Even with walls buckling, floors bowing, timbers rotting, and roofs leaking, Griffin saw this as a “special building”.
“I thought, ‘I can see why Marilyn’s attracted to it, Matt would love the challenge and would have the skills to really do something special.”
From the outset, Matt Sainsbury had one aim - “To keep as much of the old building as possible.”
“We wanted to live in a complete house, but with respect to the older building at the front, particularly externally, particularly in this neighbourhood, where people are so conscious of that old building,” Sainsbury says.
He planned to convert the four original houses into two. Numbers 1 and 3 would be his and Marilyn’s place. Numbers 5 and 7 would be his sister’s home.
With the historic structure at the front, a new two-storey section would be built at the back of each home.
They resolved to work with the old building, which was out of square in places and wore signs of ageing.
“It’s an exercise in imperfection,” says Marilyn Sainsbury. ‘It’s just saying, ‘Let’s celebrate what’s imperfect’.”
Between the two houses is the passageway leading to the main courtyard area of the former gallery. Matt Sainsbury says a previous development application had proposed removing that gallery area, but he didn’t want to do that.
What’s more, the three of them were well aware that space was considered almost sacred by locals, and by the broader arts community.
“We thought, ‘We’ll honour the 1879 [building], but we actually have to honour the cultural legacy too’,” Sainsbury says.
"That’s when we went back and said, ‘Alright, how much of Anne and everything that went on in the building can we keep and still get two residences out of it?’.”
So the design retained the gallery space for use as a common area between the two homes.
The new owners consulted neighbours and shared their vision for 61 Laman Street. When the DA was lodged, Matt Sainsbury recalls, it received no objections.
“Once the story got out as to what we were doing, the support came thick and fast, particularly from the arts fraternity,” he says.
In September 2017, with the approvals for the building's alterations and extensions in place, the journey to converting a grand design into a reality began.
“First impressions weren’t great,” says project manager and builder Greg Baker, from BRW Constructions. “There were just bits and pieces everywhere.
“I guess with new builds, it’s all easy. But with an extension like this, there were so many unknowns. You think something’s going to be quite easy to do, then you pull a wall down, and it’s not.”
As the work progressed, it was evident some elements could not be restored or saved. Some internal walls had to be replaced or removed, new footings were installed, and floors had to be redone. But the materials were often given a new role.
“We’ve repurposed materials, and we’ve tried to create something that’s down-to-earth,” says Marilyn Sainsbury. "Kind of exposing the bones of the building.”
The house proudly displays those bones. Old timber was recycled to build the Sainsburys’ front door, which wears nail holes and the beautiful patina of another age.
Bathroom taps that Anne von Bertouch had salvaged were reinstalled in the garden.
The Sainsburys’ linear kitchen features an exposed brick wall, which in fired clay tells a story about this place. It comprises bricks from the original construction and the von Bertouch period.
Massive sandstone blocks that had been the old footings were excavated and used to create a stunning fence, which tells everyone who passes by how the bonding of the old and the new at 61 Laman Street begins at the property line.
For Baker and his crew, those blocks, which each weighed hundreds of kilograms, were a source of wonderment as to how the 1870s workers managed to manoeuvre them.
“We had to use a decent sized excavator to get them out, and I know they didn’t have an excavator back then,” Baker says.
The tradesmen also unearthed pieces of past lives - old irons, bottles, an inkpot, even bullets behind a fireplace (“We were wondering what they were for,” says Greg Baker).
Even those items have been kept and “repurposed”. An illuminated cavity with a glass cover has been built into the floor in each house, with the artefacts placed on display in there, so you can see history beneath your feet.
While the old building constantly threw up new challenges, and Matt Sainsbury would often return to the drawing board, both Greg Baker and his clients viewed that as a positive. They got along famously.
Helen Griffin refers to the project manager as a “problem solver”, and Marilyn Sainsbury calls Baker a “problem saver”.
Even as he choreographs the work going on around him, and the Christmas deadline looms, Greg Baker can confidently rank where this project sits in his building career: “This is number one for challenges, and in terms of satisfaction, I couldn’t be happier.
“It’s nice to have someone who didn’t knock it down and rebuild something that’s like every other new home in the area.”
“We’ve all been having a good time,” declares Marilyn Sainsbury.
“Our bank account hasn’t!”
WORK continues into December.
“I’ve never seen seen so many tradies on a site before,” remarks Marilyn. At the busiest times, there are about 20 workers from a range of trades.
“It’s nice to know Newcastle has all these skills. Watching the craftsmanship has been wonderful.”
Then a Christmas miracle occurs.
The work is done, and the Sainsburys and Helen Griffin move into their new homes just before Santa is due.
AS the saying goes, “Old habits die hard”.
It is early February, and instead of knocking on the Sainsburys’ front door of recycled timber, I instinctively head down the lane, as I had done so many times in the past, to the passageway that was the entrance to von Bertouch Galleries.
I push back the sculpted iron gate, which had been commissioned by Anne von Bertouch, and walk through the tunnel into the covered courtyard. Just as it was then, this space is a visual wonderland.
Through the glass roof, I can see the canopy of the melaleuca that Anne had planted almost half a century ago, and the skin of the new extension of Helen Griffin’s home. At the end of this space, the red glass panels that Anne had recycled from a door are still glowing in the narrow windows.
The majestic iron chandelier Anne had commissioned has also been reinstated.
There are no paintings on the walls. Although during the construction, some of the workers had drawn on scrap cardboard, inscribed names such as Picasso, and cheekily displayed their art - with price tags.
The arched openings leading to side rooms have been bricked in, but the undulating paving remains. Greg Baker had offered to relay the bricks to make the floor neat and flat, but the Sainsburys said, “No”.
“It is part of this space,” explains Matt.
A few weeks earlier, Gael Davies was invited to see her old workplace and home to so many memories.
“I’m not given to bursting into tears, but I was very close to doing so,” Davies recalls. “It really was quite overwhelming, that first walk into that space.”
With the bricked-in arches, Davies initially felt “it was a little bit claustrophobic” and “I also felt slightly trapped. It lasted only a little while, then I was fine”.
“It’s such a wondrous thing they’ve done to honour and respect Anne and the building.”
The Sainsburys and Helen Griffin are hardly living in the past.
Outside there is a dramatic architectural change from the historic cottages to the sharper lines of the contemporary section. Inside, however, the past seamlessly flows into the present.
This house has also helped Helen Griffin to move into the present, as she has dealt with the loss of her husband, Len, and moved out of her old home at Bar Beach: “Now I’m just in this complete transition. I just said to Matty, ‘Thank you for helping me through that process’.”
In both homes, there is also a blurring between the exterior and the interior, with glass walls and doors that lead to courtyards, and in the Sainsburys’ lounge room, a window seat that opens onto the garden.
Flanking their front door is a 4.8-metre high sandstone feature wall that begins outside and invites itself into the void in the foyer. The wall was built by a stonemason, who was brought in after the Sainsburys saw the work he had done at St Pius X High School at Adamstown.
“I really like the spaces we’ve created here,” says Matt Sainsbury, as he looks around.
And it seems the community likes what the three of them have created as well.
“The compliments we’ve had have been extraordinary,” Matt says.
“You cannot walk out into that front yard for more than 10 minutes without someone stopping to compliment you on the building. So that’s really, really comforting.”
While Matt Sainsbury has now added his own architectural mark to this well-known property, his sister reckons the signs were already there. Helen Griffin points to the S-shaped iron brackets on an exterior wall, installed by Anne von Bertouch in the 1970s to help stabilise the building, and she jokes that they stand for “Sainsbury”.
As for the final cost, no one is saying.
“Um. I’m still working that out,” offers Helen Griffin. “But it’s pretty well what I expected it to cost, so it hasn’t blown out by any means. It’s been a very realistic build.”
Actually, the project isn’t quite complete. The trio has commissioned sculptor Graham Wilson to create a sandstone bust of Anne von Bertouch, which will be placed at the corner of Laman Street and Hunnifords Lane.
So Anne’s face will return to her beloved home. The memory of her has never really left.
Anne knew this place was about more than bricks and mortar. As she wrote in What Was It?, “A living spirit of past and future pervades it”.
Yet as she also noted in her book, “Life is a relay … the baton passed from hand to hand and carried on to pass again so that it may continue its place in the world.”
So the baton has been passed on. Still, if she could return, how would Anne von Bertouch react to what has been done to the property?
“She did it herself,” answers Helen Griffin. “She took it from derelict and turned it into something. I think she’d be delighted that, once again, it’s been saved.”
“It’s taking on a new life, and a good life,” says Gael Davies. “And I think that would please her.”
Marilyn Sainsbury recalls what this building did for Anne von Bertouch, as she fought to save it and restore it.
“The struggles she went through, she said, were the things that enlivened her throughout the hard times,” explains Marilyn.
“We haven’t had any of that adversity, but the challenge of doing it has been enlivening in the same way. It’s been so much fun.”
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