Jill and Russell Jackson found a 372 square metre church in the appropriately named St Benedict’s Street. Details about the motivation and religious background of the original private owners remain sketchy. But at one time the small kauri place of worship was used as an ancillary building by the Catholic church, which has a strong presence in this part of Newton. It’s thought it was built just after 1900.
When the Jacksons took it over 16 years ago, it had been used as a bookshop and then by an architect firm. Much of the building was devoid of windows, instead dominated by fluorescent lighting, while false ceilings hid the intricate interior roof line of the old church.
They were looking for a large building in the central city, close to their daughters’ Epsom school and with enough space for full-time fine artist Russell to spread his wings.
Stage one got under way eight years ago when an area on the street frontage, previously used for storage, was converted to garaging, an art gallery, dedicated storage area and courtyard. Downstairs bedrooms were separated from the main house and converted into a self-contained apartment.
“We wanted a gallery at the front, a separate apartment and we wanted a garage,” Jill says. “We got three garages – two for us and one for the apartment – out of an off-street platform area. Not bad for the inner city.”
Now a Falcon gas cooker – a relative to the famous AGA in Britain – is set into a specially designed alcove. Next to it are deep drawers, one for sauce and oil bottles, another for spices. But around the corner comes the surprise. A narrow galley acts like an overgrown walk-in pantry. There are no cupboards, just open shelving.
“If we are entertaining we can make a mess out here,” Jill says. “It’s really a butler’s pantry. All the messy stuff happens out here. It’s also about function with tiling and strip lighting above the bench.”
Climbing up the wall is a wine rack carefully labelled for varieties. “Our wine used to be kept in boxes under the stairs and we never knew what we were running out of.”
“When you polyurethane kauri the flooring goes dark orange and that’s difficult to decorate around,” Jill says.
The building’s ecclesiastical origin comes into its own in Russell’s upstairs studio. He and Jill removed the false ceilings and a one-metre-high series of sparrows’ nests to reveal dark kauri beams highlighting the steeply pitched roof line.
Russell has been an artist for 30 years, and is especially known for his enamel-painted coastal landscapes and bird life. He deals through a variety of galleries and exhibitions and says his downstairs home gallery is more like a showroom.
He shares the gallery, which opens directly onto the street, with hide and fur interior design company Gorgeous Creatures.
While the house is surrounded by commercial buildings, there’s plenty for Russell to find inspiration in. Windows and doors opening onto a small balcony off the living room at the back yield views out to the Waitakere Ranges where Jill and Russell lived before they moved to into the city.
Among the buildings they overlook is the city’s original dog pound, while the Auckland city stables – now converted into office accommodation – are just across the road. A side window affords a look at the Sky Tower. An old oak tree provides a green screen in the summer and lets the low sunlight through in the winter.
"Our view has been whittled away a little as high buildings have gone up around us,” Russell says. “But this ridge is one of the highest parts of Auckland. It’s good for the soul and for me as an artist to find inspiration.”
• Russell’s gallery is at 23 St Benedict's Street, Newton, and is open from 10am-3pm Monday to Friday, and by appointment at other times including weekends.