An elegant heritage Sydney home restored to its former glory

A couple breathes new life into a heritage home in Sydney's East, creating an elegant family abode that honours the past while embracing the present.
Dave Wheeler

It feels fitting that you should reach Sarah and Neil’s expansive heritage-listed home via 12 stone steps: a grand house deserves a grand entrance. And looking at its enchanting white timber verandahs and shingle facade, it’s no surprise that a step through the front door means a step back in time.

When homeowner Sarah first spotted this elegant home in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, it was gloomy, tired and came with a 1980s-style swimming pool that swallowed the backyard. Yet with vision and a passion for old houses, she could see its potential as a home for herself and her family, which includes husband Neil, children Isobel, 12, and Fred, 11, miniature schnauzer Archie and cat Mini.

This radiant conservatory was part of a six-month renovation to restore and return the 1920s home to its pomp. A recycled timber table, custom made by Original Finish, and Thonet Le Corbusier bentwood chairs offer style sense, and the Hali Uşak rug from Smithmade lends faded loveliness.

“We love old houses and weren’t frightened off by its heritage listing,” says Sarah of her home, built on a historic beach side estate. “However, I dismissed it initially because of the old pool, which took up the whole garden and seemed like a huge problem.” Other stumbling blocks included the dilapidated sun room at the back, which was so rotten “you could put your fingers through it”, and the facade. “The verandahs had been glassed in,” explains Sarah, “so it looked monolithic and ugly, and inside it was really dark.”

“It’s even more beautiful than I imagined,” says Sarah. “I wanted a modern-style Edwardian conservatory; a space that feels like an outdoor room but allows you to use it all year round.”

While she began to see its potential, Neil took some convincing. “The thing was, it met our criteria in lots of ways,” continues Sarah. “We wanted a ‘proper’ old two-storey house within 10 minutes of the beach – we managed eight! – and we needed more space for the kids, who were eight and 10 at the time. I showed Neil how we could extend it and open it all up and drew him a picture of how it might have looked in the 1920s.” He was sold.

With its fully integrated French-door fridge, freestanding oven and a ‘secret’ butler’s pantry behind cupboard doors, Sarah’s kitchen is a delight. “It’s so easy to work in and the joinery is beautiful,” she says. Interior designer Gianna was happy Sarah loved the brass Rakumba ‘Highline’ pendant. “It’s stunning but refined, which suits this space,” she says.

After three-and-a-half years in the home, the couple engaged Modify, a start-to-finish construction company, and they expertly delivered the whole renovation from development approval to interior design.

The lush marble benchtops with demi-bullnose edges from WK Natural Stone and Shaker-style cabinetry are a match made in modern heritage heaven, while the aged-brass finish of an Astra Walker ‘Olde English’ tap and Kethy handles complete the look.

“I’d always imagined having a white kitchen, but I trusted Modify when they suggested Resene’s Periglacial Blue. I’m so glad I did as I love it.” Handmade glazed casa tiles from Onsite Supply + Design and Jardan ‘Brooklyn’ barstools both look simple but special.

The work included restoring the front and opening the verandahs, knocking down the 1980s extension and building a conservatory (also used for dining) and new kitchen, and extending the side of the house to include a butler’s pantry, laundry and powder room.

Dubbed the “old dining room” by the family, this multi-tasking space is where the children often sit to eat and is regularly home to a jigsaw puzzle or Sarah’s next sewing project. “The table was my grandmother’s,” says Sarah, “and I can remember her doing her sewing at it.” She found the dining chairs on Ebay and painted them with Annie Sloan chalk paint, using colour inspiration from the window and echoed in the painting by Helen Gauchat. A ‘Milou’ swivel chair from Coco Republic injects contemporary, but complementary interest, and the ‘Pompeii’ vase from Provincial Home Living brings its bobbly personality to the table.

Upstairs, above the extension, a parents’ retreat and walk-in wardrobe was added, and outside they landscaped the garden and replaced the enormous pool with a smaller one. “We already had a great big hole so we thought we may as well!” laughs Sarah, who, with her family, moved into their dream home in October 2019.

The window seat and architraves ion the sitting room are among her favourite original features, and the coffee table is a vintage chest she had in her bedroom as a child. “We lived in London when I was young, and when we came home my father brought a container of antiques, including this chest,” says Sarah. “He’d wheel and deal a bit, so I think I got my love of antiques from him.” On the wall and mantelpiece are some much-loved artworks: (from left) untitled pieces by Peter Godwin and Helen Gauchat and ‘Portrait of George Evans’ by Annie Herron.

The interiors are as graceful as the house itself; a treasure-trove of artworks, family heirlooms and forgotten gems, spied with Sarah’s keen eye for vintage and bought from Vinnies, Ebay and Gumtree. Sarah’s colour palette is classic blue and white, and she has “collected blue and white china ever since I can remember”.

‘My Country’ by Kudditji Kngwarreye sits above an Ikea ‘Ektorp’ sofa – its colours are echoed in décor including a brass lamp from Coco Republic, cushions from The Lost And Found Department and No Chintz, and an alpaca throw from In Bed. An Indian dhurrie from Perryman Carpets combines Sarah’s favourite colour combo – blue and white.

Sarah found the entrance hall chairs on Gumtree and refurbished them. They flank an inherited sideboard. The lamps from Vinnies were re-covered in No Chintz fabric.

The result is a warm, welcoming and characterful home, enhanced by the former lawyer’s own handiwork. “I’m a frustrated creative person,” says Sarah with a smile. “I’ve painted lots of furniture and I make lampshades and cushions.

With its timber balustrade and French doors, the freshly opened central balcony restores elegance and tradition to the first floor. Changing the facade has also transformed the family’s lifestyle. “We gained more space by knocking out the original ‘small rooms’, and it’s introduced more light into the upstairs,” says Sarah. Accessed from the landing and main bedroom, this is the spot to catch winter rays and sit among the treetops. “I love sitting here, reading and having a coffee,” remarks Sarah. The new decking is being left to age gracefully.

A peaceful palette paired with vintage finds sets the scene. The bed frame and tables, bought from Salvos Stores and Ebay, were upcycled and given a new lease of life by Sarah, and the ‘Tokyo’ lamp is from Bastille and Sons. Adding texture and warmth is a wicker trunk from The Bronte Tram, while Papaya waffle blankets and pinstripe bedlinen from In Bed lend classic charm. A joyful collection of artworks personalise the space: far left on the wall is an untitled piece by Erica Tandori, and the portrait of Neil was painted by daughter Isobel a few years ago. On the bedside table is an untitled landscape by Amanda Penrose Hart and on the windowsill is ‘Solo’ by Little Scapes.

Simple joinery creates a dressing table next to Sarah and Neil’s walk-in robes, with a Zali stool from Smithmade.

Yes, if you had all the money in the world you could buy smart new pieces of furniture, but it’s actually fun being challenged to get the look you want by repurposing old things you find on Gumtree.” That sounds like a perfect match to this historic home. “The most important thing to us about the house is that it’s old and makes us feel very happy,” says Sarah.

Customised cabinetry doors in Laminex Winter Sky spruce up the laundry.

Best tip for renovating a heritage house?

“I did a lot of research and spoke to the heritage office at the council before we bought the house. Once they realised I was genuinely interested in restoring it, they offered to look at the plans.”

Favourite vintage haunts?

“I like Dirty Janes and The Bronte Tram in Bowral and Lunatiques in Sydney.”

Subway tiles and Astra Walker ‘Olde English’ tapware bring modern heritage basics to Neil and Sarah’s bathroom (top above) and allow the heroes to shine. Cue a resplendent navy blue antique slipper bath which makes a classic style statement without hogging the space. Pattern is introduced through enchanting encaustic floor tiles from Jatana Interiors.

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