Nicola Gray sits in her cosy kitchen, warmed by a large Sweetheart stove smouldering as the winter sun trickles through pink stained glass windows, creating patterns on the wooden walls and cupboards.
Meat defrosts slowly on the bench for the evening meal that Nicola will prepare for husband Randal and children Samalah, 23 and Daniel, 21. After dinner, there is no television to distract from evening activities, conversation or a good book at the kitchen table.
A humble space, the kitchen is clearly the heart of this Renwick home, reflecting the lifestyle and beliefs the Gray family hold, beliefs based on traditional Christian values and a determination to retain close family bonds in a fast-paced world.
The Grays took seven years to build their ideal home, which began life as part of St Mary’s Catholic Church in Blenheim.
Nuns taught singing and music underneath the sharply pitched roof, the sound tempered by acoustic tiles almost 5m high.
An elderly nun once told Nicola that among the many voices that rang out between the old walls were those of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, which gave a private performance for the nuns.
In the late 1980s the music room, along with two other buildings, became surplus to requirement and were put up for tender to be moved off the site.
For Nicola and her husband Randal, the timing could not have been better. They had bought a patch of bare land on the eastern end of Renwick’s High St and were looking for a way to build within their financial constraints. Those constraints were severe, as the Grays do not believe in mortgages, so everything they bought came from money already earned.
When Nicola and Randal inspected the music hall they found an empty, unfurnished building that was long and narrow and would certainly provide a challenging layout for a family home. They put in a tender and sat back to wait for the answer in a manner so fitting for the building: “We’re Christians so we left it up to the Lord really,” says Nicola.
To their surprise they won the tender and were given a time limit to move the building off site.
Randal prepared the foundations in Renwick and organised house removal specialists but when it was almost moving day, the company owner desperately needed a holiday and told Randal he could not do the job.
Unperturbed, Randal sourced a truck and crane and used friends’ help to brace the music hall for its big move up State Highway 6.
It was then the Grays discovered that the wooden structure had stood loosely on its foundations without being tied down for more than 80 years, unshifted by floods, earthquakes and whatever else nature had thrown its way.
Yet once in Renwick the house needed to be tied down properly and “beefed up” with concrete in the corners to comply with council rules.
During the move the Grays found a piece of wood in the attic bearing four or five signatures of the carpenters who had built the music room, dated June 28, 1902. They have kept the wood, a simple documentation of the building’s history.
Once the music room was solidly in place on Renwick soil, the Grays were faced with the challenge of turning the tall, empty, echoing expanse into a cosy family home.
“We looked at it and we said it’s like building a boat or a caravan or a house truck,” Nicola says.
“We just thought well, we’re fairly unpretentious, we’re not going for bells and whistles, we’re not trying to be better than anyone else. We just want a comfortable home with good storage.”
It would take seven years for them to realise their dream home, only doing the work as funds allowed to avoid debt.
As owners of Dashwood Timbers, naturally the Grays were determined to use only solid wood within their home and would not go near MDF or gib board.
“We don’t like what we call Weetbix board (MDF); it gets wet and it swells and it’s hopeless,” Nicola says.
As a result, the Grays used about 14 different woods in their home, most of it match lined in pine. The sitting room was match lined in a beautiful deep rimu, though Nicola says perhaps it soaks up the light a bit too much.
The Grays employed, on a cash basis, an elderly woodworker who was delighted to find something he could get his teeth into in an age of increasing use of gib and plaster, says Nicola.
Warwick Hall built dormers in the 56 degree pitched roof to make the upstairs usable.
The Grays are tall and wanted ceilings higher than average. This ended up being a 2.7m stud with beams that reached down to 2.4m. Cupboards were built high for Nicola’s comfort.
“I can walk around most modern houses and wipe the fly spots off the ceiling. It’s too low,” Nicola says.
Original features of the music hall such as its stained glass windows were retained where practically possible, though some glass was replaced to let in more light and sash cords were renewed.
The main outside door was moved from its less than practical position in the corner of the kitchen to the living room opposite the wooden stairs.
Knowing space was limited, the Grays carefully assigned each nook and cranny of the house a functional role. A small toilet is tucked away under the stairs, where the remaining space perfectly houses a desk and chair.
A hallway behind the kitchen became the laundry with two tubs, and contains handy shelves for Nicola and Samalah’s preserves and canned fruit.
The deep master bedroom wardrobe sports two rails, one behind the other, creating more secret and ingenious storage space.
Though small, the kitchen is the obvious place to gather, the wooden table and chairs close to the large Sweetheart wood stove that heats the house and the hot water.
The centrepiece of the kitchen, the huge stove with its shiny “bells and whistles” was not what Nicola and Randal had envisioned in their simple home. During the build they bought two other stoves but ended up selling them on as they did not quite fit the design. Having seen the Sweetheart in a Blenheim shop window for nearly five years, as nobody wanted it, the Grays finally went inside and came to a deal with the owner, who was keen to move it on.
The wood stove and the safe, cosy family space was something Nicola and Randal enjoyed growing up and were determined to provide for their children.
“We wanted that I suppose people would call it old fashioned now but we think that a lot of people have thrown old fashioned out. They’ve thrown out a lot of the good stuff that sort of bound families together, and the kitchen table, sitting around the fire, reading, talking to each other, spending time with each other, we wanted that sort of home.
Our daughter’s now 23 and our son is now 21 but they still work with us and they still live with us. We’re all together still. And we all just get along.”
As such, homeschooling was “part of the journey” for which a wooden shed was built in the garden. Eventually the “schoolroom” shifted to a caravan at Dashwood Timbers where the children helped their father after lessons. The shed became Nicola’s work room, the computer room and creative space, a room that kept work and home life separate.
For the Grays, the house will not be home for much longer: It is for sale as the family prepares for a new project.
While Nicola is sad to be leaving the home she and Randal put so much thought, work and love into, she refuses to dwell on it.
“We’ll never find anything that matches here, we won’t. I think sometimes you have to make hard choices but you cannot keep looking back and wishing that you’re not where you are now because life goes on.”
– The Marlborough Express
From the Smiths:
Updated 8 July 2012: Life for Those Left Behind (Craig Smith’s Health) page 6 click here
Needing help for your home schooling journey:
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